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The Languages Used in the Carolingian Times

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One may consider that, until the 'Oaths of Strasbourg', in 842, the Carolingian peoples, as included in the Empire, mostly spoke the Vulgar Latin -in the Western parts of the Empire, South of the Loire river, and between the Loire and the Rhine- or Germanic vernaculars -East of the Rhine. The elites, as far as they were concerned, were sometimes speaking Latin as, most often they were speaking the language of their people. Clerics are keeping alive a Latin language which may be qualified 'classical', as they use it to celebrate the liturgy and to preaching as they endeavoured too to have it keeping being used in the royal chancelleries. Vulgar Latin and Germanic vernaculars, generally, first are the languages used for speaking as Latin is used for writings and the language of the civil service. The 'Oaths of Strasbourg' by which, in 842, both the imperial brothers, Louis the German and Charles the Bald, pledge loyalty to each other, are showing that, in one generation, that state of things evolved into that the varied kinds of Vulgar Latin, in the Western part of the Empire, had already turned into the romance languages, those ancestor-languages to the nowaday European languages. Since the destruction of the Babel Tower, clerics considered, only three languages were sacred, which had been written upon Jesus' Cross, or the Hebrew, Greek and Latin

Latin and Vulgar Latin

Broadly speaking, one may assume that the Latin known to us through the litterature of the Antiquity is the Latin as it was used and spoken by the elites of Rome. Such that language was, further, aiming to reproduce the ancient literary Greek at the times when Rome passed from the ancient, Italian Republic to the influence of the eastern parts of the Mediterranean. Roman elites were fluent into Greek too as Latin was the 'State' language. The folks, soldiers or merchants of Rome, as far as they were concerned, were speaking a colloquial, spoken form of Latin, differing from the literary, or 'Classical' Latin in vocabulary, and then in syntax and grammar. Their Latin, on another hand, was the real, ancient Latin of before the hellenized influence! That Latin was called the 'Vulgar Latin'. It is that spoken Latin which the Roman legions brought into the varied territory and peoples conquered by Rome. Vulgar Latin likely had numerous variants, according to the regions of the Roman Empire, with variations further existing in terms of society, geography or chronology, and not in one of those terms only. The literary Latin, when time passed in the Empire came to be slightly influenced by Vulgar Latin, tending to get already distant from its most classical forms, of the time of Cicero, for example

The Fate of the Languages in the West After the Fall of Rome and Before the Carolingian Times

As the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire mostly remained under the imperial rule of Byzantium, and were turning into a Greek-speaking empire, in the West, Vulgar Latin and a written Late (or Medieval) Latin coexisted. The written Late Latin had been frozen like it was by the 6th century, both by the Justinian's law codifications, and by the Roman Catholic Church. It just became the language of the Church and the scholars! This late Classical Latin, further, was remaining the official language of all the Western parts of the former Roman Empire, among the miscellaneous Barbaric, Germanic kingdoms which had emerged since. Peoples, on the other hand, during those Early Middle Ages, and until the times of the Carolingian Empire were keeping speaking varieties of Vulgar Latin. There came, of course, to be a widening gap between the written Latin and the one as spoken daily, by the common people, but that gap did not already translated into a sufficient rupture from the written, official Latin. Most authors now think that the official Latin kept being understood by the peoples of the West, despite that the Vulgar Latin they were using were tending to get more and more distant from it. The peoples, thus, could still understand the Latin as it was used during the Mass, the biblical, liturgical rites, and even the commentaries -provided they were of a greater or lesser simplicity. Saints' lifes too, for example, when read to communities of brethrens, could be understood too. That remained true until about the middle of the 8th century, when the differentiation of the vulgar languages likely came in a more real distance from the official Latin. They became, since the 7th century, very degradated forms of Latin (with a degradating grammar, or the Roman accentuations disappearing, for example), with their local variants as they came to be called the 'lingua romana rustica', or 'vernacular languages'. One may think too that the varied periods of decline in the culture of both the elites and the people, likely added in some ways

The Evolution in the Carolingian Times

The Carolingian Renaissance wanted to give Latin its purity back and endeavoured to that a correct Latin by learned. Such a reform bore fruits but that regulation of Latin like the civil servants and Church language, paradoxically freed Romance languages. A neat evolution is seen in the West during the Carolingian times. On the one hand, the evidence is clear -from the Church meetings and decisions- that the peoples were no more, at those times, able to understand the official, Classical Latin. A council in Tours, in 813, for example, orders the priests now to preach in the vernacular languages, be them the Vulgar Latin, or the Germanic vernaculars. The vernacular, spoken languages however, by the beginnings of the Carolingian period, just got reaching the final step of their differentiation into new languages. Should the Carolingian empire be not divided, a intermediary language between Latin and German likely would have appeared, which would have become the one of the Empire, or a bilingualism. Extant too were regional languages like Basque or Briton

Within a generation, as it's evidenced through both the texts of the 'Oaths of Strasbourg' -one in Romance, once in Old High German- the spoken languages, in the western parts of the Carolingian Empire, first had turned into ones clearly distinguished from the Latin with no being able to still call them Vulgar Latin, and then, too, that the vernacular languages in the Empire had came to be recognized somewhat by the elites, to the point to be used for a treaty. At the time when prices, civil servants of the Carolingian court had to be bilingual, speaking Vulgar Latin and a Germanic language) or even trilingual, Romance began to be spoken by Louis the Pious and officialization of such new languages occurred with the Oaths of Strasburg in 842. Thence existed glossaries, which were lists of translated words and ancestors to language dictionnaries (like the glossary of Reichenau, or Kassel, and too of translators. The turning point from the Vulgar Latin to the Romance languages, was related to the development, by each people, of their local normative spelling, syntax and grammar, giving birth to real new languages. Those languages however remained related between them, like is still seen today, and to their Latin and Vulgar Latin common ancestor. All those languages thus are originating from Vulgar Latin through the influence of the languages of such or such regions of the Roman Empire in the West, like, for example, the Celts in France, or the Iberians in Spain. The Romance languages are relatively poor languages, with few grammar, as they had borrowed words from the German languages in the northern parts of Europe, or from the Arabic, in the South. As soon as from the start of their evolution, the Romance languages further did part between what was to become, during the Middle Ages, for France mostly, the 'tongue of oc' and the 'tongue of oil', the language of North, and South of France. Aquitaine was the land of where the evolution to Romance languages found it best expression, as pronunciation there was varying from a region to another

Here are, for example, three same sentences compared to an original in Latin:

The Latin which the Carolingian Renaissance endeavoured to improve was the Latin that the Church had preserved, albeit with some varied forms of corruption due to the decline of the clerics' training. Some think that Latin spoken at the court of the Austrasians had been better protected from such corruption as the Carolingian elites were using a Germanic language and not any 'official' Latin which could have been corrupted through some degradated vernacular one. That the kingly chancelleries had kept using Latin like the language of the royal acts was the fact of Church. After the reform initiated by Charlemagne however, the Carolingian chancellery, the practice of notaries or even the masters, in the varied schools, training their pupils, brought to a kind of more simplified Latin than the one the Carolingian Renaissance was aiming to. Beginning in the 9th century, identity of Barbaric peoles gradually passed from ethnic to national. A example is that ethnic Franks ceased to be called -and ceased to call themselves- Franks as people who were not Franks but passed under Frankish rule came to call themselves -and their land- Franks. Duchy of Franconia, around Frankfurt, Germany is typical of that as the process however will need until in the Middle Ages for France proper as Capetian kings long retained the name 'King of France' instead of 'King of France.' Frankish language self, which was the language of the Carolingian court, already was dividing into miscellaneous dialects

Some More Specifics About the German Languages

Germanic languages are related to the German people, who themselves migrated down from Scandinavia into Northern and Central Europe, beginning during the first millenium B.C. The varied Germanic languages, thus, like, for example, English, Dutch, or German proper, have a common origin into the language used by those Germanic people, and despite some differentiation, all those Germans could still understand themselves at the time of this 'Migration Period', or 'Völkerwanderung', between 300 and 700 AD. By that time however, this common Germanic ancestor language, however, had began to differentiate itself into three types of Germanic languages, the West, East and North Germanic! The West Germanic became related to the German tribes which had settled in northern Germany, near the Elbe river or to the Weser or Rhine ones. The East Germanic beeing related to the Goths, the Burgundians, or the Vandals, those German tribes who had taken a southeastern direction, towards the Elbe and the Vistula Rivers. The North Germanic being related to the people which had staid in Scandinavia, or Denmark

From that, at last, inside the group of the West Germanic, the 'Old High German' emerged, since around the year 600 AD, as spoken by German peoples between the Frankland, near the Rhine, and the current northern border of Switzerland, Bavaria and current Austria. English, Dutch or Saxon, meanwhile kept turning into languages of their own, albeit all those languages are remaining close together. As the use of writing, in the German world, had appeared by the 3rd and 4th centuries only, the Germanic languages were polluted through their contacts with the locals they had encountered during the Völkerwanderung and borrowings from the languages of those, and from the Latin too, albeit that 'noice' was at a lesser level however than the Vulgar Latin had endured. The Old High German, further, remained parted into numerous dialects, denying German to become a unified language until later in the Middle Ages. As those dialects emerged from how the scriptoria, in Germany, were tuning their own one, the Old High German dialects are called 'monastery dialects', with such varieties like Central ones (Middle Franconian, East Franconian, Thuringian, or west Franconian (Franks of northern Gaul), for example) or Upper ones (Alemannic, Bavarian and Langobardic). The inter-comprehensibility between the three main Germanic groups, West, East and North, became difficult between the German speakers about the 10th century. 'Low German', the language spoken in Frisia, Saxonny, and Thuringia, eventually gave birth to modern English

The Church was a large, influential vector unto the Germanic languages, at the same time introducing Latin like the language of the Mass and rituals, using the German languages to missionarize, and eventually, in the scriptoria, translating the Scriptures and the literature of the Antiquity into there. German vernaculars, on the other hand, tended to expand West and South of their cultural area, reaching such areas where they are still extant nowaday, like Lorraine, Alsace or Switzerland, for example, and even the hinterland of the English Channel in France -before the area came back to Romance by the ensuing Middle Ages. German folks became rapidly romanized in the regions, like Gaul, Italy or Spain where the number of the conquerants was far less relative to the number of the local peoples, as they mostly remained germanized, on the other hand, in countries of lesser Roman influence, like Frisia or England. As far as the Franks are concerned, that difference is seen too. The Salian Franks soon lost their Germanic language to the benefit of Latin -for the elites- and Vulgar Latin -for the people- like the Burgundians or the Wisigoths had. Ripuarian Franks, as they lived among an area of a more Germanic culture, kept using their original language. That passed further to the Carolingians. Countries related to the Mosel, or the Rhine river, however had their people too using a degradated Vulgar Latin. As an Austrasian, Charlemagne was speaking the Frankish language -the Ripuarian sort- which was his native language. He spoke Latin too -and better still than the Frank as he was able to understand Greek. In Germanic areas, as they were not lands of Latin, imposing Latin was difficult and clerics early had to explain Christianity basics in local languages as pupils of monastic schools were speaking a Germanic tongue between them. Even Alcuin had to admit that the Benedictine Rule had to be explained in Germanic. Bilingualism, in Germanic-speaking regions was short-lived. Pockets of Latin and them Romance, or Rheto-romance (also called 'ladin') perpetuated themselves in Germanic lands, like Salzburg, Coire of the Friul. Easternmost parts of the Carolingian dominions, at last, were regions of Hunnic, Slavic, or Magyar influence, not taking in account, under some aspects, that the mission work might have been undertaken there sometimes by Byzantine clerics

Ecclesiastical Latin

The Roman Catholic Church first was speaking Greek, like were the first translations of the Holy texts! At the time the Church came to develop itself mainly into the Roman frame, the pure, Classical Latin of Cicero, already had let the room to a much declining Latin. It is that declining, more popular Latin, that the Church formalized like his language for the rite and mass. The fact too that the Faith was heralded by preaching likely lent too that the Church Latin borrowed from a more popular Latin, to be able to be understood by the elites but by the people too. Latin in the Church amazingly did not develop from Rome and Italy selves, but from northern Africa as it was there that the largest shares of Latin-speaking converts were to be found. Greek remained the language of the Church in Italy and North of the Mediterranean until about 250 AD. St. Jerome, on the other hand, as he translated the Bible into Latin, was the other main contributor the Church Latin, in the 4th century, who had mostly settled in the Near East. Albeit borrowing to some popular Latin, the Church Latin did in fact preserved too the Classical Latin like it had evolved down into those times. It is not that Latin had become to be the Church language that came the Germanic invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire. There too, the Church played an important part into maintaining Classical Latin alive, both for her ecclesiastical use as well as for the State and official use. The Carolingian Renaissance managed to give Latin some purity back as Latin, like the tongue of the civil service might also be a factor of unification in the Empire

By the early 9th century A.D., Latin was not understood by people anymore and clerics, as soon as by 813 A.D., had to translate their sermons into Romance (or 'rustica romana lingua') or a Germanic tongue. Scholars eventually were the sole to keep using Latin. Latin kept being used by Church for the liturgy and prayers, the hymns, or the varied Church books. Theology too was part of the field, with the early Fathers adding some specific words to render the theological concepts into the language, and theologians further improving that ability (albeit all that Latin of the 'Dark Ages' and the scholastic became deemed obscure and far from the classicism, beginning in the Renaissance). In the liturgy, some parts, in the Carolingian times might be in vernacular, both pre-Romance, Romance, or Germanic

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 11/15/2011. contact us at