[This paper was read at the International Conference "Nations and Languages, and the construction of Europe", Leuven, november, 1994; a slightly different version appeared in Sintagma, 4, 1992, Universitat de Lleida (Spain)]
Particular histories of languages need a comparative approach. Comparisons may bring to light general tendencies and coincidences in time. In this respect, the role of Latin is crucial, as is usually stated, due to its character as the first European interlingua. But problems arise when we make a closer examination because there is no history of Latin in the modern period, not even a specific dictionary. Although the main interest has traditionally been in medieval and ancient periods, the production of Latin continued (albeit irregularly) into the eighteenth century. One of the intriguing questions at this point is to find a coherent explanation for its decline.
The answer hangs partially on our own expectancies and attitudes. What is all this saying to us? Which is our definition of language building? Can we start with a definition that includes the great breakdown of Latin during the eighteenth century? To what extent are we members of the same linguistic comunities that gave up Latin two centuries ago? Lluís V. Aracil has noted in several papers (1980, 1988) our implication in the building of sociolinguistic labels and he has referred particularly to our arguments against Latin. He remarks that the relegation of the learned language implies a break in our own tradition. The simple fact is that we are unable to read and understand information from the past. One consequence of this is the emergence of a whole and compact vision of the present, which also implicates the future. And one subsequent paradox is that all those ancient messages were destined to us, as far as we know.
This description reminds us the state of things depicted with irony by Umberto Eco in Il pendolo de Foucault (1988). Without a clear connection with the past, our sense of culture would resemble an obscure conspiracy. But a culture cannot be the plot of secrets that link up and spread here and there in Il pendolo, a kind of gratuitous erudition to illustrate the initiates. Our intuition tells us that there is something wrong, even something perverse, in taking this perspective.
There was, of course, an important inflexion in the eighteenth century. We can start by recalling that learned languages are used as elaborated codes, in the sense of Bernstein. An elaborated code is a framework for expressing general concerns and values. It is also the way of transmitting specific knowledge from one generation to another. A clash of generations can be viewed as the collapse of one particular elaborated code. Then a whole range of interesting related topics cease to be interesting. The eighteenth century undergoes this collapse with the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes. Charles Perrault's Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes en ce qui concerne les Arts et les Sciences (1693) represents the formal opposition to the old code. The discredit mainly affected what was to be learned in the future, i.e. the contents of cultural transmission. We can still quote the words of George Gusdorf (1973):
Nearly everything written in Latin during the eighteenth century was on learned topics. The course of scientific events played its role in the defeat of the common language. The paradox is that science and theory were Latin's last domains of use. The importance of the Encyclopédie for the progress of natural sciences has been shown elsewhere (for instance, in Hazard, 1946). Therefore, the reversal of values between humanist and technical knowledge which is achieved after the Enlightenment may well be a determining factor in explaining the claims of vernaculars. Latin was classified from the very beginning on the humanist side, which was going to lend its good name to technical improvements and natural sciences. The Querelle cast serious doubts on the topics and values of cultural transmission. Beside its importance for the start of new forms of knowledge, the Querelle was the framework within which the contents associated with Latin were discussed and relegated. Latin as an elaborated code had lost its main argument there: the relevance of discourse.
Despite the verbal debate and the pompous declarations, the world of references remained classical for at least some decades. Again, the excellent report by George Gusdorf (1973), clearly shows how the displacement of Latin was accompanied by a large-scale contact with classical letters:
During the Modern Age, the Latin-speaking community is mostly related to the spread of writing and education. As these aims were achieved, written Latin fell more and more into disuse. The more literacy increases, the less the paradigm that made it possible was understood and used. The great sixteenth century debate on the Questione della lingua has no parallel in the eighteenth century: there was no argument about the loss of universality, apart from the few remarks of D'Alambert's Discours Préliminaire in the Encyclopédie. A better balanced notion of linguistic equality was still to come. For a long time, written texts were the only source of sociolinguistic legitimation. Aracil (1988) reports evidence from a Spanish nineteenth century writer, recalling that many of the so-called living European languages had no stock of written texts some centuries ago. The measure of social acceptance was closely linked to written texts.
The logical counterpart was the implementation of national education. A general basic program had appeared in the previous century, prepared in Latin by Amos Comenius. Its discussion was mainly in vernacular and related to national aims. Vernaculars were becoming necessary and useful, as Latin and Greek were for scholarship. The supposed divorce between the need for spreading the national language and the obsolescence of the langues de savants is again the key. Vertical circulation took over the horizontal pattern. The Spanish case has been analysed by Lázaro (1949). The Asturian writer, Gaspar de Jovellanos, wrote several reports on education such as the Memoria sobre la educación pública (1802) and the Bases para la formulación de un plan general de instrucción pública (1811) where the notion of dead language appears in a new sense, linked to erudition. The minimal hypothesis is that this new meaning is a functional outcome of the vertical requirements. The living languages were those that took part in public instruction. A clear consequence of this state of things, including its inner contradictions, was the inclusion of Latin in basic education programmes. Thus, its incorporation in the schools as a reminiscence came to be parallel to its preclusion from Academies and Universities, as two different sides of the same process.
The study of argumentation can help us to discover the ties and the intricacies of our discourse routines. Our sociolinguistic notions and practices are set in a framework that is taken for granted without further examination. The analysis of arguments may revise the routines and dissipate the obstacles that current thinking puts in our way, throwing new light on old questions. It is possible to learn something about argumentation looking at the case of European Latin in some detail.
The points of the discourse were clearly set at the eighteenth century. There was a real controversy, with broad implications. Many things passed to the foreground, while others simply left implied. It looked like the end of a public discussion, at the same time as some European vernaculars had just acceded to formal uses.
We feel better, however, when argumentation is not necessary. When the situation is transparent and we know what to do and how to decide, we do not appeal to the force of arguments. And the reverse is true: the worst arguments call on justifications and defences. They beg for the retrieval and are grounded in signs of nostalgia. There was a meaningful episode at the end of the nineteenth century that illustrates the defensive position well. According to Couturat & Leau (1903), there was a timid attempt to retrieve classical Latin in the broader context of implementing an international auxiliary language. In their own words:
The attempt produced some samples of a new variety, suitable for the change of century and the renewal of vocabulary: