The higher forms of social intercourse, which here meet us as a work of art - as a conscious product and one of the highest products of national life have no more important foundation and condition than language. In the most flourishing period of the Middle Ages, the nobility of Western Europe had sought to establish a 'courtly' speech for social intercourse as well as for poetry. In Italy, too, where the dialects differed so greatly from one another, we find in the thirteenth century a so-called 'Curiale,' which was common to the courts and to the poets. It is of decisive importance for Italy that the attempt was there seriously and deliberately made to turn this into the language of literature and society. The introduction to the 'Cento Novelle Antiche,' which were put into their present shape before l 300, avows this object openly. Language is here considered apart from its uses in poetry; its highest function is clear, simple, intelligent utterance in short speeches, epigrams, and answers. This faculty was admired in Italy, as nowhere else but among the Greeks and Arabs: 'how many in the course long life have scarcely produced a single "bel parlare." '
But the matter was rendered more difficult by the diversity of the aspects under which it was considered. The writings of Dante transport us into the midst of the struggle. His work 'On the Italian Language' is not only of the utmost importance for the subject itself, but is also the first complete treatise on any modern language. His method and results belong to the history of linguistic science, in which they will always hold a high place. We must here content ourselves with the remark that long before the appearance of this book the subject must have been one of daily and pressing importance, various dialects of Italy had long been the object of study and dispute, and that the birth of the one ideal was not accomplished without many throes.