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Other worlds, other languages

Thanks to hilly02, I ran across the journals of two anthropomorphized Martian rovers (spiritrover and opportnitygrrl), plus the probe cassini_saturn. (I haven't read boingboing for a while, and so had missed the mention of Opportunity's journal here.) They make for very charming reading.

Speaking of other world, on the subject of other languages, would Latin have been thought of as a "foreign" language in the middle ages and renaissance in western europe, or just an alternate language for the educated? My understanding is that, in the late mlddle ages at least, the term "literate" refers to people who knew latin, not just people who could read and write in the vernacular. I'm chewing over this thought because of this sentence, "Like linguistic thinkers, Leonardo made meticulous descriptions in his journals. He also made an effort to learn Latin - a foreign language." It comes from some meme-quiz which was quoted but not linked to here, so I don't know where it's from. I know that meme-quizzes are no good source of knowledge, but it's still an interesting question. What qualifies as a foreign language?


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 7th, 2004 01:29 pm (UTC)
I'd agree that Latin wouldn't qualify as a foreign language for a late medieval humanist. If I may generalize widely, Latin was viewed as a learned/scientific language, and most people (well, people who have left any kind of records for posterity, which is admittedly a pretty damn selective group) would admit their inability to understand/write in it with about the same brief but genuine regret as non-scientists now bemoan their lack of comprehension with regard to science-journal articles. The same could be applied to facility with Greek in the third-century Latin West. It's quite distinct from the modern category of "foreign" language -- i.e., not what we speak, but perhaps handy to learn enough to get by on vacation. A "foreign language" (other than English!) no longer confers an automatic learned status in twenty-first-century American culture.

Just off the top of my head, I'd suggest that there are at least two more categories of "other" language: high and low undesirable languages, both equally familiar within a century or two of da Vinci. The low-undesirable option is best described as "vulgar" and is no doubt familiar to you if you've looked at late medieval Latin writers addressing vernacular theology. On the other hand, some of the Protestant second- and third-generation reformers, in dizzying transports of anti-scholasticism, came up with attitudes toward Latin that sound a lot more like our culture's prevalent attitudes toward humanities "jargon"; that's a high-undesirable, or "elitist," language.
Mar. 8th, 2004 01:04 pm (UTC)
"dizzying transports of anti-scholasticism" - what a lovely phrase!

My knowledge of post-medieval culture is sadly shoddier than it ought to be. I had not realized there was such a Protestant backlash to Latin, although, of course it makes sense. I presume that, to whatever degree it occured, it was one of the key factors in the general decline and fall of use of the Latin language. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was still a language taught to the educated elite, but it certainly no longer qualified as a spoken language. That leaves me with several hundred years of intervening history of Latin of which I am rather ignorant.
Mar. 8th, 2004 01:44 pm (UTC)
*chuckle* Reformation-era history: still the most luridly confessional. I had occasion to plan a syllabus for a Reformation survey recently (not that I plan to teach it, but I was willing to do the paperwork to keep it on the list of Courses We Really Should Offer), and it's still almost as appalling as it was on my seriously-out-of-date comprehensive reading list. I know a few people who are working on this, though, and I'd like to think another fifty years will get us somewhere.

Latin continued to be viewed as an essential part of an educated European gentleman's education until around about WWI -- I have a colleague who, last I heard, was finishing a book on this shift -- but it had stopped being a language of living scholarship except in very Vatican circles by the eighteenth century. (In those circles, however, it surprises me how recently (within fifty years) certain Catholic universities required theses written in Latin, and certain journals (ever check out the back-issues of Archivum Franciscanum Historicum?) were actually published in Latin.) Now we're down to the Vatican, those Finnish radio broadcasts, lawyers, and Harry Potter.
Mar. 7th, 2004 01:49 pm (UTC)
unhelpful, but true...
it's sure as hell a foreign language to me.

*scratches head and stares at her Wheelock*
Mar. 7th, 2004 07:30 pm (UTC)
The "Opera di santo Antonino Arciuescouo fiorentino vtilissima & necessaria alla instruttione delli Sacerdoti Idioti" is [obviously] in Italian; and the author [equally obviously] assumes that anyone who doesn't know Latin is an idiot (at least in their sense if not in ours). It would follow that Latin is not a foreign language; it's the Language that you know if you're not an idiot. As Kenneth Clarke (I believe) said, Latin was spoken everywhere, just not by everybody.
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