Vernacular Language

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Vernacular Language

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Choice of Language. What was spoken at home, in the field, street, and shop, and at most public gatherings was the language of medieval everyday life. It was the native language of a locality, known as its vernacular language. Until well after the first millennium, the common language of a medieval region had little or no expression in writing. The first and most widespread written language of Europe was its literary language, Latin. It was used throughout the Christian realm, especially for all official documents, particularly those of a religious nature. The use of spoken Latin in Church and in some government meetings and courts of law was an exception to the general use of the vernacular in verbal exchanges.

Literary Horizons. Over the course of the later Middle Ages, many vernaculars developed a written form and came to be used in poems, tragic tales, comedies and some public documents. There were, for example, many romantic stories about the British king, Arthur, his court at Camelot, and the knights of the Round Table inspired by an early Latin chronicle that told of a leader named Arthur who led the British against Saxon invaders in the 800s. Frequent repetition of the Arthurian legends, due especially to their spread in the vernacular, led to their being received with great credence in the Middle Ages.

Lingua Franca. The relatively small area over which the local dialect could be understood was inevitably a barrier to wider communication. Throughout the Middle Ages the Church attempted to maintain Latin as a pan-European or common language (lingua franca). It was intended to unite and to maintain the unity of Christendom, the “land” of all Christians. In Latin, messages, religious promulgations, and books could circulate over broad areas unified only by religion. The more medieval people depended on vernacular language to the exclusion of Latin, the less Europeans from one area to the next were able to understand each other or the pronouncements of the Church. Over time, although Christian artists, lawgivers, and writers struggled along in Latin, few of their countrymen could read their work, and vernacular texts, essential for the non-Latin literate, became almost as prevalent as the Latin Bible in the homes of medieval nobles.

Sources

Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood, translated by Robert Baldick (London: Cape, 1962).

Charles Burnett, “The Translating Activity in Medieval Spain,” in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi (Leiden & New York: E. J. Brill, 1992), pp.1036-1058.

Daniel A. Frankforter, The Medieval Millennium: An Introduction (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999).

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Vernacular Language

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