First, I am very sorry about having been unable to release this article on January 4th. I understand if any of my followers has been upset by this. I had some health issues, which slowed down the writing of this article.
Classical, Standard Languages and Dialects (Text 1)
As I already announced prior to the holiday season, my very first series of articles on this blog talks about classical and standard languages, and dialects.
I have realized that the way I phrased my title in my notice last year was somehow misleading. In this article, I suggest another and additional way of classifying languages and language families. Before I go on, I want you to note that I am going to use “dialect,” “variety” and “form” interchangeably. As I stressed in my notice, “dialect” has no negative connotation on this blog.
Let’s start with the classical languages.
I know what you may think. When we think about classical languages, many people tend to think of Ancient Greek and Latin, but I want to widen the sense of the phrase “classical languages” to include all the languages which fulfill the following criteria: idealization, deity emphasis, ancientness, extended literature and scholarship. OK, I know, you might wonder what those criteria mean, but I am going to explain them to you.
“Idealization” is the way whereby people have thought that a particular language—or a specific stage of this language—and its characteristics (i.e. its grammar, sounds and lexemes) are near-perfection and flawless when compared to other languages and other varieties of the same language. Moreover, classical languages seem to have always engendered at least one daughter language.
The classical languages have very often been associated with God or gods.
Classical languages are mostly extinct languages. In the case of Latin and Ancient Greek, although these two languages have been taught in schools and universities since medieval times, you probably could not have a serious conversation with someone—unless he or she is a scholar—in either of those two languages.
Extended Literature and Scholarship
I spoke with someone about those requirements, and she wrote to me that “their literature is seen as far more superior” (Melissa M., personal conversation, 2017). Moreover, most classical languages had been written down.
Here is my personal top 7 of classical languages: Ancient Greek, Latin, Ancient Hebrew, Classical Arabic, Old Egyptian, Sanskrit.
Since I could not release this article sooner (unfortunately), I am only going to analyze Latin using the four criteria above. If you are up to, I not only invite you to analyze other languages which, you think, could be other classical languages – using my four criteria – and leave a comment below or shoot me an email to let me know about your conclusions.
As for idealization, Latin had a huge influence on the way French and English evolved in the Middle Ages. We can find many loanwords from Latin into English, half of which “were to do with plants, animals, food and drink and household items …” (CEEL 8) after the Roman Conquest and more words entered English vocabulary after the Anglo-Saxons converted into Christianity. Then, in the Middle Ages, “[d]uring the 14th and 15th centuries several thousand words came into the language directly from Latin … [t]he Old English word is usually the more popular one, with the French word more literary, and the Latin word more learned” (48). The phrase “more learned” deserves more attention here; it means that Latin words were used in more prestigious contexts, like when an educated and well-mannered soldier met the King of his country. During such a conversation, I imagine that the soldier tended to choose carefully his words, preferring Latinized words over Anglo-Saxons ones to give his King the impression that he was well-behaved and knowledgeable. So, since Latin words added a connotation of prestige and education, this is a sign that literate people across Christian Europe already idealized Latin.
Next, still about English, David Crystal adds that even more Latin words entered English vocabulary during the 16th century to such an extent that it created the “inkhorn controversy” (2003)—English purists tried to replace the Latin words with Anglo-Saxon lexemes which had become obsolete, but their attempts failed (60). The last thing that I must stress about English and its relationship with Latin when it comes to idealization is that scholars during the Age of Enlightenment adopted Latin grammar rules and terminology to explain how the English grammar worked, but these grammatical conventions do not describe English properly, as Melissa and I talked about, “[me] Ancient Greek and Latin were considered the purest languages back then … [Melissa] which is why in English we have so many rules from Latin which don’t make sense at all in English—no split infinitives etc[.]” (Melissa 2017). I bet that those grammarians based their grammatical analysis of English on Latin because they thought that Latin was better fit to describe English grammar than English.
About Latin relationship with French, well, French is one of the “daughters” of Vulgar Latin, so you can expect a lot of French words to derive from Latin. I think that what idealized the most Latin within the Romance family is that Vulgar Latin eventually gave birth to French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Catalan among many others.
Vulgar Latin was a variety of the Latin language and it was probably spoken by soldiers, merchants, farmers, slaves; that is, the middle class and the poor, whereas Classical Latin was the language of the Senate, the rich and the educated people of the Roman Empire (Walter 177).
In the deity emphasis, Latin is still one of the languages used in Vatican City, and it was the only language used by the clergy—priests, monks, the Pope—throughout the Middle Ages (where no religious reforms occurred). The services were conducted in Latin, “then the essential language of holy orders …” (Pollard, 2006, 242).
Although Latin is still used in Vatican City, among scholars and in scientific contexts (Ager), Latin is a dead language, since no nation on Earth truly uses it as a daily mean of communication.
And last, when it comes to scholarship and literature, Latin has a wide and rich history. Latin texts range from poems, prose and philosophical texts to pedagogical texts and grammars. Some great Latin authors include: Varron (-234 to -149 BC), Lucrèce (-116 to—27 BC), Catulle (-87 to -54 BC), Tacite (56 to 117 AD) and Phèdre (-14 BC to ±50 AD) (Walter 130-132). Moreover, the main language of instruction in Europe during the Middle Ages was Latin. One of the divisions of the school curriculum at that time was called trivium, which focused on the learning of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric (CEL 430). Latin was still considered a language of scholarship in 1687, when the scientist Isaac Newton published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Isaac Newton Biography.com”). University students nowadays can study Latin if they decide to do a degree, a major or a minor in disciplines like archaeology, classics and medieval studies, or history, depending on the various options universities offer to their students.
I have in mind a last example of the place of Latin in the world’s scholarship. In biology, when biologists, botanists and zoologists discover a new species, they give it not only a common name (like “gray wolf”) but also a Latin name for scientific classification (Canis lupus). Here are some more examples: Phascolarctos cinereus (koala); Helarctos malayanus (sun bear); Loxodonta africana (African savannah elephant); Acinonyx jubatus (cheetah), Aquila chrysaetos (golden eagle); Alcedo atthis (common kingfisher); Oxyuranus scutellatus (coastal taipan) and Anarhichas lupus (wolffish) (Animal 97, 108-109, 174-175, 178, 207, 301, 328-329, 401 & 528).
This ends my personal analysis of Latin as a classical language. If I had had more time and energy (because I still feel a bit sick), I would also have analyzed Ancient Greek, Ancient Hebrew, Classical Arabic, Old Egyptian and Sanskrit, but you have been waiting for this article for a very long time, and I DO NOT want you to wait any longer. I deeply apologize for not having released that article sooner—my health has been a wee bit weakened since the holidays ended.
The following article will be about standard languages and the third will be about dialects (versus language). I realized that there was so much stuff to write about this topic, yet I do not want you to read a novel! So, I do not want articles which are too wordy. For those interested, the French version for every article will be available soon.
References and Works Cited (in MLA)
Ager, Simon. “Latin.” Omniglot – the Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems & Languages. Kualo, 1998-2018. https://www.omniglot.com/writing/latin2.htm. Accessed 13 January 2018.
Animal – the Definitive Visual Guide. 2001. David Burnie & Don E. Wilson (editors-in-chief). Fourth ed. DK Publishing, 2017.
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language [CEEL]. 1995. Second ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language [CEL]. 1987 Third ed. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
“Isaac Newton Biography.com.” The Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, 1 August 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/isaac-newton-9422656. Accessed 14 January 2018.
M., Melissa. Personal conversation. Facebook. 25 December 2017.
Pollard, Justin. Alfred the Great – the Man Who Made England. 2005. Paperback ed. John Murray Publishers, 2006.
Walter, Henriette. Minus, Lapsus et Mordicus – nous parlons tous latin sans le savoir [we all speak Latin without realizing it]. Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A., 2014. [As far as I know, this book has not been translated into English, so I myself translated the information I used from it whenever need be.]