Friday, October 4, 2013

The Vulgate Isn't Called The Vulgate Because Its Style Is Vulgar

Its style isn't vulgar at all, it's perfectly fine, it's great. There are at least two translations of the bible worth reading for the quality of their prose: the King James Bible, and Jerome's Vulgate.

It's called the Vulgate because it's in Latin and not Greek or Hebrew. That's the only reason it's called the Vulgate.

It's sometimes mistakenly said that the Romance languages, Portugese, Spanish, Catalan, Provencal, French, Romansch, Italian, Romanian, etc, developed out of Medieval Latin, which, it is said, is "vulgar." Wrong on two counts.

First of all: some Medieval Latin is badly-written. So is some ancient Latin and some Renaissance Latin and some more recent Latin. And some Medieval Latin is very well-written. But it's all Latin, and it's all the one major written language of Western Europe until well into the Medieval period, and one of its main languages for a long time after that. Latin of all periods is perfectly comprehensible to everyone who has learned the Latin of any period.

And in all periods, it's a written language. The Romance languages developed from the speech of groups of people who didn't read or write at all for centuries. Latin has kept its form because the people who use it have never stopped reading ancient authors such as Cicero and Livy and Vergil and Horace and Ovid. And even the few fanatical Medieval writers who completely avoided all of them and thought they were evil pagans -- even they all still read the Vulgate. Which, whatever you think of the content of the Bible, stylistically is still top-notch Latin.

English developed out of the speech of people who didn't write their speech for about 3 centuries: after the Norman Conquest in 1066, most of the writing done in England was in Latin, and virtually all of the rest was in the Normans' native French. When written English appears in the 14th century in the form we call Middle English, with the writing of people like Chaucer, although the language was handed down generation to generation from the people who wrote Anglo-Saxon such as we find in Beowulf, it is very different from that Anglo-Saxon language. A native speaker of English today, with no training in Middle English, can read Chaucer. He or she might have to look up every fifth word, but the text will be comprehensible. And that's because there has been written English language continuously from Chaucer's time to ours.

A native speaker of English today with no training in Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, as the language of Beowulf is sometimes called, will not be able to read Beowulf at all. The language is foreign, no if's and's or but's. And for that reason I prefer to call it Anglo-Saxon rather than Old English.

The Romance languages went through similar centuries of change when they were only spoken. Again, Spanish, French, Portugese, Italian and the other Romance languages didn't come from poorly-written Latin. These beautiful languages didn't come from written language at all. On the contrary: they became what they are because of extended periods of being only spoken languages.

And anyone who tries to tell you that Medieval Latin is just awful, horribly poorly written, is unfamiliar with the work of authors such as Boethius, Corippus, Alcuin, Scotus Eriugena, William of Tyre, Matthew Paris, Dante, Roger Bacon, William of Occam and Jean Buridan, to name just a few. And if you don't think that a very popular ancient Roman author ever wrote stuff which was just terrible, certainly far, far inferior to the work of all of the Medieval authors I've mentioned, just check out Nepos.

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