In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vernacular Languages and Dialects

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Dictionaries And Text Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • History of Linguistic Thought
  • Reformation
  • Social History of Language
  • Celtic Languages
  • Dutch
  • Latin
  • Portuguese
  • Scandinavian Languages
  • Slavic Languages
  • Europeans and Non-European Languages

Renaissance and Reformation Vernacular Languages and Dialects
Ann E. Moyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0010


Written vernaculars increased enormously in use during the Renaissance. They also became objects of scholarship and debate. While modern linguistics looks back to the 19th century for its professional origins, Renaissance humanists began to develop systematic approaches to language study much earlier. Accordingly, some modern scholars have focused upon the languages, others on the era’s writings about language. One approach to the subject is diachronic, dealing with change over time. Synchronic change across region or social rank has attracted new attention with recent interest in questions of power, rank, and social control. The rapid development of computers has improved the ability to use large bodies of surviving sources, producing historical grammars, lexicons, dialect mappings, and other results. Most such projects are centered on a single European language. For many European languages, the Renaissance saw the rise of the modern literary language. Each developed a canon of writers; thus the study of languages overlaps with that of the literature, including the impact these writers had on their language. Renaissance writers also wrote about language, comparing vernaculars with Latin, and composed and written language with spoken and spontaneous. They debated how to set normative and aesthetic standards. The Italian term for these disputes, questione della lingua, often appears in the scholarship on other languages as well. Interests in colonial expansion; in the history of the book; in power and its exercise; and in gender distinctions have all led to a series of new approaches. Earlier portrayals of the development of vernaculars as progressive and egalitarian, parts of nationalist or romanticized narratives of modernization, is giving way to an appreciation of the losses and more complex issues at stake in the gradual move away from Latin. Some research focuses on medieval continuities: preaching and sermon-writing, popular drama, religious devotion, and many genres connected with lived religion. The rise of political states led to more records and more vernacular record-keeping, as well as matters of linguistic standardization and its ties to political and social power.

General Overviews

Efforts to examine linguistic scholarship in a global context have had the effect of putting studies of European languages into a comparative framework with one another as well. The modern growth of the European Union and the resulting linguistic issues have spurred interest in the historical era in which these linguistic distinctions in record-keeping, diplomacy, and national identity expanded so quickly. Continental scholars interested in the history of concepts, while often more focused on political and social thought from the 18th century onwards, also turned their attention at times to earlier linguistic developments in the Renaissance. Both The Fairest Flower 1985 and Scaglione 1984 are collections of articles on the rise of vernaculars and the links to political and cultural identities. The pieces in Chartier and Corsi 1996 take a particular interest in some of the era’s own linguistic questions, such as the nature of the earliest human language. Apel 1963 focuses on sources that might be understood as philosophical in an effort to understand the history of philosophy of language.

  • Apel, Karl Otto. Die Idee der Sprache in der Tradition des Humanismus von Dante bis Vico. Vol. 8, Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte. Bonn, Germany: H. Bouvier, 1963.

    Written from the perspective of the history of philosophy and especially the history of concepts, this represents an effort to trace a history of Western philosophies of language.

  • Chartier, Roger, and Pietro Corsi, eds. Sciences et langues en Europe. Paris: École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1996.

    These papers treat historical topics in universal languages versus vernaculars, natural language versus artificial, and issues of language and power.

  • The Fairest Flower: The Emergence of Linguistic National Consciousness in Renaissance Europe. International Conference of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 12–13 December 1983. Florence: Presso L’Accademia, 1985.

    This collection of articles offers a solid introduction to the arguments and issues in the field at the time of publication.

  • Scaglione, Aldo D., ed. The Emergence of National Languages. Ravenna, Italy: Longo, 1984.

    This collection of papers from a 1982 symposium treats early modern European themes in an international comparative framework.

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