February 28, 2010

Review: Language and Communities in Early Modern Europe

What do the words 'infantry', 'tomato', 'cashew', 'sheikh', 'bank', 'cash', 'samba', 'vanguard', 'vast', 'antipathy', 'absurdity' and 'exaggerate' have in common in English? The common factor is that they were all brought into the language during the early modern ear. Infantry came in from English soldiers who mixed in a Spanish army with their Italian counterparts and originates in Italy. Tomato and Cashew were borrowings from the Spaniards who found the words in America. Bank and Cash originate in Italy and come from the merchants on Lombard street. Samba is an African word which came through Portugeese into English. Sheikh originated from English merchants who traded with the Levant in the sixteenth century. Vanguard comes from the French 'avant gard' an expression used in the army on the Rhine where English volunteers served. 'Vast' and 'Antipathy' were invented by William Shakespeare, 'absurdity' and 'exaggerate' by Sir Thomas More. Overall English, only one of the languages of Europe, took in over a thousand new expressions in the early modern period. German and Russian were similarly influenced from the outside as were French and Spanish.

Peter Burke's interest is in the structure and sociology of language across the period between the invention of printing and the French Revolution. He notes that there were massive changes in language. Latin retreated from its supremacy as a lingua franca in the Middle Ages to the study and the symposium- it did not retreat fully until the eighteenth century when treaties began to be written in French. It was replaced to some extent by Italian and French. In the church the vernaculars in the Protestant world were included in the Bible for the first time and the foundations of German and English were laid respectively in Luther and Cranmer's words. These languages were transmitted around the world- influencing the way that others spoke outside Europe and the generation of pidgins and creoles. The notable ones include the Portugeese influence on Africa, the English on the north and the Spanish on the south- many Brazilian words originate in Tupi and the rhythms of African English still reflects the structures of Yoruban dialects in Nigeria. Some of the creoles though are more surprising- on the shores of the Atlantic a language half way between Basque and Icelandic developed in the fishing communities that competed for space in the mid-north Atlantic.

Burke's interest is in two ways that language changed. The first and surprising one is empire. People forget that Europe is a continent of Empires- from the English empire in Britain and the Castillian in Iberia through the French and German (Holy Roman) and thence into the Russian. Imperial languages gained as they were used for administration and non-imperial languages like Cornish or Polabian died away. The second large phenomenon into which the history of language was bound is the history of trans-national communities. The community of scholarship used latin- so the Republic of Letters was founded on the exchange of Latin pamphlets, and the use of Latin meant that in the early eighteenth century great scholars like Vico could communicate with others such as Jean Le Clerc. It facillitated the first learned journals from Bayle and Le Clerc which dominated intellectual life. Other communities evolved though- military communities in the thirty years war furthered the exchange of languages and mercentile communities swapped terms. Immigration like that from southern into Northern Netherlands changed the structures of Language- so Dutch gradually began to be influenced by the language spoken in Antwerp.

Burke's interest takes in debates about language in the past- debates between those who like the Academecians in France or Dr Johnson in England wanted to systemise language and purify it and those who did not. Treatises from Dante on were issued defending particular languages. Others rubbished their competitors- a Dane described English for instance as the scum at the bottom of the pot in which all the other languages had been cooked together. The Emperor Charles V is said to have spoken Spanish to his God, Italian to his courtiers, French to his ladies and German to his horse- the anecdote was recycled again and again, I've heard versions about Frederick the Great as well as Charles. It gives the sense of the reputations of languages. Languages might be lauded for being pure and attacked for being mongrel. Equally they might be lauded for their ability to cope with new situations- there was an anxiety that no modern language could compete with ancient tongues when it came to subtlety of expression, particularly philosophical description.

Burke's book surveys all these subjects with a light touch and an expert eye. The prose style is fluid and thoughtful- if at some times the examples pile up without examination- lush fields of footnotes can be both treacherous and formidable at the same time. Perhaps the impression that there could be more to the book is unfair- a survey is bound to be a survey. But it remains throughout the book. Many of Burke's footnotes are to secondary rather than primary literature which again may demonstrate a skilful skater exploiting the opportunity to use other research rather than an original scholar. The book has longeurs unusually for Burke. But with all those caveats the learning is impressive and the writing equally so. This is launching pad to get a grasp on what this period was about and some of Burke's observations particularly on the primacy of Empire as an idea in this period rather than that of nation are important and often forgotten.