Petrarch, Boccaccio and the Road to Latin Becoming a Dead Language

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An aspect of the Humanist movement is that they emphasized the work of the past, but also favored writing in contemporary languages. Petrarch and Boccaccio get credit for their decision to write in Italian, rather than Latin, among the first major writers to do so in prose; Dante and others had previously written poetry in Italian. The decision of these Renaissance writers to utilize the Italian language has educational implications in several ways.

One question is to imagine what it would have been like if Petrarch and Boccaccio did not write in Italian. Having great works of literature tends to freeze a language. English has changed a bit since Shakespeare’s day, but it is similar enough that his work is widely read today. In a similar way, a well-educated Italian can read Dante or Boccaccio. One of the results is that teachers can cover older material in a classroom setting, without requiring translations. In contrast, I’m fluent in Estonian, and Mid-19th Century Estonian is much tougher to follow than the work of Mid-19th Century English writers like Charles Dickens or Herman Melville. 16th Century Estonian is close to indecipherable for a non-specialist, while the plays of Christopher Marlowe are not.

There are varied consequences when a particular language is preferred for a particular purpose. One of the reasons the first great Japanese novel was written by a woman was that Japanese men in the day of Lady Murasaki were expected to write in Chinese. It is worth noting that there is no Chinese novel with the literary reputation of Tale of the Genji, so the quality of the work remained a major factor. As Petrarch and Boccaccio established that it was socially acceptable to write in Italian, the foundational texts of the language would be written by elites. This approach would influence many English writers. The subject matter, however, would be varied.

In a review for the New Yorker, Joan Accella noted that the use of the common tongue reflected a difference in subject matter. “More and more books were written in the common tongue and (as was not the case with Dante) about commoners. From that seedbed grew the idea that the lives of ordinary people could be described in literary language, and thereby ennobled.” This ethos continues in the English classroom, where there may be disagreements about what books to utilize, but there is an understanding that the subject matter will not be limited to historical figures and the wealthiest Americans.

Although Petrarch’s best known work was in Italian, the majority of his writing was in Latin. He thought Italian was better at communicating interesting ideas than Latin, which had become more practical, a method of discussing business with speakers of other languages, rather than producing vital art. As described in an Atlantic piece about second languages, “One aspect of understanding what Renaissance was and why it happened was that Petrarch and others like him noticed how much more complex, sophisticated, and, to their ears, beautiful, the classical Latin of Cicero and Horace was. They then tried to recreate that flowery, rhetorical style in their own day and time, in large part because they thought that the beauty and sophistication of the language also helped it convey beautiful and sophisticated ideas.” English writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare were exposed to Petrarch and Boccaccio’s work, and inspired to do similar things with that language, contributing to the development of the unique English culture.

As educators and consumers of culture, we take it for granted that any material we’re interested in can be found in English. Some students learn Latin, especially within the Catholic school system, but it isn’t the universal language that it used to be. Foreign languages tend to be taught in order to help people understand the culture of their contemporaries, rather than ancient texts. Some might say that there’s a parallel between the usage of Italian rather than Latin, and debates about whether students should be taught in the manner in which they’re accustomed to speaking (Spanglish, Ebonics) although that’s a different discussion.

Looking at the history of education and culture, I gain a deeper understanding of the ways that modern debates─and the policies that are so accepted we forget there ever was a debate─are shaped by developments that occurred generations ago in other cultures. The main debate is the extent to which classes should cover the great works of English literature, as well as English translations of great works of world literature, or contemporary material that may be more relevant to students. Both of these are the result of Petrarch and Boccaccio’s decisions to write in Italian rather than Latin, since it’s taken for granted that the students will study English. It’s a bit weird to imagine how things could have gone differently.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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