Thursday, April 27, 2006

A comparative linguist of the thirteenth century

I've been reading Empires of the Word recently, a quite enjoyable and informative history of the world's main languages; it skimps on Arabic to an almost absurd extent, but makes up for this by a truly excellent chapter on Sanskrit. Anyway, one surprise it provides is that, in addition to his better known poetic activities, Dante also wrote a treatise about language, De vulgari eloquentia, in which he comments on the nature of language change, specifically attempting to explain how Latin could have gradually changed into the Romance languages, a concept which his audience apparently found hard to accept:

Nor should what we say appear any more strange than to see a young person grown up, whom we do not see grow up; for what moves gradually is not at all to be recognized by us, and the longer something needs for its change to be recognized the more stable we think it is. So we are not surprised if the opinion of men, who are little distant from brutes, is that a given city has existed always with the same language, since the change in language of a city happens gradually only over a very long succession of time, and the life of men is also, by its very nature, very short. Therefore if over one people the language changes, as has been said, successively over time, and can in no way stand still, it is necessary that it should vary in various ways quite separately from what remains constant, just as customs and dress vary in various ways... (p. 321, Empires of the Word; original available elsewhere)


It's easy to forget just how difficult even the basics of historical linguistics must once have seemed, but texts like these help.

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7 comments:

Paul Davidson said...

Interestingly, Dante wrote in one of the world's more slowly-changing languages. I've read modern-day Italians can still read Dante, but me trying to read an English/Saxon text from the same era would be hopeless.

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Paul Davidson said...

Doh, I just realized you were talking about your other site, and not your blog. :)

Mad Latinist said...

Interesting. Thanks for posting the link to the original. Here is that specific quote in Latin (in case anyone besides me is interested):

8. Nec aliter mirum videatur quod dicimus quam percipere iuvenem exoletum quem exolescere non videmus: nam que paulatim moventur, minime perpenduntur a nobis, et quanto longiora tempora variatio rei ad perpendi requirit, tanto rem illam stabiliorem putamus. 9. Non etenim ammiramur, si extimationes hominum qui parum distant a brutis putant eandem civitatem sub invariabili semper civicasse sermone, cum sermonis variatio civitatis eiusdem non sine longissima temporum successione paulatim contingat, et hominum vita sit etiam, ipsa sua natura, brevissima. 10. Si ergo per eandem gentem sermo variatur, ut. dictum est, successive per tempora, nec stare ullo modo potest, necesse est ut disiunctim abmotimque morantibus varie varietur, ceu varie variantur mores et habitus, qui nec natura nec consortio confirmantur, sed humanis beneplacitis localique congruitate nascuntur.

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Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your blog Lameen.
I know this is not the right place to post the following but thought it might be of interest
http://www.dur.ac.uk/daniel.newman/Apil2.pdf

Lameen Souag said...

Interesting essay, though some of the stats seem dubious - for instance, q: is found in Shilha (and indeed throughout Berber), as is pharyngealized t.: (they are the long counterparts of gh and d. respectively). Second only to !Xu - I like the sound of that! :)

John Cowan said...

Paul Davidson: the reason that Standard Italian looks slow-changing is that it didn't become the native tongue of anyone in Italy until two generations ago. Italy is almost as much a case of language revival as Hebrew is: when the modern state was established, its people spoke a huge congeries of related dialects with no written form, so Standard Italian was imposed first as the written language and then as the spoken one. Since then it hasn't had enough time to change much.