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Dante’s Dalliance with the History of Language

by Christine Norvell

As a scholar and writer, Dante Alighieri intentionally published a number of works in everyday Italian. Though this was most unusual for medieval writers who favored Latin, he felt this commonality of language would broaden his audience and perhaps strengthen the superiority of the Italian language.

He may have had an ulterior motive, but in “On the Vernacular,” Dante explores the idea of a common language and the history of language itself in a most unusual way.

Since language is natural and common to us all, Dante first discusses its inception. He believes that “the power of speech was given only to human beings” by God the Creator since they are the only creation that is capable of reason and perception.

Tracing this ability to Adam in Genesis, Dante establishes the biblical precedent of the Hebrew language and continues to examine language’s dissemination at Babel. But here he begins to argue that part of mankind separated themselves from the Babel project—”But the holy tongue remained to those who had neither joined in the project nor praised it”—and so they retained the pure Hebrew language.

Dante’s account is not biblical, but he maintains his history is accurate as he attempts to connect Hebrew to the languages of his day. From Babel, the people and their languages are dispersed, and so begins the “process of change by which one and the same language became many.”

This is what is so fascinating about his analysis in 1305 because Dante does not stop with Babel. His mesh of biblical history delves into the highly subjective process of linguistic change too.

From his studies, Dante purports that there exist several essential languages, but that “these differences and varieties of speech occur for one and the same reason”—mankind and his nature are unstable and inconstant. He clearly asserts that language adapts and changes over time, and so dialects are born.

Arguing for the superiority of one dialect and then the next, Dante attempts to compare “those that have remained in the sieve with each other, and quickly make our choice of the one that enjoys . . . the greatest honor.” Dante personally felt that Italian was the most expressive and amorous of all, so his findings are no true surprise.

As his research of language continues, Dante compares the people and characters of Italy’s cities and provinces in an unusual and humorous fashion. His logical loop finally closes in on the Italian language as a whole, exclaiming that it is indeed “illustrious, cardinal, aulic, and curial.” For Dante, the Italian dominance is complete, and we now clearly see his pride-filled intent from the beginning.

Though illogical at times, Dante’s tiny history records his personal and religious opinions as he follows his unique rationale. His account also provides insight to us, both as living history and as witness to Dante’s reasoning process and belief in the Middle Ages.

It is not a true history of language, but Dante’s history. We see his purpose most clearly as he proclaims, “And I myself have known how greatly it [the Italian language] increases the glory of those who serve it, I who, for the sake of that glory’s sweetness, have the experience of exile behind me!”

The fact that he and his writings became more famous because of his exile only add to the luster of his entreaty. Indeed, he did serve his own language, and it served him. By his own fame, he vainly claims the right to call Italian vernacular “illustrious.”

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Poiema is an online community of creative professionals who value the intersect of faith, culture, and creativity. Our focus is to teach writers to think wisely and thinkers to write eloquently about the human experience through a sustained engagement in the Great Conversation.