What caused latin to be phased out in secular book printing?
August 24, 2007 7:12 AM   Subscribe

In relation to printing/publishing history, I'm curious as to how and why latin was phased out in secular books.

I guess the change happened over time during the 17th century for the mostpart, yes? Why did printers change the language they put in books??

Were there local circumstances that initiated the change in many places independently or was it merely a trans-European taste change kind of thing? Were there a lot of 'middling' works in demi-latin/demi-local script and was this sort of transition typical across Europe? Were there changes/developments in printing or politics (or in other arenas) that contributed to this happenstance? Which countries changed first/quickly and which ones lagged - if that's relevant?

I've had a look through the archives and found this, and out in the web wilds I keep getting results that also relate to language/grammar development, with only mentions of publishing changes as a factual aside. I'm less interested in the changes to the latin language per se (my knowledge is fairly abysmal in that respect anyway), except to the extent that it was in any way a causative factor for the change in publishing practices.

Can you recommend any online essays (by preference) or books (if they are compelling)? Thanks.
posted by peacay to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
You don't have an answer yet so I'll offer a little speculation. Chaucer was the first great English writer to write in, well, English. By Shakespeare's time, English was the norm for a creative writer or a historian, even a highbrow one. Milton's Paradise Lost is informed by Latin, but Latin it isn't. And once books are mass-produced, then most of the readership is going to be unable to read Latin. (An aside: you seem almost to be suggesting that publishers would choose the language in which their books were published, rather than working with the available material? Some mistake, surely...) Church-connected literature wasn't enough to keep Latin mainstream. Inevitably Latin was squeezed out, and I guess before the seventeenth century.
posted by londongeezer at 7:39 AM on August 24, 2007


The shift actually happened much earlier than you suggest. It was one of the most obvious changes to come from the Renaissance, and it really began (as far as I am aware) when Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in the local vernacular (what would come to be called Italian) rather than Latin. This transliteration of the spoken language was taken up by other poets and writers of the 13th and 14th centuries fairly quickly (cf. Petrarch's beautiful works).

If you want to find the focal point for the shift, I'd say that's it: Dante's creation of The Divine Comedy.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:44 AM on August 24, 2007


Do you mean books no longer being written in Latin? That change happened during the fifteenth century in Italy, when the Humanist writers began to claim that Italian could be just as expressive and sophisticated as Latin. (there's a good discussion of this in Hans Baron's The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance). By the time Montaigne was writing in the late 1500s, the idea that one should write in the common tongue was almost universally accepted:
On the contrary words are to serve, and to follow a man's purpose; and let Gascon come in play where French will not do. I would have things so excelling, and so wholly possessing the imagination of him that hears, that he should have something else to do, than to think of words. The way of speaking that I love, is natural and plain, the same in writing as in speaking, and a sinewy and muscular way of expressing a man's self, short and pithy, not so elegant and artificial as prompt and vehement ... "Quae veritati operam dat oratio, incomposita sit et simplex." "Quis accurate loquitur, nisi qui vult putide loqui?" That eloquence prejudices the subject it would advance, that wholly attracts us to itself. And as in our outward habit, 'tis a ridiculous effeminacy to distinguish ourselves by a particular and unusual garb or fashion; so in language, to study new phrases, and to affect words that are not of current use, proceeds from a puerile and scholastic ambition. May I be bound to speak no other language than what is spoken in the market places of Paris! ... Not that fine speaking is not a very good and commendable quality; but not so excellent and so necessary as some would make it; and I am scandalized that our whole life should be spent in nothing else. I would first understand my own language, and that of my neighbors with whom most of my business and conversation lies.
- "On Custom"
posted by nasreddin at 7:46 AM on August 24, 2007


For more detail, it looks like they discuss Dante's innovation in his Wikipedia article. You could check out their sources to learn more.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:46 AM on August 24, 2007


Well, Tristram Shandy is filled with latin and greek. Published in 1759, it's in english, but much of it requires at least a passing knowledge of the classical languges. I suspect knowledge of Latin and Greek petered out in books the way it petered out in the educational life of people in general.

FWIW, I recently read a biography of Cicero. The US Founding Fathers loved Cicero, and in many ways built the US government around Cicero's theory of government. As educated men in the middle and late 18th century, they were readers of the classical languages, and well familiar with classical literature. (I'm not 100% sure this is on topic, but I thought it was interesting.)
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 7:53 AM on August 24, 2007


--you seem almost to be suggesting that publishers would choose the language in which their books were published, rather than working with the available material? Some mistake, surely..--
Why yes, I do believe I botched the logic when I was struggling in my head with the idea -- it partly comes as a result of my perusing multiple versions of books printed about the same time in different languages starting in latin. I donot deny that stupid may also have a role.
posted by peacay at 8:01 AM on August 24, 2007


Another data point: Matrin Luther was revolutionary in translating the Bible into German, up until then all Bibles in Europe were written in Latin. I suspect that this, along with the greater impact of the Reformation and cutting ties with Rome are important factors in this issue
posted by jpdoane at 8:04 AM on August 24, 2007



Another data point: Matrin Luther was revolutionary in translating the Bible into German, up until then all Bibles in Europe were written in Latin. I suspect that this, along with the greater impact of the Reformation and cutting ties with Rome are important factors in this issue


No, that first claim is wrong. John Wycliffe, for instance, translated the Bible into English in the mid-fourteenth century.
posted by nasreddin at 8:10 AM on August 24, 2007


I don't know so much about the "why" of your question, but the "how" is that the printing press broke open the monopoly the Catholic Church had on printing, freeing texts to be distributed in other languages, increasing literacy, and furthering ambitions for people to be creative in their native tongue.
posted by rhizome at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2007


Before writing the Divina Commedia, he wrote De Vulgari Eloquentia, a defense of the use of vernacular, rather than latin, in literature. De Vulgari Eloquentia is written in Latin as, essentially, a treatise to scholars, and gives examples throughout of the use of Florentine dialect in a literary context, in order to demonstrate that a sea change in the linguistics of literature was in order.
posted by The World Famous at 9:31 AM on August 24, 2007


(and by "he" I mean Dante Alighieri)
posted by The World Famous at 9:35 AM on August 24, 2007


Try searching for "aureate terms"--a lot of Latin vocabulary flowed into English, possibly making the transition seem gradual in the English-speaking world.

Also compare this previous thread.
posted by gimonca at 9:44 AM on August 24, 2007


The wikipedia article on Neo-Latin says ‘there was no sharp cutoff, but rather a slow diminuendo occupying the greater part of the 18th and 19th centuries.’
‘Although Latin was supreme as an international language in the 17th century, in the early decades of the 18th century its place as a language of international diplomacy came to be taken by French, due to the commanding presence in Europe of the France of Louis XIV. At the same time, some (like King Frederick William I of Prussia) were dismissing Latin as a useless accomplishment, unfit for a man of practical affairs. As the 18th century progressed, the extensive literature in Latin being produced at the beginning slowly contracted, until by 1800 it was only a trickle.’
Even in the early 17thC there were many books issued in both Latin and in their authors’ vernaculars... Here's an essay on The Decline and Fall of Latin (and the Rise of English).
posted by misteraitch at 9:49 AM on August 24, 2007


misteraitch has it. Those of you talking about Chaucer and Dante are misunderstanding the question, which is not "when did people first write in vernacular?" but "when and why did Latin get phased out?"—in other words, when did Latin stop being a common language of (international prose) publishing (regardless of what other languages were in use simultaneously). In the 17th century, if you wanted to be read by the educated European public, you wrote (as did, for instance, Newton) in Latin.

a lot of Latin vocabulary flowed into English, possibly making the transition seem gradual in the English-speaking world.


That doesn't really make any sense. No matter how much Latin vocabulary has made its way into English, they are completely different languages, and no English speaker can read Latin without special study. There is no "gradual transition" between "Quousque tandem abutere..." and "How long will you abuse..."
posted by languagehat at 12:55 PM on August 24, 2007


Thank you for indulging my post-midnight undercooked grappling. I'm still not altogether placated but that's ok. I wasn't really aware of the royal change in attitude. I suppose now, after reading the articles linked by misteraitch and a couple of others from the wikipedia entry, that I expected the answer to involve pure economics and what must have been a relatively superfluous and cost-additive exercise of translating latin into the many languages in which books came to be actually sold in profitable numbers. There is more of a hint towards this in that second of misteraitch's links with...
"What did Latin in wasn't ignorance but that wider and shallower literacy that was the inevitable consequence of the Gutenberg revolution and the cheaper books that became more easily available. The vernacular languages could assert themselves, and anyone who could speak could learn, without a great deal of trouble, to read and write."
posted by peacay at 9:11 PM on August 24, 2007


That doesn't really make any sense. No matter how much Latin vocabulary has made its way into English, they are completely different languages, and no English speaker can read Latin without special study.

I was referring specifically to vocabulary. You can dig up paragraphs from 17th century books in 'English' where almost the entire text is Latin borrowings caulked together with bits of English grammar. (And if I had my copy of Baugh's 'History of the English Language' at hand, I'd quote you.)

Not everything in that period was written that way, but it was a common enough habit, then and as far back as the 1400s:
O hygh ynccomprehensyble and gloryous Mageste,
Whose luminos bemes obtundyth our speculation,
One-hode in Substance, O Tryne-hode in Deite,
Of Hierarchicall Jubylestes the gratulant gloryfycation;
O pytewouse puryfyer of Soules and puer perpetuation;
O deviant fro danger, O drawer most deboner,
Fro thys envios valey of vanyte, O our Exalter!

George Ripley, 1471. Whether persons of that era rolled their eyes at this or not is unknown. Tons of Latin was pulled into compositions like this, some stuck, some didn't.

And with that, to quote Blackadder, may I offer you my most heartfelt contrafibularities.
posted by gimonca at 2:57 PM on August 25, 2007


(Girlfriend who studies this sort of thing says) If you want to learn more about the history of books and printing try The Coming of the Book by Lucien Febvre and Henri Jean Martin and The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Elizabeth Eisenstein.
posted by synecdoche at 3:01 PM on August 25, 2007


(The last section of The Coming of the Book is the section to read-- it deals with the impact of the Reformation on printing and the impact of printing on the Reformation.)
posted by synecdoche at 3:05 PM on August 25, 2007


This book may have relevant information (I haven't read it) - A Natural History of Latin.
posted by paduasoy at 8:35 AM on September 2, 2007


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