English Purity, French Corruption.

No, I’m not talking about morals, I’m talking about Latin. Another enlightening passage from Curtius (see this post):

The chain of French literature begins only with the eleventh century. Spanish literature begins at the end of the twelfth century; Italian not until about 1220, with St. Francis’ Hymn to the Sun and the Sicilian art lyric. The late start of Spain and Italy is to be explained by the predominant position of France; the early appearance of Germanic literary works (in England about 700, in Germany about 750), on the other hand, by the intrinsic foreignness of “Germanic” in comparison with Romance. […] The Romanian [i.e., speaker of a Romance language] could still get along for a considerable time with a more or less barbarized Latin, could start from there to acquire correct Latin. The Germanic has to learn Latin from the ground up—and he learns it very well. An amazingly pure Latin is written in England about 700, at a time when corruption is the rule in France. But even highly educated Italians could overlook grammatical blunders which set German monks laughing. The experience befell Gunzo of Novara, who came to Germany in 965 in the retinue of Otto I, and who used a wrong case in conversation with monks at St. Gall. He justified himself in a letter, in which he says that he was wrongly accused of grammatical ignorance, “although I am often handicapped by the use of our popular language, which is close to Latin.”

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    That makes sense. Of course, in Germanic countries very few people learned Latin, and the ones who felt confident enough to write it were probably only a small subset of those who had a reading knowledge of it, while in Romance languages people could think that they themselves still spoke a variety of Latin which allowed them to understand Latin writing without too much schooling.

  2. So the new Dictionary of Medieval Latin based on British Sources represents a more uniform and conservative corpus than one would based on French ones?

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Reminds me immediately of the prestige the Standard German of Hannover acquired in the 18th/19th century precisely because High German isn’t native there. Even today, German stage pronunciation has a thick fat Low German accent.

  4. Well, it’s a bit similar to the fact that non-native speakers who have picked up good written and spoken English are often better speakers and writers than native speakers.

    On the other hand, their knowledge of English tends to be restricted to a very particular, ‘bookishly correct’, kind. For instance, non-native speakers tend not to have the faintest idea why some English speakers need to be taught that the correct usage is ‘she and I’ rather than ‘me and her’. For the non-native speaker, ‘she and I’ is self-evidently correct, while the very existence of ‘me and her’ is a total mystery. Whereas in the English language as a larger organism, ‘me and her’ was (arguably) the norm and ‘she and I’ was only grafted on top of this as ‘correct usage’ — which is why English usage in this area is such a mess.

  5. @Bathrobe

    I’m not a native English speaker, but what really stands out to me is when native English speakers say “she and I” where “her and me” is prescriptively correct, not the other way around.

    Anyway, for native French speakers, it’s probably not too hard to understand “me and her” since AFAIK “moi et elle” is the only correct option in French, not *”elle et je”.

    In Danish, the situation is more or less the same as in English, i.e. in colloquial language “hende og mig” is often used when “correct” grammar prescribes “hun og jeg”. The hypercorrection also exists in Danish, by the way, although I think it might not be as common as in English.

  6. Sorry, I see I screwed up the order of the pronouns a bit. I guess I was focusing on case, not on order.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Elle et moi is standard. Moi et elle sounds illiterate or childish.

  8. It would be interesting to know when French made that transition. In Latin, ego et tu et Marcus was the standard order, a fact still preserved in our use of the terms first/second/third person.

  9. Dainici,
    “In Danish, the situation is more or less the same as in English, i.e. in colloquial language “hende og mig” is often used when “correct” grammar prescribes “hun og jeg”. The hypercorrection also exists in Danish, by the way, although I think it might not be as common as in English.”

    It’s interesting that Danish shares this with English but not with Swedish.

    Irish literature predates all of these other literatures, specifically post Chaucer English literature, and this may be one reason that English was so overshadowed by Irish after the Anglo-Norman settlement, to the point where the English in Ireland saw a need to legislate against English people adopting that language.

  10. Stefan Holm says:

    In Swedish it’s the other way around but only in third person: ‘Vi såg hon’ (we saw she) is gaining ground. A reason might be, that in third person plural the distinction ‘de-dem’ (they-them) since long in spoken language has coincided as ‘dom’.

    Fault-finders though get annoyed with ‘han är kortare än henne’ (he is shorter than her), which in all persons has proven victorious and today is accepted by most linguists even in written language. (The hypercorrection argument is that the clause is an abbreviation for ‘he is shorter than she is‘).

  11. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. Elle et je or je et elle are absolutely impossible. Je can only be used in front of a verb (even if separated by grammatical morphemes like ne, me, te, le and a few others which belong to the same limited set of preverbal ‘clitics’).

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    @John Cowan:

    Reminds me of Cardinal Wolsey’s famous “ego et rex meus” …
    There is a time to aspire to Classical Latin purity, and a time to refrain from aspiring. Particularly when the “rex” in question is Henry VIII …

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    No doubt Henry would have been in total agreement with the emperor Sigismund on the subject of kings and grammar.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigismund,_Holy_Roman_Emperor#cite_note-7

  14. Stefan,

    That’s interesting,

    “Fault-finders though get annoyed with ‘han är kortare än henne’ (he is shorter than her), which in all persons has proven victorious and today is accepted by most linguists even in written language. (The hypercorrection argument is that the clause is an abbreviation for ‘he is shorter than she is‘).”

    In other words “än” s being interpreted as a preposition rather than a conjunction. Do these people have similar fits over the PIE noun-class system being re-interpreted into a case system, so that language changed from active-passive to a nominative-accusative alignment?

  15. David Marjanović says:

    For the non-native speaker, ‘she and I’ is self-evidently correct

    Well, I already knew the French practice of using… historically oblique forms for what clearly started out as emphasis, so “that’s me” made immediate sense even though it’s unthinkable in German. What blew me was the opposite phenomenon, “for/to/… you and I”.

  16. @David

    OK, for the linguistically naive non-native speaker (especially if they don’t know French)!

  17. Stefan Holm says:

    Jim: In other words “än” is being interpreted as a preposition rather than a conjunction.

    Exactly. Like in English, pronouns represent the last flickering residual of the case declension system (except for hundreds of idiomatic expressions and compounds). Add to this modern media where for the first time in history the language of ordinary people in written form reaches the public (without being proofread). Add further an intellectual elite that no longer knows classical Greek, Latin, German or any other language with case declension.

    Ambiguities will inevitably pop up. This causes frustration among the few who know how the language ‘should’ be (i.e. how it looked yesterday). Thus they raise their voices according to the Swedish proverb: the sun is greatest at its decline. It also makes them a perfect target for satire.

    However, since you touched upon the issue, the passive voice is alive and kicking in Swedish and causes few problems among the speakers. Maybe because it’s formally easy: you just add an –s to a verb. Vi ser = ‘we see’ but vi ses = ’we are seen’ or ’we (will) see each other’ (i.e. reciprocal).

  18. In French, stressed nominative pronouns (there were no other kind) and unstressed oblique ones have both become clitics, whereas stressed oblique ones have become full words. In English, on the other hand, what we see is the arising of an unhistorical distinction that may be dubbed “conjoint vs. absolute”. It has happened fastest and most thoroughly in the possessive pronouns, where OE mīn, þīn split into ME and EModE my/myn, thy/thyn based on the following letter (my boy, mine uncle, like a boy, an uncle but then changed to use my, thy as adjectives (“conjoint”) and mine, thine as pronouns (“absolute”). Non-standard varieties have extended the distinction by analogy to produce the novel absolute forms hisn, hern, theirn.

    Similarly, I, he, she, we, they are conjoint nominative (or more precisely pre-verbal) and me, him, her, us, them are conjoint oblique (post-verbal or post-prepositional) pronouns (which accounts for that’s me, but in non-conjoint situations where the pronoun is not close to the verb, they can swap identities, giving us Me and John are going and Me, I’d like to go. This change is still underway and is substantially retarded by standardization, so we have a competition between between you and I and between you and me.

  19. Stefan Holm says:

    Is it really wise, John, to describe my and thy as adjectives but mine and thine as pronouns? Aren‘t they both simply personal pronouns in the genitive case? C.f. German nominative: Ich/Du, genitive: mein/dein, dative: mir/dir, accusative: mich/dich or old Swedish iak/þu – min/din – me(r)/þe(r) – mik/þik.

    As far as I understand ‘my‘, ‘thy‘ and ‘a‘ are simply economic pronounciations of ‘mine‘, ‘thine‘ and ‘an‘ in unstressed positions. ‘A friend of mine‘ or ‘drink to me only with thine eyes‘ have stayed as they once were because they are not unstressed. Possessive pronouns are (historically) after all just the genitive case of personal pronouns (and reflexive ones are, one of, the oblique cases of the personal). No need to complicate matters.

    ‘That‘s me‘ is another issue: ‘Is‘ is not any verb but a copula meaning that the following word is not an object but a complement, which historically in Gmc languages has taken the nominative case. So in my book ‘that‘s me‘ looks just like an another economic spillover from the collapse of the declension system.

    And as for ‘me, I‘d like to go‘ – isn‘t that an abbreviation of ‘As for me…‘, ‘Concerning me…‘ or the like – i.e. it is meant to be in the dative case? Even modern speakers can have a gut feeling for the language of their forefathers.

  20. Aren‘t they both simply personal pronouns in the genitive case?

    Certainly they were, but they no longer are. Mine eyes have seen the glory is archaic and poetic only, and only an L2 speaker could now say He threw sand in mine eyes. Of course the whole of the second person singular is archaic/poetic in the standard language and all but a few non-standard varieties. What began as a free variant became first a phonologically fixed variant (as a/an has remained) and then a syntactic variant.

    It’s still possible for copulative verbs (not only be but also become) to take adjectival and phrasal complements, but when they do take nominal complements that are pronouns, they are oblique pronouns. It’s he that wants cake, not I sounds very 19C: the natural expression is It’s him that wants cake, not me.

    Note that the English dative ate the accusative a thousand years ago or more: we find mec, þec only in OE poetry, whereas in OE prose the forms mē, þē are both accusative and dative.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    genitive: mein/dein

    That description makes sense for English, but is plain wrong for German. Mein/dein/sein/ihr are possessive pronouns, fully declined (strong & weak) like adjectives; the genitive forms were meiner and deiner, and can today be found – very rarely – with verbs and prepositions that once upon a time went with the genitive: obsolescent statt meiner “instead of me”.

    (Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod; the modern version, thus, is statt mir.)

    And as for ‘me, I‘d like to go‘ – isn‘t that an abbreviation of ‘As for me…‘, ‘Concerning me…‘ or the like – i.e. it is meant to be in the dative case?

    It strikes me as (obligatory) emphasis. Same for “it’s him that wants cake, not me”.

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