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The English Langue

The Order of the Hospital was one of the world's first multinational organisations, and as it flourished and grew the need for multilingual communication became apparent. The languages of the Middle Ages were more often spoken than written, in numerous local dialects, making serious multilingual communication difficult even for the privileged. The Langues, the division of the Order's Grand Magistry into linguistic (sometimes national) spheres, attempted to address these realities. English was not yet universally spoken even on our own isle, and some Scots knights chose to be associated with the French Langue. Though they were not abolished formally, the Langues, no longer necessary after the knights' expulsion from Malta, have been supplanted by national associations and priories as the means of administering the Order of Malta's activities. Throughout the Middle Ages, French, the "language of chivalry," was the spoken language of most knights of Malta, and with Latin Europe's common diplomatic language, though there were several Langues for France, Provencal being a distinct tongue. (Shown here is the Sovereign Council in a chapel of the Order in Italy with the banners of the langues on display.)

It was in the fourteenth century, with the Order at Rhodes, that the Langues were established as a simple approach to administration and communication according to the native language of each knight, aiding military organisation in enterprises under direct control of the Grand Magistry. The Langues eventually became a matter of ceremony rather than administration, with pews in a few of the Order's magistral chapels still reserved for confreres of certain Langues in remembrance of tradition.

English has become the world's most important tongue, and the most widely spoken second language. Queen Victoria could not have foreseen her language becoming the world's lingua franca, and Pope Pius IX probably gave little serious thought to the Mass ever being celebrated in English. (Latin did offer the advantage of being a liturgical constant in the Catholic world.) The emergence of New World nations as global cultural powers was not yet seriously hypothesised in such quarters.

The English Langue survived the Reformation, but modern English far transcends any British usage. That English is now an official language of the Order of Malta is not a reflection of Britain's past political eminence so much as an indication of today's international realities. Truth be told, the mass diffusion of English over the last half-century is a phenomenon more American than British. If the BBC and CNN speak the same language, it has more to do with circumstance than with choice.

For all its simplicity, the entire subject is eclectic for scholars, even in the United States. To be naturalised as Americans, immigrants must demonstrate fluency in spoken English which, however, is not the "official" language of the United States. Indeed, American passports are still printed in French as well as English. One need only visit parts of Los Angeles or Miami, where Spanish is prevalent, to realise that other languages are spoken by American natives.

Yet, when one speaks of Cuba's ties to Spain, and the United States' special relationship with the United Kingdom (with London home to more Americans than any other city outside North America), it is clear that language is only part of the picture.

History, time's own continuum, is the other part.

Long after most knights and dames of Malta had forgotten the very existence of the Langues, it was perhaps inevitable that England should retain her position as a cultural point of reference for those in English-speaking countries. Bathed in the reflected glory of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, and coloured by a diversity of accents, English, the language of over eighty percent of all the world's websites and scholarly publications, has not lost its appeal. Indeed, it has been enriched by widespread use. The English Langue may be a vestige of the past, but its very special legacy lives.