Sunday, July 21, 2013

When Did Latin Become Dead?

   It is commonly asserted that Latin was a dead language in the middle ages. Well, it wasn't. They simplified and changed the grammar, introduced a great deal of new vocabulary and used it for assorted daily purposes, especially in the church and the legal professions. However, by the 16th century it was getting decidedly wobbly on its feet, but English as a written language was far from standardised.
  The latest script sample on Medieval Writing is a small fragment recovered from a bookbinding, showing a segment from a legal plea roll of unknown origin, but on paleographical grounds it looks awfully like an English court hand of the early 16th century. These scripts can seem really difficult to read until you get your eye in, and suddenly they become easy. The fun thing about this one is the way in which Latin and English are scrambled together in the one sentence. It looks as if the scribe only knows the Latin for the standard legal terms and has lapsed into English whenever he got stumped for a Latin word. It suggests that Latin, if not exactly dead, was on life support at this stage.
  The only trouble is, English was not a fully literate language, in the sense that spelling, in particular, was horribly unstandardised. So while ever increasing numbers of printed books were being produced, written literacy seems to have taken a bit of a dive. The old scribes were probably going on about it the way grandmothers today go on about text messaging. Those newfangled printed books just mean that nobody knows how to write any more.

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