Thursday, August 21, 2008

Language in the twilight zone

It was probably around the turn of the 9th century that one monk from Verona, taking a break from his copying chores, wrote a riddle on the margin of a parchment:

Se pareba boves

alba pratalia araba

albo versorio teneba

negro semen seminaba

The Indovinello dates to the late 8th- early 9th century, A.D. and is followed by a small thanksgiving prayer in Latin: gratias tibi agimus omnip(oten)s sempiterne d(eu)s.

Riddles were a popular pastime in the middle ages, but the Indovinello Veronese (lit. 'Veronese riddle') is one of a kind in that it is the first in our possession in a language that contains Italian words. But what does the riddle hint to?

We are referred to "somebody" who plows "white fields" ('alba pratalia') with a pair of cows ('boves'), holds a white plow ('albo versorio') and sows a black seed ('negro semen'). A tentative translation might be

He led two cows / plowed white fields / drew a white plow / sowed a black seed.

The person is none but the writer himself, the monk, and the story is a metaphor for the act of writing. The two cows are his fingers which draw a white pen (the white plow) across the white pages (the white fields), marking the paper with ink (negro semen) as it passes. An act which, beyond the penning of a poem, marks the transition between Latin and Italian.

These lines were written in codex LXXXIX (84) of the Biblioteca Capitolare in Verona, Italy. The parchment, a palimpsest discovered by Schiapparelli in 1924 contains a Mozarabic oration by the Spanish Christian Church (a document in a romance language developed in Spain by contact with the Moorish culture, probably from Toledo). It was then brought to Cagliari and thence to Pisa before reaching Northern Italy, where it was re-used once again by our monk. It dates between 801-3 and 845 A.D., when the Chapter of Verona was under Archdeacon Pacificus.

Similar documents emerge at about the same time abroad, but many of those outside Italy written at this time are already emancipated from Latin syntax and grammar (France's Serments de Strasburg dates to 842). The later development of Italian has been indicated as one of the causes for the linguistic immaturity of the Indovinello, which seems to stand in a gray area between Latin and Italian, although at the time of discovery, in 1924, it was hailed as the first document in the Italian language. Since then, Schiapparelli's finding has been taken much more conservatively.

It is undoubted, hiwever, that these few lines are a milestone in the history of the language since they seem to have frozen the time when vulgar Latin was turning into something entirely new and how this was coming about.

Though some words still stick to the Latin grammar ('boves' with an -es for the plural masculine, 'alba' with -a for plural neutral) most are indeed distinctly Italian, with no cases and the endings of Italian verbs: 'pareba', 'araba', 'teneba', 'seminaba' (for Lat. parebat, arabat, tenebat, seminabat and It. pareva, arava, teneva) show the falling of final -T, while 'albo versorio' and 'negro semen' (notice -o for the Italian masculine) instead of singular neuter "album versorium" and "nigrum semen".

It is remarkable that 'versorio' is still the word for "plow" in today's Veronese dialect. Cortellazzo and Paccagnella say that the pl. -es of boves might well be considered Ladino (a minority language of Veneto, Trentino, Friuli) and therefore romance rather than Latin, but the etymology is still disputed. It is not typical of eastern romance languages (as modern Italian) which favors -i/e over the -es ending for the plural.

'Albo' is already vernacular, since it. blanco > bianco is a later German import (Latin would have "album" anyway). At any rate, the -um is already gone, and the -o stands in its place.

'Pareba' and 'teneba' seem to hint to old Venetian rather than Latin (today's dialect has further sonorized the "b" in a vocalic environment, as in Italian: pareva, teneva). However, the telling signs of linguistic change are the suppression of Latin cases and endings.

This is the most visible sign of the deep mutation from a synthetic (where the role of a word, whether subject or object is marked by a suffix attached to its root) to an analytical language (where such function is given by a specific place in the sentence, or word order, as S-V-O).

Albo versorio, ending in -o as it does should be ablative, but it is accusative, negro should be accorded to the neuter "semen", but it does not, and i > e - very important, as Italian language changes short I > E. To see the full changes, however, we have to wait until the late 10th century.

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