Arend Mihm: Oberschichtliche Mehrsprachigkeit und ,Language Shift‘ in den mitteleuropäischen Städten des 16. Jahrhunderts
Although multilingualism has rightly been regarded as an important cause of linguistic change, historical linguists have hitherto paid insufficient attention to the important role played by the command of foreign languages among the urban upper classes since the Middle Ages. For this reason, the present article starts by assembling the contemporary reports about the nature and extent of the knowledge of foreign languages. In this context, not only the historical precursors of the European standard languages were examined, but also the independent regional languages of the Continental Germanic linguistic area. Evidence for the process of language acquisition in the Middle Ages is also provided. It is demonstrated that, with the exception of the learning of Latin, school and the written text were of negligible importance and that language acquisition primarily took place through personal contact with speakers of the target language. In the 16th century, there was a fundamental change in the way that multilingualism was used, a change which can even be designated ‘language shift‘. This change is characterized by the fact that allochthonous languages which had been formerly used only for contact with foreigners were used for internal communication by the urban upper classes among themselves. In this period, French became an upper class means of communication in the Flemish and Brabançon towns, the same is true of Italian in some of the towns of southern Germany and of High German in those of northern Germany. As a result, the traditional urban forms of speech were submerged and reshaped, but also partially excluded from further areas of communication.
The probable causes of this historically significant development are examined in the context of the communication requirements of the upper classes in the Early Modern period under the headings ‘Verticalization’, ‘External Cultural Orientation’ and ‘Repudiation of Loyalties’. On the whole, it begins to emerge that the spoken language of the upper classes has played a larger role in the formation of the modern standard languages than has been hitherto believed.