Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Things I Wish I Knew

For a while -- in retrospect it seems like it was a couple of years or more -- I wished I knew what Charlemagne's native language was. It's possible to read a lot of history about Charlemagne and his realm and his times without coming across any references to language at all. Because most of the people who're curious about Charlemagne aren't curious about languages. The actual historians who write accounts about those things have to have some familiarity with languages, plural, and mostly with Latin, because that was the predominant written language of Charlemagne's empire. During this time, the mid 80's, when I wanted to know, but didn't yet know, what Charlemagne's native language was, I didn't even know about Latin's predominance among the written languages of Western Europe during Charlemagne's reign (King of the Franks from 768 until his death in 814, Holy Roman Emperor from 800 on).

Anyway, eventually I stumbled over some reference to Charlemagne's native language. It was German. The Franks were a Germanic tribe. In fact, the beginnings of written German coincide with Charlemagne's reign, because the establishment of written German was one of the very many substantial things which happened because he ordered that it be so. After having stumbled over a reference to Charlemagne's native language somewhere in some book of history "aimed at a wider audience," as they say, I learned more about Charlemagne's relationship to the development of the German language in the course of getting a Bachelor's degree with a major in German.

If people were sensible like me, things like Charlemagne's native language would be common knowledge, and people professing to be interested in the Middle Ages would learn Latin instead of aping Renaissance English, and people full of the sort of facts I crave would be best-selling authors, as they should be, and Dan Brown and George W Bush would be janitors at best.

But instead it's this world, and people don't know what Charlemagne's native language is, why? Because they don't care. Perhaps in France many people go beyond not caring and actively don't want to know, because they prefer to think of Charlemagne as a Frenchman and the founder of France. It's easy to think that. For a long time "Frank" was synonymous, more or less, with "Frenchman," and I suppose that to many people it still more or less is. The Franks referred to very frequently in accounts of the Crusades did in fact come from France, and when they didn't speak Latin, they spoke French. And in English we know Charlemagne by his French name. People don't care about his native language. Very few of us care. In case you're one of those few and don't know yet: Charlemagne -- Carolus Magnus in most of the writing about him at the time, because most of that writing was in Latin, Karl der Grosse to Germans today, Charles the Great or Charlemagne to us -- couldn't read or write, although he made great efforts to learn late in life. Besides his native German, or Frankish, if you will, he could also speak Latin and Greek, and perhaps French and Arabic as well. His empire was large enough that he had much to do with native speakers of all of those languages.

As with the native language of Charlemagne 30 years ago, so today I'm interested in the language of the Lombards and Lombardy, and like 30 years ago, I'm not sure where to get the answers to my questions. Pretty much nobody knows, because pretty much nobody cares. I know that the Lombards were a Germanic tribe like the Franks and the Goths and the Vandals and others. I know that they had a kingdom in northern Italy from the late 6th century until Charlemagne absorbed that kingdom in the late 8th century. I know that the Germanic Lombard language was never recorded in any written documents except for occasional Lombard words in Latin texts, and those occasional Lombard words are all that scholars have had kin their attempts to learn that language. I know that at some point the Lombard language died out and was replaced, in the region of northern Italy still known today as Lombardy, by an Italian dialect.

I do not know how much, if at all, the Lombard Italian dialect has been influenced by the Germanic Lombard language.

I do not know how much of the population of Lombardy was ever the Germanic-speaking people. I do not know whether this Germanic-speaking people ever constituted a majority of the population of the area. In England, the Norman Conquest of 1066 was carried out by French-speaking people. For several centuries after the Norman Conquest, although almost all the writing made public in England was in Latin or French, the French-speaking ruling class was a minority among an English- (or Anglo-Saxon-) speaking majority. Eventually the ruling class adopted the English language. I have no idea what percentage this French-speaking minority was of all the people living in England. Was the Lombard kingdom similarly a Germanic-speaking people ruling an Italian-speaking minority? I don't know.

Some linguists of Italian and historians of the Dark Ages know such things, and soon, I will too. And nobody cares. And people don't know what they're missing, and life is funny that way.

I certainly hope that it goes without saying that if anybody reading this knows all this stuff I hope you'll tell me or at least refer me to some helpful books, and that if you do we'll be best buds forever, because that would mean that I'll know even sooner than I'd hoped I would.

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