Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Naissance de Français

It'd be hard to overestimate the influence Latin has had on me. This post isn't about Latin, though, except indirectly. But if my mind hadn't been trained by Latin, this post wouldn't exist. Specifically because Latin was my entree to French; but generally because Latin gave me an intellectual framework, a cadre, on which to hang practically everything I've learned. Latin provided a Grand Unified Theory of Everything such that no information is of value only in its own category, but incrementally adds to a coherent whole, the Biggest Possible Picture. And in the past 15 years or so, I've come around to the idea that all knowledge points to God...because it seems like more and more that's what my life points to, and everything I know reinforces that....as if by accident.

Didn't I say this post isn't about Latin? That's right: it isn't. It's about...French? No....it's about people, and how God's creative energy infuses everything they do, especially when they speak.
In A.D. 842 a couple of Charlemagne's grandsons, brothers Ludwig and Charles, swore loyalty to each other and against third brother Lothar. The oaths they swore, and other information about the alliance, were recorded. What makes this otherwise mundane event fascinating is that while the clerks wrote their account of the event in Latin, they wrote Ludwig's oath in a kind of proto-French, the precursor to Old French, because that was the 'language' he was speaking when he took the oath; or to paraphrase Chris Tucker, because those were the words that were coming out of his mouth.

Why wouldn't Ludwig just speak Latin? Well, my guess is that he and the rustic Franks he was addressing thought he was speaking (vulgar) Latin, the Roman tongue. The clerks however, being familiar with written Latin, considered it something else. The Franks' vernacular Latin had diverged so far from written Latin that it was treated as another language.

Here's Ludwig's oath in English:

For love of God and for Christian people, and our common safety, of this day forth, as much as God gives me to know and to be able, I will protect this my brother Charles, and will aid him in each thing, as one in justice must protect his brother, in which he would do the same for me; and I will make with Lothar no pact, which of my will can injure this my brother Charles.

Here's what Ludwig said in the Rustic Roman of the day:

Pro Deo amur et pro Christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant Deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo et in ajudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum om per dreit son fradra salvar dift, in o quid il me altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid numquam prindrai, qui, meon vol, cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.

Here it is in modern French:

Pour l'amour de Dieu et pour le chrétien peuple et notre commun salut, de ce jour en avant, en tant que Dieu savoir et pouvoir me donne, ainsi secourrai-je ce mien frère Charles, et en aide en chacune chose si comme homme par droit son frère sauver doit, en ce (à condition) qu'il me fasse autant; et de Lothair nul accord jamais ne prendrai, qui par ma volonté, à ce mien frère Charles à dam soit.

If you're familiar at all with Latin, you'll see right away that Ludwig's oath just isn't very Latin-y; my first impression was that it was some primitive type of Spanish or Italian (Deo, poblo, nostro, podir, fradre); then looking at other words, it seemed a bit French as well (dreit, plaid, prindrai).

So even though it's not very Latin, it's not especially French...yet. Like a newborn baby it's distinct and separate from its mother, but not fully formed. So I think of the Oath of Strasbourg as marking the birth of French. But regardless of how we might name it, ('Rustic Roman,' for example; thus books written in the new Frankish common tongue were Romances) it shows how rapidly people will change a language. Practical changes; and aesthetic changes, which interest me more. Changes of rhythm, lilt, vowel and consonant shifts, stress, eliminating or adding sounds to existing words, I assume are made collectively over generations to make language more beautiful. People just can't leave well-enough alone.

Funny: growing up, the only speaking I thought was beautiful were some Southern U.S. accents, not often heard in South Louisiana. In high school, I had 2 years of Spanish; I decided Spanish was lovely too. Then 2 years of Latin, plus a pre-Vatican 2 Catholic childhood: discovered Latin was elegant. Over the next couple of decades, using my Latin cadre, I've learned other languages, some fairly well, others just at a tourist level...or less....and surprise, they are all beautiful. My preferred way to learn them is by memorizing poetry or better yet, songs. Beauty and affection first, then vocabulary and grammar.

Decades ago I was struck by Jesus' admonition in Matt 25:
'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.' Could this be taken at face value? As many would put it: can you see God in other people? I decided to try. It was very artificial for the first few years, but I'm used to it now, though with room for improvement. Now virtually every good thing anyone does looks like God bursting out of them, like in Alien....bang! right out of their breastbones.

And that's how all language looks to me. Nameless, insignificant people in their millions create these beautiful systems, no two alike. A language contains not mere information, but also a way of thinking, a way of interacting with the world. People are created, born, little bits of God, but their creation continues under the influence of language. The power of language to shape our humanity is clear in this 1908 critique of the Polish-born polyglot author Joseph Conrad: "A writer who ceases to see the world coloured by his own language‑‑for language gives colour to thoughts and things in a way that few people understand‑‑is apt to lose the concentration and intensity of vision without which the greatest literature cannot be made." Yet Conrad said of himself: "...I have a strange and overpowering feeling that [English] had always been an inherent part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head. And as to adoption‑‑well, yes, there was adoption; but it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language..."

(As Peter Schramm's Hungarian father told his son in '56: we were born Americans, but in the wrong place.)

Both Conrad and his critic understood the power of language to affect who you are as a human being. The critic maintains Conrad can't be true to himself in English, Conrad responds that he can be true to himself only in English.

This gets to the point of the post....at last....part of the value of speaking another language even a little bit offers a glimpse of who you might've become, what culture you might've belonged to, who your fellow citizens might've been, but for the accident of birth. And through another language you make a human connection to strangers, even if it's no more than 'gracias/ de nada.'

It helps us see we're all children of God; and reminds us, as the clerks in 842 may have noticed to their annoyance, that those children continue His creation in every good thing they do.


Magister Christianus said...

You write, "Latin gave me an intellectual framework, a cadre, on which to hang practically everything I've learned. Latin provided a Grand Unified Theory of Everything such that no information is of value only in its own category, but incrementally adds to a coherent whole, the Biggest Possible Picture."

I have said this many times to my students and their parents. This, not just, or even, higher verbal S.A.T. scores is the primary reason to study Latin. Well said! I will share it with my students.

By the way, confessions are not all the could be if they are not shared with others. I invite you to read "Confessions of a Teacher" at my blog, www.bedlamorparnassus.blogspot.com

kkollwitz said...

"This, not just, or even, higher verbal S.A.T. scores is the primary reason to study Latin."

Yes....burden yourself with this post for my 2 cents:


"I had one subject in K-12 that was about educating me, as a citizen of America, and the world: Latin. And in college I had one subject that did the same: Art and Architectural History. All the rest was training (I exaggerate a bit) to make money, to be productive in the ways that can be measured on a W-2."

eutychus said...

That's it. I'm picking up you'r "Latin for Dummies" book this week-end, MC.
You've both convinced me. Don't ne surprised when I start nosing around (begging) for help...