How 'making do' changed a language

Jan Garrison

Students get hands-on lesson


April 16, 2021

Sometimes just making do with what we have alters the course of a language’s history.

That’s what the advanced Latin class of Culver Academies Senior Instructor Ashley Brewer learned as they studied the differences between Classical and Medieval Latin. While studying the transformation of the language through the centuries, Brewer gave them a hands-on opportunity to discover how changes in a language can occur.

They were given a large sheet of paper, a gold marker and other calligraphy supplies to use in transcribing a section of text over to their pages last week. This project gave them a sense of what the Catholic monks in Ireland faced during the Middle Ages while transcribing classical Latin texts on to parchment for inclusion in various books. 

Before the students began their transcription experiment, they had the opportunity to see and translate examples in person because the Culver Academies Art Collection includes a page from the Gutenberg Bible and a Medieval Latin song book.

Brewer studied Medieval Latin while in graduate school at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Trinity has one of the largest collections of the written language because Ireland was left untouched after the fall of the Roman Empire since it was so isolated. The time period ran from the Dark Ages through the early Renaissance.

The Trinity collection includes books that can be measured in feet because they were designed to be read by the priests while they were conducting services. “They had to be able to read them at a distance,” Brewer explained. Others, which were transcribed for wealthy families, may be smaller in dimensions but would still be several inches thick.


First classman Justin Ludwig tries his hand at transcribing Medieval Latin.


Changing words

Catholic monks were the primary transcribers because they had both the numbers and the time, she said. But they also had to make do with their limited supplies, especially the parchment. It is not unusual to see a transcribed page begin with large lettering at the top only to be barely readable at the bottom because the transcriber was running out of room. “You couldn’t just throw it away and start a new page,” she explained.

This started leading to changes in the written language. Ligatures, such as AE, would eventually become simply E for time and space purposes. These revisions then found their way into the romance languages of French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. Those, in turn, found their way into English.

An example is the Classical Latin word “aeternum.” The Medieval Latin transcription eventually dropped the “a” and became “eternum,” which was translated into the Old French “eternel,” which became “eternal” in modern English.

Transcribers also hyphenated words and used abbreviations for common Classical Latin words, Brewer said. The monks did this because they assumed the readers, notably the priests, would automatically know what the abbreviations stood for.

From feles to cattus

And some words changed completely. While “feles” originally referred to all cats in Classical Latin, the domesticated animals eventually became known as “cattus” in Medieval Latin, which picked up the Egyptian/Nubian term. House cats were brought to Rome from Egypt.

The transcription work is one way to help students retain a basic knowledge of Latin. Brewer said her hope is that all the students will remain proficient enough to translate Latin phrases they may come across in the future. And she does hear from current and former students who are excited they have been able to translate a phrase they discovered in a museum, gallery, and public building.

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