Where did he get the language?

Sunday 27 August 2006 14:04

I was thinking recently about Dante’s observation (in the Vita Nuova) that the Italian vernacular did not exist 150 years before his time, making its birthday somewhere around 1,000 AD. The question is, where did that language come from? Why didn’t its speakers continue to speak Latin? When exactly did the Latin spoken in Italy become any of the various forms of Italian spoken there in Dante’s time, including his beloved Tuscan dialect? At what point, for example, would two people be mutually unintelligible to each other if one came from Paris and the other came from Rome if neither of them knew any Latin? The same question arises in relation to French – Dante himself mentions the langue d’oc (now called Occitan) and the langue di si (Italian), and in fact coined the terms, along with the langue di oil (French), in De Vulgari Eloquentia.

Daniel Heller-Roazen in his fascinating book Echolalias – On The Forgetting of Language mentions a date of 842 for the emergence of French as a distinct language, but that is based on a similar judgment to Dante’s – that the appearance of a text in the vernacular can be taken as some kind of a beginning. In fact, all that tells us is that the vernacular was sufficiently established and self-confident, that a literate person might chose to compose in it. In the case of French, that text is, according to one scholar, the declaration of Louis the Pious known as the Strasbourg Oaths. But the subtle shifting of consonant and vowel sounds and syntax that has already taken place is the real revolution – and it is impossible to note that shift.

Why is it that people who live a hundred metres apart speak different languages? Imagine a French peasant shouting obscenities across a valley at a German peasant! Unless they had taken the trouble to be bilingual it just wouldn’t work – the insulting French soldiers in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail speak a peculiar dialect of English.

The concept of an isogloss is fascinating. The term refers to a line on a map, similar to the isobars of weather maps, that indicates the territorial confines of a certain word, sound or language structure. The Centum-Satem line, for example, divides Europe and Eurasia along north-south boundaries and stretches from the Baltic down to Iran; it separates those related languages whose word for hundred is based on centum and those whose word for it is based on satem. Among the centums are Germanic and Celtic languages, while the satems include Baltic, Slavic, Armenian and Iranian languages.

In theory, both language groups stem from the same roots in Indo-European, but I have to say I’m not convinced by the Indo-European theory, which I suspect is no more than the invention of a scholar who adopted the following modus operandi  – first you find some words that sound alike, then you posit a common language, then you invent roots in this language even though no written or spoken samples of it exist; these ‘roots’ prove that there was once a common language. There’s a name for this kind of thing...

Languages are intimately linked with personal and national identity, which is one of the reasons why the Irish nationalist movement was very keen to establish origins for Gaelic. There were ‘pre-celtic’ peoples here (Stone and Bronze Age ‘settlers’); then the Celts came with their iron weapons and beat the bejasus out of the lads that were here before, thus establishing a ‘tradition’ and a ‘native language’ that has persisted to this day. (Ask many Irish people what their native language is and they will say Irish, even though a relatively small proportion of us speak it with any fluency.)

We now know that the ‘Celtic Invasion’ theory, so beloved of the writers of schoolbooks, was a myth; there is no evidence of a single invasion, or successive invasions, or even ‘arrivals’ of Celtic peoples here, yet it is undeniable that an ancient member of the Celtic family of languages was (and still is) spoken here, possibly even the most ancient one still extant. The myth is persistent, however, and seems to assuage some kind of neurosis or anxiety on the subject of linguistic birth.

Here’s a question: Given that much of southern Europe, Britain and Ireland spoke Celtic once, at what point in history, if any, would someone living in northern Italy have been able to understand someone who lived in Kerry? There’s a fascinating possibility! Isn’t it time ‘we Celts’ reclaimed our lost heritage and our origins? Our battle cry should be ‘Back To Italy!’ I bags Verona. Once we get our hands on the promised land, we should adopt that other famous Irish cry: ‘Not an inch’.