Europe's languages 700 years ago
Let us imagine what it would have been like to travel from Lisbon to the Pyrenees 700 years ago.
1. Travelling in 2022
If we go by car from Lisbon to France, we find the same kind of roads, with numbers, distances and place names clearly indicated to travellers.
When we pass a border, we find the new country’s name in a plaque and flags on each side. Some things change in a predictable way — road paintings are slightly different in Spain, for example.
Time zones are also clearly distinct. In Portugal, it’s 4:34 pm. You cross the border, and it’s 5:34 pm. Your mobile phone beeps: you entered a new country.
Language also seems to change abruptly. In Elvas, Portugal, everything is in Portuguese. In Badajoz, everything is in Spanish (well, almost everything; there are now some signs in Portuguese for shoppers).
Yes, there are regions with different official languages in Spain, but even so borders between different languages seem to be quite clear.
Now, let’s just imagine doing the same thing 700 years ago.
2. What time is it?
If we went back 700 years and travelled through Europe, we would find the experience quite unsettling (something a time traveller would probably expect). I guess we would be lost most of the time.
Each piece of road would be different from the previous one, without any kind of standardization, no distance indications, no common traffic rules and no place names in standard fonts. We would have to ask where to go and hope the person would know.
The very notion of borders was different. Anyone travelling from Portugal to France would not find borders as we understand them today. The separation was more diffuse and not a precise line drawn on a map and visible in the terrain.
Habits changed gradually, analogically, from food to time. That’s right: even time was different from land to land: there was no national standard time (the adjective national would not make much sense then).
Time was defined by the sun, and the sun rose and set at slightly different times from place to place. Travellers didn't mind: the journey took so long that different times were not even noticeable.
3. Languages without borders
We could also see this lack of standardization in language. If we stopped to ask anything along the way, we would find it hard even to understand what language the person was speaking.
Languages spoken from Lisbon to the Pyrenees (and beyond) had no strong standards, let alone clear boundaries between them.
Looking a bit more closely at the Pyrenees: near the Atlantic, we had Basque, in its many variants; further to the Mediterranean, we found various forms of langue d'oc to the north and Aragonese and Catalan to the south.
These are common modern names, but at the time the separations between different Romance languages were not clear. Catalan, for example, shares many characteristics with Occitan. Aragonese serves as a bridge between Occitan and Castilian.
The various powers — counts, kings... — used a local form of one of these languages and it usually gained a particular prestige, not yet strong enough to be a standard. There was no need: writing was still dominated by Latin.
Even so, some writers were beginning to use vernaculars and their linguistic choices could also gain some prestige. Catalan was an important medieval literary language — used, for example, by Ramon Llull — and Occitan had, in the form of Provençal, a literary prestige that is still felt today.
4. Mixing languages
In this continuous linguistic world, there were some abrupt changes. Basque was very different from the surrounding Latin languages — but even this separation was far more porous than we might imagine.
In certain areas there would be many people who spoke a form of Basque, but also Aragonese, Castilian or Occitan. Moving up the mountains, the number of people who could speak another language would decrease, until we found villages where only Basque would be heard.
The gradualness was not only in the language, but also in the knowledge of other languages. Radical separations between territories of one language and territories of another would be rare, even in such rugged terrain as the Pyrenees.
Spoken conversations would also be a constant mixture of languages, varying according to the person's origin, the situation, the relationship between speakers. In that aspect, we haven't changed that much…
In this continuous world of the Middle Ages, a fury of standardization then erupted. We went from a world without clear linguistic borders or standards to a world where people are convinced languages change when we cross a border.
How we got here is a story for another day.
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