Renæssanceforum 6 • 2010

Johann Ramminger
Humanists and the Vernacular: Creating the Terminology for a Bilingual Universe

close window

Initially humanists who wanted to discuss the contemporary language of the Italian peninsula had to use the terminology inherited from Dante and medieval Latin, designating it as lingua vulgaris or materna. However, the term lingua vulgaris (commonly used/plebeian speech) implied a stylistic judgment which was not always welcome — the language of Dante or the poets of the dolce stil nuovo could hardly be called 'plebeian'. The situation changed with the discovery of Cicero's Brutus in 1421, whose comments on the sapor vernaculus (native refinement) of the inhabitants of Rome offered humanists a broader theoretical framework. The first to pick up Cicero's observations were Biondo and Bruni, in a discussion in 1435 about whether the populace of ancient Rome had spoken in Latin or in an idiom similar to modern day volgare. The word vernaculus soon became the standard term amongst Italian humanists for the latter and, at the end of the Quattrocento, for other languages such as French and German. At that time we also find the first examples in the Latin of humanists outside of Italy. Finally, vernaculus develops into an Italian word and enters the lexicon of other languages, arriving in English around 1600.