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15.12.21 Ideas of Order

Lavender meadow
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564 - 1638), ‘Peasant Wedding’, 1620. © National Gallery of Ireland.

For J. N. Adams

Still more indicative of the vitality of Irish is the account from the sixteenth century of the proclamation of a bill in the Dublin Parliament (1541) which officially declared the assumption of the title of King of Ireland by Henry VIII. The parliament was attended by representatives of the major Norman families of Ireland, but of these only the Earl of Ormond was able to understand the English text and apparently translated it into Irish for the rest of the attending Norman nobility. Needless to say, the English viewed this situation with deep suspicion and the Lord Chancellor commented unfavourably in 1578 on the use of Irish by the English ‘even in Dublin’, and regarded the habits and customs of the Irish as detrimental to the character of the English. (Hickey 2007: 34).

Languages, like people, are always disobeying those who would wish to control them. In the sixteenth century even in the Pale, even amongst Anglo-Irish lords, the Irish language was flourishing in the face of assumed authority. It’s a story that marks the history of Latin too.

In the last days of the French Revolution, the Jacobins had dreams of enforcing French, and only French, as the language of the state. France, historically, did not cover the same area as France today. Originally in control only of the lands around Paris, little by little it expanded north-westward, into Breton-speaking lands, and southward, into lands where Occitan was spoken, the langue d’oc. Today, despite lived realities, the French Constitution of 1958 still recognizes only one official national language.

In the dark days of Franco’s dictatorship, a notice appeared in print in A Coruña in the northwest corner of Spain, the region where the Galician language is spoken. It says, in Castilian, or the language we call Spanish: Speak well. Be a Patriot. Do not be a barbarian. It is a gentleman’s duty to speak our national language, Castilian (note the sexism alongside the fascism). Basque and Catalan, too, suffered from the Spanish state’s attempt to impose linguistic uniformity in these years.

At the birth of the modern Italian state, in the 1860s, only 2.5% of the population spoke what we know as Italian. Most people spoke their dialect: not ‘dialect’ in the sense of a variation of a particular language, but ‘dialect’ in the Italian sense: an independent, regional language, derived from Latin; a cousin of Italian, not its dependent. ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy’, in a phrase attributed to the linguist Max Weinreich. Or – a colleague tells me the Italian version – ‘a language is a dialect that’s made a career’.

Occitan, Galician, Catalan, Sardinian, Neapolitan, Sicilian. It’s important to remember that the Romance languages are not to be identified solely with modern nation states, which have historically tried to suppress, sometimes violently, languages deemed less important than a ‘national’ one. Those efforts have been quite successful, unfortunately, and the history of language in Europe is, for many reasons, a story of diminishing diversity. The interesting thing is that the Roman state seems to have differed from its modern successors in leaving people to speak how they wanted, the bluster and rhetoric of generals and emperors aside. The Mediterranean world in Roman times was full of different languages, like Oscan and Punic, Greek and Gaulish, all interacting with Latin.

Language can be used to coerce, of course, and it can be used to say beautiful things in various literary forms. But before you get to any of that the language faculty itself is emblematic of human creativity and free will; what Noam Chomsky (2008: 235) calls ‘the ordinary use of language in everyday life, with its distinctive properties of novelty, freedom from control by external stimuli and inner states, coherence and appropriateness to situations, and its capacity to evoke appropriate thoughts in the listener.’ No one can tell what any of us is going to say next.

The history of Latin, it seems to me, can be usefully understood according to anarchist principles, the idea that human communities are generally able to organize themselves successfully without the need of rulers, kings, and emperors, and that unjust structures of power tend to be questioned and resisted. It’s something the late David Graeber wrote eloquently about; you can read him on the subject here. Throughout Europe over the last two and a half thousand years, people have been speaking ‘Latin’ in just the way they want, ignoring standards of etiquette, ‘correctness’, and the decrees of those who would wish to control them.

Further Reading

  • Adams, J. N. (2020), ‘Diversity and the Latin Language’, blog post, 15 July 2020, Càtedra UNESCO de Diversitat Lingüistica i Cultural, Institut d’Estudis Catalans, Barcelona. Available here.
  • Chomsky, N. (2008), ‘The View Beyond: Prospects for the Study of Mind (Managua Lectures, 1988)’, in A. Arnove ed. The Essential Chomsky (London: The Bodley Head), pp. 232–256.
  • Hickey, R. (2007), Irish English: History and present-day forms (Cambridge, 2007).
  • Perrot, M-C. (1997), ‘La politique linguistique pendant la Révolution française’, Mots 52: 158–167.
  • Repetti, L. (1996), ‘Teaching about the Other Italian Languages: Dialectology in the Italian Curriculum’, Italica 73(4): 508–15.