A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

of 13 /13
Dante's Theory of Language Author(s): A. Ewert Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jul., 1940), pp. 355-366 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3716632 . Accessed: 18/06/2011 07:59 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=mhra. . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. Modern Humanities Research Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Modern Language Review. http://www.jstor.org

Transcript of A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Page 1: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Dante's Theory of LanguageAuthor(s): A. EwertSource: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jul., 1940), pp. 355-366Published by: Modern Humanities Research AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3716632 .Accessed: 18/06/2011 07:59

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at .http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=mhra. .

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].

Modern Humanities Research Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend accessto The Modern Language Review.


Page 2: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940


DANTE'S views on language and on the Italian vernacular in particular are. of course, to be sought in the first place in his De Vulgari Eloquentia. But this fragmentary treatise cannot be fully understood if we leave out of account two other documents in the case. The first is the passage in La Vita Nuova, ? 25, 11. 21 ff., where he is concerned with justifying the

poetic use of the vernacular, maintaining that the dicitori d'amore in lingua volgare (who, whether writing in the lingua d'oco or the lingua di st, first appeared a century and a half before) are entitled to a bolder and freer use (maggior licenza) of the vernacular than the ordinary speaker- in effect, that their metaphorical uses of words are not to be confined to

metaphors of every-day speech. In other words, we here find Dante making a distinction between the spoken and the written (literary) vernacular which it is essential to bear in mind when interpreting the De Vulgari Eloquentia.

In Chapters v-xiii of Book I of the Convito he is concerned to justify the use of the vernacular, rather than Latin, for his commentary. This

justification, as such, is not relevant to my purpose, but it is worth

noting that it is based upon three considerations:

(1) That Latin would adapt itself less closely and subordinate itself less completely to the object of the commentary-the Canzoni (I, v-vii).

(2) The vernacular would be more useful, and useful (that is, in-

telligible) to the greater number (i, viii-ix). (3) Dante's overpowering love of his native tongue (I, x). But I am concerned rather with the features of purely linguistic

interest, and in particular with the following: (a) Dante's clear perception of the mutability of human speech and of

the nature of linguistic change. He contrasts the unstable and cor-

ruptible nature of the vernacular with the stable and incorruptible nature of Latin and instances the many changes a vernacular undergoes even in the short space of fifty years. He maintains that if the dead could return to their native town after a lapse of 1000 years they would find its

language so changed as to appear a completely foreign tongue (I, v). 1 This article was first read as a paper to the Oxford Dante Society on Tuesday,

8 November 1938. Page and line references are to the Oxford University Press (1924) edition of the com-

plete works (Moore-Toynbee). For the De Vulgari Eloquentia the critical edition of Pio Rajna (Firenze, Le Monnier, 1896) has been used, as well as the same scholar's Edizione minore (Firenze, Le Monnier, 1897). Since this paper was written there has appeared a new edition by A. Marigo (Firenze, Le Monnier, 1938).

Page 3: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Dante's Theory of Language

(b) The vernacular is inadequate to express certain lofty concepts, that is, abstract thoughts (I, v, 84-90). As we know, all the Romance vernaculars inevitably suffered from this deficiency and it had to be made good by very extensive borrowings from Classical and Low Latin before they could rise to the full dignity of literary languages.

(c) Latin is more beautiful in respect of harmony (i, v, 91-104). By this Dante meant that the parts of discourse are in that language arranged according to considerations of art, while the vernacular follows

usage. It is probable that the harmony he had in mind was architectural rather than musical; but I would go beyond this and say that he had a

perception of the more fundamental distinction between a language (Latin) in which the demands of logic are much more fully met and a

language (vernacular) in which current usage has the last word. It is a contrast between the trained and the untrained. It is therefore not

surprising that Dante should describe Latin, considered from this point of view, as the nobler language (I, v, 106). At the same time I see

nothing contradictory in his describing the vernacular as the nobler when considered from another point of view and in an entirely different context, viz. in De Vulgari Eloquentia, I, i, 35, where its claim is based

upon the fact that it is the natural and universal medium. It is surely permissible to vaunt the nobility of the savage, even before Jean-Jacques Rousseau, without implying that he is in every respect and on all occasions nobler than the cultured man.

There are two ideas in particular that may be said to inspire Dante's remarks in the Vita Nuova and in the Convito. One is his ardent love of his mother tongue and the desire to vindicate the claims of the lingua di si, especially against the exaggerated and monopolistic pretensions of the

lingua d'oco (Conv. I. x, 74-9). The other is the clearly expressed desire of Dante to stabilize his beloved vernacular in poetry and thus to confer

upon it some of that special kind of nobility which he felt Latin to possess (Conv. I, xiii, 45-58). His aim is not to create a vulgare illustre, but to refine, stabilize and consecrate its use in poetry. It seems to me essential to keep these two ideas in mind if we are to interpret correctly the thesis

expounded in the De Vulgari Eloquentia. In attempting to assess the value of this treatise and of Dante as a

philologist the first question to be faced is that of his originality. His originality is not complete and absolute, as he himself confesses in the first chapter (1. 15). To judge from the opening lines1 of Chapter ix of

1 Nos autem nunc oportet quam habemus rationem periclitari, cum inquirere intendamus de hiis in quibus nullius auctoritate fulcimur, hoc est de unius eiusdemque a principio ydiomatis variatione secuta.


Page 4: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Book I, Dante would appear to lay little claim to originality for the first

eight chapters and to acknowledge no authority for what follows. But it would be rash to make a rigid distinction and to assume that what pre- cedes is entirely derivative and what follows is entirely original. To begin with, the plan of the work bears a general but definite resemblance to that of the Razos de trobarl of Raimon Vidal with its general introduction

consisting of a defence of lemosi and an attempt to define its position vis-a-vis other Romance idioms, followed by a descriptive grammatical analysis of the language of the troubadours. Quite apart from the further evidence of certain resemblances in detail,2 it is improbable-one might say impossible-that Dante should have remained in ignorance of Raimon Vidal's work. In fact, the De Vulgari Eloquentia is to my mind to be described not as a vindication of the vulgar tongue against Latin, but rather as a challenge issued on behalf of the Italian vernacular

against the rather exclusive claims made for Provengal by such writers as Raimon Vidal. Nor could Dante have failed to take cognizance of the Donatz proensals3 and other didactic works of a grammatical or literary nature inspired by the poetry of the troubadours-including those which have not come down to us but were presumably exploited by the com-

pilers of the fourteenth-century Leys d'Amors.4 To these he may have been indebted in such matters as the analysis of the canzone which he undertakes in Book ii. It has further been shown by Dr Chaytor5 that some of the puzzling epithets (pexus, irsutus, lubricus, etc.) employed by Dante were conventional in medieval literary criticism and there can be little doubt that Dante was acquainted with one or more of the thirteenth-

century Artes Poeticae.6 But none of these sources could be said to have done much more than inspire Dante and help him to sketch the broad lines of his project. His statement that he is supported by the authority of none certainly holds for the most striking, intriguing anrd, we may say, epoch-making portion of his treatise, chapters ix-xix of Book I.

1 Edited by E. Stengel, Die beiden altesten provenzalischen Grammatiken, pp. 67-91. The Razos de trobar dates from the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century. In the MSS. it is followed by a short Provengal-Italian glossary. A short verse rendering of the Razos composed by the Italian troubadour Terramagnino of Pisa (end of thirteenth century) was published by P. Meyer in Romania, vIII, 184.

2 Compare Razos 70, 30 ff. and V.E. I, x, 11 if. 3 Edition in Stengel, op. cit., pp. 1-66. The Donatz was composed in Italy for two Italian

noblemen (c. 1240). A Latin version is preserved as well as the Proven9al. It was certainly known to the compilers of the Leys d'Amors.

4 Cf. Las Leys d'Amors, ed. J. Anglade, vol. iv (Bibl. Merid. i, 17-20), Toulouse, 1919-20. 5 In Mod. Lang. Rev. xxiv (1929), 205-6; cf. W. P. Ker in Mod. Lang. Rev. Iv (1909),

145 ff. 6 Texts in E. Faral, Les Arts Poetiques du XIIe et du XIIIe siecle, Paris, Champion,


357 A. EWERT

Page 5: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Dante's Theory of Language As for the authorities he alludes to in the opening chapter (I, i, 15),

it seems impossible to identify t'hem specifically. From them he un-

doubtedly took over his ideas on the origin of speech and its nature, together with the traditional account of the confusion of tongues and the diversification of speech.

These ideas are briefly that speech was first given to Adam, but not to

angels or lower animals, for whom it was not necessary; nor did God use human speech. Adam first spoke in Paradise and spoke a certain form of

speech which was created by God together with the first soul-a form, says Dante, both in respect of the names of things and of the gram- matical constructions of these names and of the utterance. This was the Hebrew language (ydioma sacratum, antiquissima locutio). The confusion of tongues (Babel) resulted in diversification: only the descendants of Shem, having been absent from the building, continued to speak the holy language. The dispersion of peoples followed. Those who came to

Europe, whether strangers or returned natives, brought with them a three-fold speech: (1) Eastern Europe-Greek (with later derivatives); (2) Northern Europe-' jo' language (with later diversifications and deri- vatives); (3) Southern Europe-Romance tongue (ydioma tripharium), now appearing in three-fold form: lingua 'oc', lingua 'oil', lingua 'sz'.

I can find no source for the account of the diversification of tongues in Europe here given by Dante (I, viii, 13-64), nor for this first contri- bution to the science of Romance philology, small but none the less

striking at this early date. On the other hand, the ideas on the origin of

speech, its nature and subsequent first diversification are to be found with variations in patristic writers. They base themselves in the main

upon Genesis and consider language as a direct gift of God, though they are also influenced by Platonic, Epicurean and Stoic ideas. Their views had currency in Genesis commentaries down to the time of Thomas Aquinas and they are roughly to the effect that Man alone is a creature of reason and therefore alone possesses language, that he named the animals according to his pleasure but with insight into their nature, etc. But he di I not name them all at once (e.g. not fishes). Other names were added and old ones changed in the course of time. God did not speak with human speech, and neither did the Serpent, who was merely a mouthpiece. Hebrew was the original language. The confusion of tongues is not to be explained as diversification or change of language in our sense of the term. The commentators explain it, not as a new creation but as a reshuffling of letters and sounds by God and the attribution of new meanings to old words-thus ensuring a mutual lack of comprehension.


Page 6: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Other linguistico-philosophical developments and variations arose from commentaries on the Gospel of St John, and still others go back to commentaries on Aristotle and to grammatical and rhetorical treatises.

Most of these ideas, and particularly those of the patristic writers, were taken up and synthetized (though not perfectly) by Thomas Aquinas, whose linguistic philosophy has to be pieced together from his more or less scattered observations on the subject.1 Keeping to what is here relevant, we find that he follows the patristic writers in holding that Man alone, being a creature of reason, can speak; that it was the Devil who

spoke through the Serpent; and that animals, when they are said to

speak, are merely mouthpieces. As to the origin of language, St Thomas seems to hesitate between two views, and this is, I think, the significant feature. He indicates incidentally (when he describes God's intervention at Babel) that man received language as an express gift of God, but he

develops more at length the theory that language was invented by man and that Adam himself named things and formed derivatives (not only by formal derivation, but by composition and analogical extension). Yet Adam may have received the names of the 'first' things from God. St Thomas seems to have inclined, therefore, to the theory of the naturat invention of language, holding that Man used the raw material (vocal sounds, etc.) placed at his disposal, consciously and purposely, for the constitution of a language. The individual elements of language are con- ventional signs: hence the possibility of dialect variations and diversifi- cation of language. His view would therefore seem to have been roughly that God gave Adam language 'potentially' or 'virtually', i.e. he gave him the power to invent language himself; but this view is not expressly stated by him. In a word, St Thomas does not synthetize the two views.

If we turn now to Dante, we find a very similar hesitation, reflected first of all in the fact that in Paradiso, Canto xxvi, 124 ff. he makes Adam

speak as though even before the confusion of tongues the language was

changing and had died out or degenerated, while in De Vulgari, i, vi, it is said that the language spoken by Adam was used by all his descendants till the building of Babel. Then again, within the treatise itself there is the contradiction between the traditional view and the 'naturalistic'

conception of language (cf. I, ix), just as in St Thomas. I think we may therefore conclude that, whatever Dante may have

taken incidentally from other sources, the first seven chapters and the

beginning of the eighth probably derive in the main from St Thomas. When we come to the description of the linguistic condition of Italy,

1 Cf. F. Manthey, Die Sprachphilosophie des hl. Thomas von Aquin, Paderborn, 1937.

359 A. EWERT

Page 7: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Dante's Theory of Language the search for the vulgare illustre, and the remarks on its use for literary purposes, we have to do with a series of original observations and de- ductions which reveal Dante as a philologist entitled to a fuller tribute than he has yet received. There has, it is true, been no lack of com- mendation, but it has generally been tempered by mild and sometimes

patronizing criticism. His classification of Italian dialects has been criticized in this or that particular, or the validity of his criteria has been

questioned. It has also been suggested that he was somehow unaware, or disingenuously simulated an unawareness, of the identity of his own

language with the vulgare illustre.1 Alternatively, too much has been made of certain apparent contradictions in Dante, and others have been read into his treatise. In other words he has been praised, well but not

always wisely. The failure to do full justice to Dante the philologist is due partly to

the fact that most critics have approached the problem of the vulgare illustre via the vexed language controversy2 and have allowed the decisive influence exerted by Dante on the later fortunes of the Italian language to obscure or colour their interpretation of his remarks on the linguistic condition of Italy at his time and on the relation between the language of literature and the speech of every-day life. Then again, modern critics have tended to interpret him in the light of this or that linguistic theory or preoccupation of the moment, and we find a scholar like Bertoni

abandoning a former sound (if partial) interpretation3 in favour of one which adopts without reserve the theory of the 'parler directeur'.4

Finally we have that peculiar form of pedantry which can only be called the perversity of erudition. This can be illustrated from Pio Rajna's commentary on the first chapter of the De Vulgari Eloquentia.5 I hope I shall not be considered wanting in respect for his precise scholarship if I

question the necessity of proving at some length that, when Dante

speaks of hydromellum, he could not have had in mind the hydromel of the ancients, a fermented beverage for which the epithet 'dulcissimum' is inappropriate, etc. Such digressions do little harm, except in so far as

they obscure real issues; but this sort of approach becomes definitely unjust to Dante when it takes the form of setting up a rigid definition of

eloquentia based largely upon extraneous considerations. Rajna rejects Fontanini's interpretation eloquentia ='speech' and accepts the single interpretation 'eloquence', implying that Dante is concerned solely with

G. Bertoni in Arch. Rom. xx, 91-102. 2 Cf. Th6erse Labande-Jeanroy, La Question de la Langue en Italie, Paris, Istra, 1925. 3 I Duecento, Milan, Vallardi, 1910, pp. 73 ff. 4 Arch. Rom., xx, 98. 5 Published in Miscellanea di Studi in onore di Attilio Hortis, Trieste, 1910, pp. 113-28.


Page 8: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

the use of the vernacular as a literary instrument. He is then forced to

suppose that Dante knew neither the Razos de trobar of Raimon Vidal nor the Donatz proensals and that he must have added quicquam (1. 2) in a moment of inattention, without reflecting. And he is further led to

explain the apparent contradiction between Convito, i, v, 104 and De

Vulgari Eloquentia, i, as due to the fact that the former refers to the Italian vernacular, while the latter refers to language in general.

Now it is clearly essential that we should satisfy ourselves as to the

meanings attributed by Dante to the technical or semi-technical terms

(eloquentia, loquela, etc.), but this should be done, not by asking ourselves: Does eloquentia mean 'speech' or does it mean 'eloquence'? We should rather examine all the examples of its use in the treatise and see what

meaning or meanings the word has in each context. We may thus find that he does not use it in one of the two senses, but in both. I have tried to study in this way each of the terms used by Dante in his treatise. Statistical methods prove nothing in such a matter, and I therefore refrain from reproducing my concordance in this paper, but my obser- vations may be summed up as follows.1

Eloquentia is employed by Dante in respect of 'speech' in the opening lines, and it seems to me perverse to give it any other meaning here in view of the rest of the sentence, where it is said explicitly 'cum... talem

eloquentiam penitus omnibus necessariam videamus.' Similarly in I, xix, 22. In I, xi, 11, it may mean 'ordinary speech' or 'refined speech', but not

'eloquence' in the special sense. The latter meaning is however clearly intended in I, xv, 11 (tantus eloquentie vir existens).2

To denote language or varieties of it Dante uses:

Lingua in the sense of 'tongue' or 'language' (spoken or general)- confusio linguarum, lingua vulgaris, lingua d'oil, lingua siculorum, etc.

Linguae is used in respect of diverse varieties of speech and specifically in reference to the dialects of Italy (e.g. I, x, 61).

Loquela in reference to language or a particular form of language, language used for poetry (I, x, 24), patois, varieties of Tuscan (I, xiii, 41), and on one occasion: illustris loquela =' spoken Italian' (I, xi, 3).

Locutio in reference to statement, observation, utterance, form of

speech, language (e.g. the language of the right side of Italy, I, ix, 34) or human speech. We may note also materna 1., antiquissima 1. (Hebrew),

1 I employ the word 'meaning' in the sense of 'use' rather than 'definition', preferring to say, for example, that linguae is used upon occasion to denote dialects rather than that linguae ='dialects'.

2 Cf. also vulgares eloquentes 'those speaking a vernacular' (i, x, 22) and eloquentes 'those who speak or write well' (i, xii, 73).

361 A. EWERT

Page 9: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Dante's Theory of Language and 1. secundaria (Latin), to which is opposed the 1. vulgaris (vernacular) described as nobilior (I, i, 41).

Sermo in reference to speech or local speech; cf. varietates sermonum 'varieties of speech', 'local dialects' (I, ix, 45).

Ydioma in reference to a particular form of speech (e.g. our own), the root Romance language or its present threefold form (ydioma tripharium), the language of Adam, etc.

Grammatica is the term applied to Latin or to other literary languages, which by the very fact that they are stabilized are to some extent fixed or dead; it also denotes Latin grammar or formal grammar in general (I, ix, 94-107).

But the crucial term is vulgare, particularly when accompanied by the

epithet illustre. Vulgare denotes in the first place the speech of the common man; thence, in opposition to the learned idiom (grammatica) it is used in reference to the vernacular in the general sense, in the sense of 'spoken language', or in the sense of 'written language'. Vulgare illustre is the term applied to standard (or 'correct') Italian, both literary and spoken (I, xviii, 27-33, etc.)1; but is also used in a more special sense to denote the higher, nobler or more distinguished form of language used for tragedy or the higher style (II, iv, 41-4). Similarly vulgare aulicum is used to denote standard Italian, whether spoken or written. The same

applies to the epithets curiale and cardinale (I, xviii, 33 if.); and curiale is specifically contrasted with municipale (I, xiii, 12).

These observations make it quite clear that Dante uses his terms loosely, without attributing to each linguistic term a meaning capable of being formulated in a single definition. And it could not have been otherwise, unless he had created a technical vocabulary of his own, such as modern writers on linguistic theory are constrained to manufacture. For him

vulgare is the vernacular in all its forms, spoken, written, dialectal, standard; if he wishes to specify a particular kind of vernacular he

employs various epithets, standard vulgare being designated preferably by illustre, but also by aulicum, curiale and cardinale, to distinguish the more select, authoritative, standard usage from the local varieties, and it is difficult to think of more suitable epithets for the purpose.

When Dante comes finally to distinguish varieties of literary Italian he employs epithets to correspond with differences of caste, or rather of tone. The type suitable to the highest form of literature is described as

1 Hoc nempe videtur esse id de quo loquimur vulgare; et hinc est quod in regiis omnibus conversantes semper illustri vulgari locuntur. Hinc etiam est quod nostrum illustre velut acola peregrinatur et in humilibus hospitatur asilis, cum aula vacemus (I, xviii, 27-33).


Page 10: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

illustre in the more restricted or special sense (i.e. illustre as compared with the style required for Comedy and lower types), nobilissimum, etc.

I would therefore maintain that, at least in Dante's opinion, there existed a standard spoken Italian (employed, it may be, by a very re- stricted part of the population) which was different from every local form, including Tuscan and its sub-variety Florentine; that it was most nearly approached by the usage of Bologna; that it had been employed by a few writers, though not always impeccably even by them; and that it was this language that should be employed in literature. This interpretation runs counter to what has come to be an orthodox view of the matter, namely that there was no standard spoken language of any sort, that there was at most a vague, remote ideal in the minds of certain writers, and that Dante was not speaking in terms of reality. Thus, Bertoni (in Arch. Rom., xx, 91) maintains that Dante was in reality defending his own personal language, the language which was later to become standard Italian; and this view fits in with the general linguistic picture hitherto

accepted as accurate. It is a picture of pre-Dantean Italy linguistically divided into dialectal compartments, more or less hermetically sealed, such vernacular literature as there was being purely dialectal. This view I believe to be not only at variance with what such an incomparable guide as Dante tells us, but contrary to evidence and common sense, so much so that it seems incumbent upon the exponents of this view to

prove that the contrary was not possible. And they have in fact advanced various arguments, the chief being the lack of political unity and inter- communication. It is of course granted that the mass of the population remained unaffected by such intercourse as there was and that for them there can be no question of a common standard tongue before Dante, or for that matter after Dante. But for a considerable section of the

population, and that the most influential in matters of linguistic standard or fashion, the picture is not, I believe, a faithful one. It yet remains for the historian to give us a complete account of the very considerable movements inspired by intercommunal and interprovincial interests, financial, political, ecclesiastical, and cultural in the widest sense.1 He

might show us a thirteenth century (and to some extent a twelfth

century) in which the disruption of the feudal hierarchy and the growth of communal activities, the rise of laymen and of the middle class, and other factors induced horizontal divisions (cutting right across the popu- lation) as against older vertical divisions. Spiritual forces could be shown

1 In the meantime reference may be made to G. Bertoni, II Duecento, particularly pp. 72- 3, 243 ff.; and G. Bertoni, Lingua e Pensiero, Florence, Olschki, cc. n-III.

363 A. EWERT

Page 11: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

Dante's Theory of Language

overleaping regional boundaries: the spread of heresies, processions of

Flagellanti, the use of the vulgar tongue by St Francis, the opening of lay schools no doubt contributed to the development of a standard tongue. Universities and other centres of culture, of commerce, etc., undoubtedly served as focal points: Bologna, Florence, Lucca, Arezzo; not to mention the Court of Frederick II and Manfred, both of them to some extent

peripatetic. Not the least interesting passage in the De Vulgari Eloquentia (r, xv, 14-33) is that in which Dante describes the consequences of the

impact of neighbouring dialects on that of Bologna (I, xv, 15 ff.). This

description, though expressed in terms which the modern philologist might call unscientific, carries conviction; and between languages there cannot be impact without intercourse.

All these factors would tend to create a measure of standardization within a limited sphere, for standardization results by a natural process from community of interests, of whatever kind, requiring the use of

language.1 The uniformity of architecture in different parts of the

peninsula may perhaps be regarded as symptomatic. It was this roughly standard form of Italian, resulting naturally and

inevitably from intercourse, that the 'Sicilian' poets, whether natives of

Sicily or not, employed. It was an imperfect standardization, no doubt, and therefore not entirely devoid of dialectal features. It is upon these dialectal features that philologists have always fastened with a greedy enthusiasm amounting to perversity. It is surely time that we approached these early texts, not backwards from the nineteenth or twentieth

century, but forward from an earlier period, lest we join those persons stigmatized by Dante-' qui tanquam caeci ambulant per plateas, pler- umque anteriora posteriora putantes'. What is remarkable about these

early literary texts-and this applies equally to early literary texts in other languages, such as French and Spanish2-is not the existence of a few dialectal traits, but the remarkable degree of standardization achieved.3

The fact that the poets of the Sicilian school present so few dialectal 1 Standardization is inherent in speech and may be said to exist as soon as two in-

dividuals use a common language. It is essentially a social factor and one of its effects is that one and the same person may belong to several linguistic groups, one within the other. Unless his interests and activities are confined to his local group he will inevitably adopt the standard of the larger group, but he will not necessarily abandon the usage of his local group; in other words, he may be in a sense bilingual or even trilingual.

2 Cf. the Sequence of Eulalia, Alexis, Roland; Cantar de Mio Cid. 3 There are, of course, early monuments in these various languages which are properly

'dialectal'. They are texts of a documentary or practical character (charters, private contracts, Libro di Banchieri fiorentini, etc.), or they are works written for a limited public (laude), etc. The obscurity of the Ritmo Cassinese and the Cantilena Ciullaresca shows what happens if a dialectal or non-standard medium is employed.


Page 12: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

traits that can be described as specifically Sicilian, far from being envisaged in the way I have suggested, has been treated as an awkward fact to be explained away, and it has been neatly eliminated by pro- pounding the theory of the Tuscanization of the language by Tuscan scribes.1 Bertoni himself has shown how vulnerable this thesis is.2

What Dante therefore meant was precisely what he said, that there existed a standard form of Italian which was not to be found in any one of the towns or localities-a spoken language imperfectly mastered and

reproduced in literature with varying success by previous writers. This was the language he himself adopted, perfected and consecrated to the high poetic purpose which inspired him, a language capable of adaptation to the various forms of literature, illustre for the highest forms, mediocre for the intermediate, humile for the lowest.

We are left with two further questions to answer: What was the nature of this vulgare (standard spoken Italian) and by what processes was it created? Here again I believe we cannot do better than believe what Dante tells us and what, incidentally, Bertoni believed when he wrote his Duecento.3 Against Bertoni's more recent theory of Florentine as the 'parler directeur 4we may set Dante's own explicit words, according to which, if there was a 'parler directeur', it was the dialect of Bologna and not that of Florence. And if Dante had in fact created his literary language by a sort of sublimation of his native Florentine dialect, it seems to me inconceivable that, whatever his political sentiments may have been at the time of writing, he should have spoken of it as he did, condemning it roundly.

The process of standardization seems to have proceeded on two

principles: (a) the elimination of the more pronounced dialectalisms and (b) the adaptation to Latin (or Latinization), the latter appearing as a conservative and archaizing tendency. This two-fold process produces inevitably a language occupying a more or less neutral position between the various dialects (or at least between the more important of them), deviating less from Latin and therefore in appearance conservative; and these are exactly the characteristics of the Tuscan dialect.5

1 J. Sanesi, 'I1 toscaneggiamento della poesia siciliana', Giornale storica della lett. ital., xxxiv, 354 ff.

2 G. Bertoni, 'Intorno alle questioni sulla lingua nella lirica italiana delle origini', Studi Medievali, I, 580 ff.

3 ... quanto al linguaggio comune o illustre, per usare il vocabulo di Dante, esso sorse, come vedremo, un po' da per tutto, dovunque erano vive e costanti tradizioni di studi e anche gagliardi rapporti commerciali o politici, a Bologna, a Firenze, a Lucca, ad Arezzo, nella corte imperiale e altrove (p. 73).

4 Arch. Rom., xx, 98. 5 Cf. G. Bertoni, Italia Dialettale, Milan, Hoepli, 1916, pp. 123-33 and 205 (Bibliography).

365 A. EWERT

Page 13: A. Exert, Dante's Theory of Language, Modern Language Review, 1940

366 Dante's Theory of Language Henceforth the Tuscan writer, and particularly the Florentine, was in

a favoured position in that his native speech coincided to a remarkable degree with the language of literature. Once that language had been perfected and consecrated in the work of the Divine Poet, the favoured

position of Florentine as the nearest living counterpart was immeasurably strengthened. It is only then that it begins to play its role of a 'parler directeur'. The rise of Florence to political, social and cultural pre- eminence conferred upon Florentine a further measure of that prestige which a dialect must have if it is to become a real 'parler directeur'.

This interpretation seems to me to fit the facts. It accounts also for the

misconceptions and the false bias which have characterized the inter- minable controversy known as the language question, and it has the merit of showing that, in a sense, both sides were right, at least originally. But what is more to my present purpose, it vindicates completely Dante's observations and his programme. Whatever may have been the design of the complete treatise, and even if we grant that it was primarily intended to be an art of poetry in the vernacular, it is clear that Dante's observations on language are not subordinated. We must bear in mind that he is espousing the cause of Italian against the lingua d'oco, but we would do well to remember also the passionate declaration of love for his native tongue which he makes in the Convito. He loved his native

language for its own sake, and we find him turning aside in the De

Vulgari Eloquentia to probe its secrets with a devotion born of that love.

Apart from a certain inconsistency or looseness in the use of termino-

logy (no better and no worse than we find in certain more modern writers

upon linguistic theory) his treatise reveals, alongside of views adopted from predecessors and reasoned out on scholastic lines, a most remarkable series of observations. They bear comparison with those of the modern, highly specialized field-worker preparing a linguistic atlas; they show a perception of the nature of speech and of the relation between standard

speech and dialect which the philologists of the nineteenth century frequently lacked and which even those of the twentieth have, I venture to think, sometimes failed to appreciate at its true worth.