A place of purists and of polyglots

Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe
September 9, 2005

This exercise in the social history of language for the general reader is a complex account of constant conflict between centripetal and centrifugal forces in the development of the languages spoken in early modern Europe. Peter Burke paints a broad canvas with assurance and virtuosity; in the last sentence of the book he declares his ideological commitment to pluralism and hostility to the 19th-century nationalist version of language history. His essay in comparative history plots both a language's effects on its speakers, and theirs on it, and discusses the issues of imperialism, the role of the printing press in linguistic change and stasis, and the efforts of centralising states to politicise language and to impose their will on the linguistic communities they seek to regulate.

Burke argues for the importance of the dates 1460 (the beginnings of hand-press printing) and 1800 (the advent of language policies in various European states); he has combed through judicial and administrative records, reports of foreign travellers and literary texts, all rich sources of evidence.

Early modern Europe is, for Burke, the age of the discovery of language, when the history of languages is first studied, their life cycles charted and their intimate relationship to power exposed. Together with their history, their diversity and versatile character are revealed. Burke reminds us that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V spoke "Spanish to his God, Italian to his courtiers, French to his ladies, and German to his horse".

Versions of language were appropriated by different speech communities: armies, criminals, salon ladies and religious groups. Dialects achieved a separate identity, and accents were subjected to social classification.

Meanwhile, Latin, the lingua franca of medieval Europe, continued to be employed in the republic of letters and the Catholic Church, and it provided a means of common understanding in speech communities made up of mutually uncomprehending language groups.

Burke reveals how there were both winners and losers in the "rise of vernaculars" (Dutch, Czech and Catalan being cases of the latter; French of the former), and shows how implausible it would have seemed in 1600 for English to emerge one day as a lingua franca. The process of grammatical standardisation and the movements in favour of language purification are elucidated. These are accompanied both by a sort of linguistic xenophobia and by anti-purist sentiments, marked by a delight in creative linguistic mixtures such as "macaronic". Mikhail Bahktin's argument that the "interanimation" of languages produces literary creativity (Rabelais, for example) seems to describe a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of such literary giants.

One might quibble with some of Burke's claims: Latin was not as moribund a language as it is here portrayed, but one spoken fluently between learned speakers. More space might also have been given to explaining why certain languages welcome new words and others do all they can to avoid them.

This is a matter of the contemporary politics of language, notably in France, where legislation has prevented even the terms of the art of informatics being integrated into the language. But the inventive playfulness of language users can overcome the official interdict in subtle ways: the word for to "debug" is, after all, not the fine native verb corriger , but its quasi-homonym déboguer (literally, to remove the spikes from a chestnut).

Such flaunting of official guidelines demonstrates the resourcefulness of users in their relationship to linguistic authoritarianism, a practice as dear to Burke as his explicit commitment to linguistic pluralism.

Ian Maclean is senior research fellow in history at All Souls College, Oxford.

Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe

Author - Peter Burke
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 210
Price - £41.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 521 82896 1 and 53586 7

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