The History of Vernacular Languages

One definition for vernacular language is “The everyday language spoken by a people as distinguished from the literary language” (Farlex Inc,, 2013). There are many forms of vernacular languages that vary from region to region within a particular country. A few examples include: Celtic Languages, such as, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic (Erse), Manx Gaelic Germanic languages, such as, Bavarian German, Dutch, English (Old English, Anglo-Saxon), Frisian, High German, Low German, and Yiddish. During the rise of the Roman Empire Latin became the common language.

Only the upper class and clergy were literate in Latin. During the High Middle Ages, the feudal aristocracy felt the need for literacy and education. This created a demand for literature that applied to the lives if the ruling military class. This brought about the beginning of the spread of different forms of vernacular language. The spread of vernacular languages was also due to the consolidation of monarchies and the decreased papal influence. Due to the breakdown of Christendom, separate countries ruled by one king or emperor (Applied History Research Group, 1997).

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These events created a newfound sense of closeness among people in their own region, as well as a sense of pride for their developing individual nations. By the end of the twelfth century, Latin was still used in formal politics, but in England and France government and legal documents were being written in the vernacular (Applied History Research Group, 1997). “Travelling entertainers like the troubadours of southern France and the Minnesinger of Germany carried vernacular poetry and song around the courts of Europe, but this was almost entirely an oral tradition.

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A written form which appeared in the French vernacular was the romance, undoubtedly derived from this earlier oral tradition.” (Tillotson, 2005) Another important factor in the increased popularity of vernacular language and literature was the desire to promote Christianity. Bibles and other religious teachings were translated into the vernacular languages, making it possible to convert people who were not educated in Latin (Schwarz, 2011). The invention of the printing press made it easier to meet the people’s demand for religious, educational, and artistic literature.

Women were becoming increasingly more literate. Latin was still limited to higher social classes, but women were becoming more educated in the vernacular languages. This brought about increasing empowerment for women. The city of Poiters was created by Eleanor of Aquitaine as a center for the literary art of courtly love. The male troubadour or female trobairitz were the romance poets of the time. By writing in the vernacular, average people, not educated in Latin, were able to enjoy this form of romantic poetry (Career Education Corporation, 2010). Another interesting effect that the rise of vernacular language has on European culture was the development of the Goliards, or Wandering Scholars. They used vernacular to write poetry that was meant to be sung rather than read. They didn’t sing traditional songs about religion or medieval piety.

Instead, they sang songs about life, worldly pleasures, the uncertainties of life, and despair over life’s tragedies. Being dissatisfied with their day in age and critical of the privileged orders of the knights, bishops and professors, they were rebellious, living a life of drinking, and boisterous behavior (Kreis, 2009). In conclusion, the change from Latin to vernacular languages came about due to a desire for education, and literacy by the less privileged classes of society. It brought women more freedom of literary expression, and empowered them to become educated. It brought about unity, and a sense of loyalty for emerging separate kingdoms. It brought in new forms of poetry and literature. It changed the way Christianity was taught. Essentially, it was the beginning of a more enlightened world view.

Applied History Research Group. (1997). End of Europe’s Middle Ages/The Rise of the Vernacular Language in the Late Middle Ages. Retrieved from University of Calgary:

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The History of Vernacular Languages. (2016, Oct 21). Retrieved from

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