Historical story

A linguistic analysis of a 9th-century manuscript shows that Irish monks frequently switched between Irish and Latin

Irish monks alternated between Irish and Latin in their writings. “A bit like Dutch managers regularly switch to English,” says Nike Stam. She obtained her doctorate this month for a special medieval manuscript.

In modern Irish she doesn't get much further than a chat about the weather or a request for a camping spot, says Stam modestly. And she doesn't just read old Irish from her armchair either. But that's not surprising:“Count the people who can do that on one hand.”

She reads a medieval text with a grammar book and dictionary. It is a very precise work, also because you first have to decipher the handwriting, and because there are language changes that are not always predictable. This applies to the calendar of saints that Stam analyzed, but even more so to the glosses accompanying the text. Those glosses are like notes, scribbled in the margins. They are very informal in tone:more colloquial.

Bad beer

It is indeed quite special that such an old text is written in Irish, because the written language in the Middle Ages was Latin. But Ireland led the way in native language writing. There was even a standard for written Irish. The language was widely used in glosses, but also for poetry and 'marginalia':"Then you can read in the margins of a Latin text, for example, that the writer has a huge hangover because the beer was so bad the previous night," says Stam. .

But what makes this calendar of saints even more interesting is the alternation between Irish and Latin. “In a saints' calendar you read a verse in rhyme about one or more saints every day. You read which saints died that day and which you should therefore honor. When it suited the rhyme, a Latin word was sometimes chosen. In the glosses you get all kinds of extra information, for example which miracles the saint performed. Latin words regularly crop up there too.”

Pious and learned

The use of Latin in the main text is therefore well explained:sometimes there was no rhyming word available in the mother tongue, and then the monk resorted to his second language, Latin. Stam found no clear reason for the Latin in the glosses, because rhyme played no part in them. Nor was it the case that there were no Irish equivalents for the Latin words. Stam did discover certain patterns:“Latin is used to introduce direct speech, as in ut dixit, which means 'he said'. Or the sentence ends with one or more Latin words.”

According to the new doctor, monks mainly used Latin to give the text more weight or to express their identity. “For medieval writers, Latin is a kind of jargon, showing that they belong to a certain group. They express that they are pious and learned. You see the same with modern managers who use English terms a lot to indicate that they belong to an international club.”

Medieval afkos

The way monks switch between languages, a phenomenon that linguists code switching is actually very similar to what we see in contemporary spoken language. “But there is also a lot of switching between languages ​​on internet forums and on Twitter, where the written language is also much closer to the spoken language.”

What Stam also noticed is that there are many language-neutral abbreviations in the text. These are signs that have the same meaning throughout Europe. Like our current &sign, which at the time was written as a 7. Or the word "bishop" which was written as eps :in Irish it is epscop and in Latin episcopus. And that also had an influence on the code switching. “The moment a monk wrote down such an abbreviation, probably both languages ​​were activated in his head and he sometimes continued in another language than before.”

Daily colloquial language

Irish monks therefore used a lot of Latin in Irish manuscripts, and vice versa:Irish words sometimes appear in Latin texts, Stam knows. What does this actually say about the everyday language of those monks? Did they also use Latin in it? "Probably. We know that many Irish monks were educated in England and vice versa. We can only imagine that if there was a lingua franca with which the monasteries communicated with each other:Latin. An additional argument are the Latin loanwords in Irish. You can tell from the way they were borrowed that they were borrowed from spoken Latin.”

Stam therefore suspects that the Irish monks, who often entered the monastery at a young age, were trained bilingually. What the situation was like outside the monasteries is difficult to say. There are hardly any written sources for this. The fact is that Irish was very strong. “Unfortunately, we can't say that for modern Irish. A minority still speak it. But social media is increasingly switching between English and Irish. We'll keep our fingers crossed .”

In this video from Utrecht University, Nike Stam briefly explains what her PhD research is about.