Spelling bee damned

The narrative of the Holy Grail in a manuscript from 1316 written in Old French, British Library, Add MS 10294.

Whatever humans touch turns to status. High or low, always relative to other things and to other people. Nothing escapes the status game, not even language.

There is one thing invented in the medieval West which we rarely think about: languages. Not one, but several.

With the collapse of the ancient Roman world and its system of education, trade, exchange and cultural production, Europe ceased to require the use of spoken Latin. The political takeover by Germanic tribes and kingdoms brought with it something which had long been absent from Europe: the non-Latin vernacular language. Europe found itself bilingual overnight: one language was spoken in the community, another was written at court, in church, within the walls of the monastery.

In areas where Latin had been the only language for centuries, that is the heartlands of the Roman state, other languages started to emerge, naturally and slowly, as Latin continued to be spoken without the elites guiding its use, as had been the case under the Roman state. What we now refer to as the Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and a host of other languages often, and incorrectly, classed as dialects, grew on the ruins of a literate culture forced to downgrade to a state of exclusive orality.

As languages coexisted, they nevertheless had to take their place in the status game. Written Latin, spoken by the elites and by those fortunate enough to be educated in it, outranked the vernaculars, which, though widespread and naturally learned, were dismissed, with very few exceptions, as unworthy to be written down and taken seriously as potentially literate languages. What this meant was that natural languages developed outside a formal educational framework, without any elite system to guide its phonetic, morphological and syntactical structures.

So when it came to write them down, as Romance languages were from the 12th century onwards, spelling was one of the first victims. Speakers at the time didn’t care about it, naturally, but in the face of Latin precision, Romance vernaculars suffered on the page. Latin texts could be reproduced in manuscript with words preserving their spelling across different manuscripts, while vernacular texts were all over the place, and the page, orthographically speaking.

The Western European vernacular languages’ journey to high-status literacy was long and painful. But once these languages were recognised as worthy rivals to Latin, they joined the same orbit that Latin had always been on, regulation, precision, codification. The promoters and the detractors of these are still raging today.

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