A Brief History of the Latin Language: Medieval Latin
written by: John Garger
• edited by: Rebecca Scudder
• updated: 2/14/2012
Medieval Latin is associated with the Middle Ages in Europe. The language is noted primarily as the language of scholarship and liturgy.
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Medieval Latin refers to the language that was spoken throughout Europe during the period between about 900 and 1300 A.D.. Liturgically, it was the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, and was also the language of scholarship and science. As a scholarly language, it allowed for the exchange of scientific, philosophic, and technological ideas in a common language across the political and physical boundaries of the fragmented European landscape.
Medieval Latin is often confused with Ecclesiastical Latin, but there are some differences. Ecclesiastical Latin, sometimes called Church Latin, was the language used by the Roman Catholic Church for liturgical purpose. It is not considered a language of its own; rather, it is a dialect used to serve the purposes of its users as a universal voice of the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Pronunciation often differed from other Latin dialects and its vocabulary was smaller to accommodate its single purpose.
Medieval Latin enjoyed a larger vocabulary than any other previous period in Latin history. This vocabulary came about by borrowing words, phrases, and idioms from a variety of other languages and dialects. Particularly, this period saw greater influence by Greek and Hebrew translations of then modern and ancient texts. Occasionally, Medieval Latin was influenced by the grammar and syntax of these languages as well. Germanic tribes from the north introduced an abundance of new words into the Latin language. Their Germanic language eventually evolved from Old English to Middle English and finally to Modern English. This was the first but not the last time a major vocabulary exchange occurred between the origins of English and Latin.
Some of the grammatical changes characterized by Medieval Latin include the dropping of the diphthong ae to just e. For example, feminae may be written as simply femine. In Greek loan words, y and i were used interchangeably and the letter h was often dropped altogether. Often, single consonants were doubled and double consonants became single. Examples found in older English texts attest to this change as in Affrica for Africa found on maps of the second millennium A.D..
Medieval Latin marks a period in the language’s history when many political changes were pulling the language in too many directions to allow for a consistent evolution. The Romance languages were taking shape in this time period and Latin was beginning to be relegated to a somewhat antiquated tool of church and science rather than as a living language. Nevertheless, the Medieval Latin period produced many examples of great literary works such as scientific treatises, poetry, histories, hymns, and sermons.
The Latin language has survived for over twenty-seven hundred years in one form or another. From a language spoken by the Romans who conquered most of the known Western world to a course offered in the classics curriculum of modern higher education, Latin undeniably endures.