bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Those damned diphthongs again

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 26 August, 2008

A footnote to one of my earliest aperçus (or posts, if you prefer a more wooden term). The attentive may remember that I mentioned the humanist re-invention of the diphthong, marking the combination of two vowels which make a single sound by writing both of them or eliding them into a digraph. The generations immediately preceding the humanists, wielding the orthographical equivalent of Ockham’s Razor, would have gone for the simpler option of just dropping the first vowel.

Walking through the streets of Leiden yesterday evening, I came across a playful example of over-correction. It was a poster for a forthcoming concert by the consort or band who call themselves The Mediæval Bæbes. It depicted them — appropriately given their chosen name — with décolletage intended to raise an eyebrow or some such. What caught my attention, of course, were those digraphs. They suggest what one would assume anyway: that their chosen name is self-consciously ironic. Their website takes it further and places a suspension mark — the sign that a word has been abbreviated, leaving our a letter or more, like a circumflex in French — over each of the digraphs. That combination of suspension mark and digraph is surely knowing nonsense.

It should be said that ‘medieval’ in English English (the American version is less open to the possibility) can be spelt with the digraph as ‘mediæval’ — and, indeed, reflects pre-gothic medieval uses: in manuscripts in caroline minuscule, the script before the gothic bookhand, the diphthongs were often marked. From what I can tell, the band’s music reflects various influences, including the Celtic tradition, but, in Leiden, the poster was placed alongside other advertisements for concerts which may interest the Netherlandish community of ‘goths’, an audience which surely would demand the digraph be dropped. But then they would be ‘The Medieval Bebes’, which is hardly alluring. On the other hand, as the ‘ae’ diphthong is pronounced close to an ‘i’, saying ‘bæbes’ could end up sounding as if the speaker had a strong West Country accent.

As a footnote to this footnote, I note The Mediæval Bæbes are appearing at the Maryland Renaissance Festival — one hopes no turf-war would break out between ‘Meds’ and ‘Rens.’ At the Festival, guests are asked to decide which dish they consider most evocative of the Renaissance: the choice includes turkey legs and cheesecakes on a stick.


De minimis curat eruditus

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 19 July, 2008

If bonæ litteræ seems a curious title for this blog, think how much more curious it would seem if it read bone littere.

Bonæ litteræ – literally, ‘good letters’ – is well-known in humanist circles as the term favoured by Erasmus to describe polished literature. It was one of a chain of fashionable slogans used by devotees of the humanist enterprise. The earliest, and most enduring, was studia humanitatis, a phrase signifying ‘the studies of what it is to be human’ or, perhaps better, ‘the understanding about how to become truly human.’ The exact meaning matters less than its resonance: this was a phrase in a re-found oration of Cicero’s which could succinctly signify the commitment of a coterie of early quattrocento Florentines to rediscover and revive classical learning. Later in the century – and this is what the textbooks emphasise – studia humanitatis became to signify a defined educational curriculum. At that point, the phrase lost its innovative glow, and other slogans took its place.

The early humanists – men like Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini – not only wanted to write afresh, they wanted their texts to look fresh. And so, there was a reform both of handwriting and of the presentation of the book, with a large display script of separated letters – the origin, when manuscripts turned into printed books, of Roman type – and an insistence that margins should not be stuffed with commentary in a tiny hand but should stand wide and white, so as not to detract from the classical or classicising text in front of the reader. As one small but significant part of this agenda, there was a reform of spelling. In Latin, there are several words which have two vowels together which make one sound, what is called a diphthong. If one of those vowels is missed out, it can transform the word into a completely different one: so, for example, aequus means ‘fair’ or ‘right’, but equus means ‘horse.’ In medieval script, the two words had become indistinguishable as marking the diphthong had fallen into disuse. So, ‘bone littere’ would be a thoroughly medieval name for this blog. The early humanists insisted on returning to the full spelling and writing both vowels, which would give us bonae litterae. But the humanist also tended to elide together the two vowels to signify they should be pronounced as one sound, and the most usual form became that which you see in this title.

In short, it may be that de minimis curat non lex: the law may not be concerned with the tiniest matters – but a scholar certainly should be.