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  • On the Uses of Diglossia in Medieval History

    Benoît GRÉVIN

    (Research Fellow - CNRS, Laboratoire de Médiévistique Occidentale de Paris)


    The concept of diglossia was popularized by Charles Ferguson in 1959. Ferguson used this sociolinguistic term to describe the concurrent use of two languages within the same society based on functional focusing. The high variety, prestigious and normed, and learned through formal education, is reserved for written communication and formal oral communications (ex cathedra teaching, political discourse, etc.). The low variety, learned within the family environment, is used for everyday communications and in informal contexts (relating to family and friends, in the street, at the market, etc.) and tends to be oral and not often committed to writing. The initial modeling of the concept presupposes on the one hand that both languages be genetically linked: the high variety is the older, “master” language of the “low” variety. Moreover, it is also supposed that the two varieties not be mutually comprehensible. The concept rests upon the analysis of contemporary examples: dialectical Arabic/classic Arabic; Swiss German/Standard German; Haitian Creole/French; Demotic Greek/Katharevousa. Since its inception, this concept has been applied to the Middle Ages (Latin/Romance languages; Classical Arabic/early Arabic dialects) and has evolved over the course of decades to describe situations that are analogous to but do not fit into the Fergusonian model. One example is the functional superposition of two languages that have no direct genetic rapport, such as High German and the Latin of the High Middle Ages. The debate surrounding the application of diglossia to the linguistic history of the Middle Ages is a good example of the problems created by the importation of sociolinguistic concepts in medieval history. It is a highly efficient model for the medieval period in providing a basic description of the linguistic situation prevailing during the greater part of the Middle Ages in Latin Europe (the area where Romance languages are spoken), and even throughout the Latin West, where Latin was used in writing, as well as orally for solemn occasions. Over a long period, Latin was used almost exclusively for written output, and the informal use of vernacular languages (“vulgate” languages, to use the common Medieval terminology) were initially confined to oral use. The notion is particularly helpful to describe the articulation between the symbolic prestige of Latin, its relatively poor distribution throughout the social body, and the asymmetrical relationship it maintained with the vernaculars. The application of a diglossic model to the description of a certain number of medieval communication systems and their evolution has nevertheless come under attack in the field of historical sociolinguistics over the last two decades for several reasons.

    This would not take into account the evolution characteristic of the Romania during the better part of the early Middle Ages (5th–8th/9th centuries). It was a period when the linguistic continuum (that is to say a minimal amount of mutual comprehension) between Latin and proto-Romanic varieties was not yet broken. One cannot speak of diglossia when it comes to proto-French and the 7th-century Latin of Merovingian Gaul since they are two differentiated varieties of a same language. It falls quite short of describing the complex linguistic situation that existed in most medieval societies. The systems of communication which were documented in 12th-century England (Latin, English, French, Celtic languages) or the Carolingian court (Latin/Romanic French / Franconian) cannot be reduced to fit a diglossic model, not to speak of even more complex superpositions (the Arabic, Greek and Latin spoken in the Sicily of the Norman kings). The concept of polyglossia or multilingualism seems more adapted in terms of an accurate description of these situations.

    Finally, diglossia hardly does justice to the complexity of the detailed interactions between the two to several linguistic varieties that make up the sociolinguistic fields throughout the various periods of the Middle Ages. The two poles described by Ferguson are, to a certain extent, ineffective for the analysis of the documentation, insofar as the constant interaction between high and low varieties in linguistic communication engenders the recurrent creation in writing of mixed forms. The Latin of the Merovingian chancellery or the Catalan charters of the 10th century can be analysed just as well as Romanic dissimulated within a written form of Latin, or as an evolved form of Latin. During the Late Middle Ages, a number of accounting and administrative writings present hybrid linguistic features – half Latin and half Romanic (accounts of the painting of the papal palace at Avignon in the 14th century, chancery Sicilian which alternated under periods of Latin and Romance languages in the 15th century). Likewise, the resistible rise of vernacular languages in the realm of the written, from the first attempts at notation in High German and the Old English of the Early Middle Ages to the gradual promotion of Romance languages in the 13th–15th centuries, demonstrates the necessity of refining the analysis in order to properly realize the detailed extent of the interactive processes which underlie Medieval systems of communication. The triangular dynamic which established itself between local dialects, prestigious courtly elaborations of vernacular languages and Latin in the last centuries of the Late Middle Ages (dialects/ volgare illustre/ Latin in Italy; dialects/ Courtly French / Latin in France) cannot be reduced to a mere bipolar model, hence the necessity of resorting to alternative concepts, such as Creolization and code-switching, in order to describe these subsystems in more detail.

    The persistance or revival of the recourse to diglossia in the analysis of medieval sociolinguistic dynamics nevertheless demonstrates that the notion is still highly attractive, even a half-century after its initial dissemination. Both its success and its limits are in fact explained by its overall pertinence and its irrelevance when it comes to details. Indeed, medieval societies are basically diglossic in the sense that they developed the use of inherited languages which had been rendered sacred (Latin in the Christian West and Classical Greek in the Byzantine world), cut off from their use as a mother tongue and imbued with great normative and symbolic value as carriers of sacred and classical texts, the basis of their ideological legitimation. The relationship between these languages, those cultivated by an elite, and the dialects spoken by the population as a whole, is ideologically asymmetrical and this asymmetry is accepted as a normal phenomenon. Consequently, the diglossic model remains pertinent when it comes to a “schematic” appreciation of the relationship between the most prestigious linguistic variants and the most underrated, and as a tool to measure its ideological weight. However, it must be consistently put aside or reinterpreted in order to describe the breakdown of linguistic communications, whether it is a matter of general evolution (i.e. the increased dissociation of Latin and Romance languages from 500 to 900; the progressive promotion and writing of vernacular languages from 1100 to 1500), or in its detailed descriptions (polyglossia, multilingualism and the increase in linguistic interactions, both written and oral). Thus, it is a dialectical notion, which must be used in an initial approach to medieval sociolinguistic dynamics, but one which must be put into perspective or even reinterpreted in favor of less schematic models in detailed sociolinguistic, ideological or philological analyses.

    Benoît GREVIN, 28 June 2016
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  • Bibliography

    On the Uses of Diglossia in Medieval History

    - FERGUSON Charles, «Diglossia», Word, 15, 1959, S. 325-340.
    - BANNIARD Michel, „Viva voce“. Communication écrite et communication orale du IVe au IXe siècle en Occident latin, Paris, 1992.
    - LODGE Anthony R., Le français. Histoire d’un dialecte devenu langue, Paris, 1997.
    - GRÉVIN Benoît, «La résistible ascension des vulgaires. Contacts entre latins et langues vulgaires au bas Moyen Âge; Problèmes pour l’historien», Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome Moyen Âge, 117/2, 2005.
    - Zwischen Babel und Pfingsten. Sprachdifferenzen und Gesprächsverständigung in der Vormoderne (8.-16. Jh.), Peter von Moos ed., Wien, 2008.

    Benoît GREVIN, 28 June 2016
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