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Noble Tongue

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Prussia (and later Germany's) highest decoration... which featured an inscription in French, since it was the language held in the highest esteem by the king who created it.

Though this people used still their own speech, their kings and lords knew and spoke also the Elven tongue, which they had learned in the days of their alliance, and thus they held converse still with the Eldar, whether of Eressëa or of the westlands of Middle-earth.

A Noble Tongue is a language used by the upper classes of society when it differs from the Common Tongue generally used by this society.

Unlike Rich Language, Poor Language, this trope refers to another different and separate language.

See also Foreign Ruling Class for when this upper class is foreign and, as such, use the language of their homeland (apart from if they assimilated to their subjects). Another related case would be the case of an upper class under the cultural influence of another nation, such as in cases of conquests or colonialism.

Compare Classical Tongue, used exclusively by the well-educated; and Sacred Language, which survives only in religious services.

In linguistics, this situation is called diglossia and the relevant languages are denominated sociolects.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • Braveheart: A cleric makes a Bilingual Backfire by insulting William Wallace to the princess in Latin, assuming that a Scottish bumpkin wouldn't know the language of the educated. It turns out that Wallace does speak Latin as well as the princess's native French.

  • Chronicles of Elantra:
    • Despite being ruled by the dragon court and its Eternal Emperor, High Barrani is the language of law and the Imperial Court. It's also highly recommended for those interacting with the Barrani High Court, as its impossible to unintentionally say something insulting in the language.note  Outside of law enforcement, government service, and the more powerful professional organizations, few speak more than a few words.
    • Draconic is restricted to the Dragon Lords, if only by default: most species in the setting cannot make the necessary sounds, and all living dragons (except Bellusdeo, but she is a special case in several ways) are members of the imperial court.
  • The Dark Tower: The Gunslingers of Gilead, essentially a feudal knightly order, use "High Speech", which is considered a "civilized" language when compared to the Low Speech of everyday communication.
  • Discworld:
    • The Quirmian language is basically French and aristocratic young women generally go to boarding school in Quirm.
    • Latatian, the language of the ancient Ankh-Morporkian Empire and represented by Dog Latin, is still used by wizards, lawyers, and doctors, all of whom reckon that their professions are greatly enhanced if ordinary folk don't understand a word they're saying.
  • The Elric Saga: It's frequently specified when someone is speaking the Common Tongue, or the High Speech of Melniboné.
  • The short story "Farmer Giles of Ham" by J. R. R. Tolkien, set in medieval England, has the King's court speaking and writing mainly in Latin, while Farmer Giles and his fellow townsfolk use "the vulgar tongue" — ie, English.
  • The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End: Norman French is often spoken by members of the nobility and clergy in England; at one point, when a senior clergyman speaks Norman French with an odd intonation, someone else realizes that he's a non-native speaker and one of the relative handful of English-speaking clergy to have risen through the ranks of the Norman-dominated church.
  • Princesses of the Pizza Parlor: In Banquets and Other Social Disasters, Baragocci has been conquered by the Palachkit, who have their own language that's not the Common Tongue, called "East Palach".
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: In addition to speaking the Common Tongue (rendered as English), Westerosi nobility are shown knowing High Valyrian, the Latin-like language of a Rome-like lost civilization. It often functions as a lingua franca in the series, as dialects of Valyrian are spoken on the continent of Essos, and so Westerosi who travel there will draw from their knowledge of Valyrian to communicate.
  • Tolkien's Legendarium: There's an in-universe trend of languages originating as the vernaculars of older civilizations and becoming the noble tongues of younger ones, whose own vernaculars become the noble tongues of their own successors.
    • Quenya, the High Elven tongue, is used for legal and religious purposes by the Númenoreans, but as a vernacular tongue by the elves in Aman.
    • In Middle-Earth, the Grey Elves speak Sindarin as their vernacular: Quenya was forbidden during the First Age due to bad blood between the two elven groups. By the Third Age, Middle-Earth's elves speak Sindarin amongst themselves and only use Quenya for poetry, scholarship, and formal occasions.
    • Sindarin is also used as the vernacular by the nobility of Númenor. The lower classes in Númenor spoke Adûnaic as their vernacular.
    • By the Third Age, after Númenor's fall, Sindarin acts as the prestige language for the human nobility of Gondor, the primary Númenorean successors at that point, who otherwise speak Westron, a descendant of Adûnaic.
    • Among the forces of Mordor, pure Black Speech is used by Sauron and his chief lieutenants, while most orcs use either Orkish dialects or Westron with loanwords from Black Speech.
  • The Wheel of Time: It's a mark of status for nobles to be tutored in the Old Tongue, but few of them are actually fluent so it's not actually used in day-to-day speech.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Pathfinder: The aristocracy of Cheliax commonly speak Infernal (the language of Lawful Evil outsiders, particularly devils) due to the tight alliance between the ruling House of Thrune and the Church of Asmodeus. Operas (Cheliax's most favored art form) for the aristocracy are performed exclusively in Infernal. Chelish commoners still mainly speak Taldan (the Common Tongue of the continents of Avistan and Garund).
  • Warhammer 40,000: The Imperium's language is Gothic, of which there are two forms, low and high. Low Gothic is the one transcribed into English and used by all classes; High Gothic, transcribed in fake-Latin, is the one used by the more aristocratic, ecclesiastic and technotheocratic classes.

    Video Games 
  • Shin Megami Tensei IV: In the Kingdom of Mikado, there's a clear literacy divide between the Luxurors and Casuarly, as only the Luxurors are really allowed to be able to read and write, even though there are no official rules against it. After that, there is a divide between regular writing and the Mystic Script. Typically, only Luxurors learn the Mystic one, and they consider it a class breach when some Casualry start learning it too. Later it's revealed that the "mystic script" is the "language of the Unclean Ones", who are actually the people of Tokyo, and Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse reveals/confirms that the ordinary writing is English and the "Mystic script" is Japanese.

    Real Life 
  • Writing-related variant: In feudal Korea, the nobles and educated used Chinese characters, while Korean Hangul was looked down upon as only suitable for women and commoners. In Japan, there was a similar divide between those who could read and write Kanji, and those restricted to Hiragana.
  • For much of the European Middle Ages, Latin remained in use as the primary administrative, literary, scholarly and liturgical language. Its decline came by stages in different fields. Most nations switched to using their vernaculars for record-keeping and edicts over time, while the question of whether literature should be written in Latin or vernacular became a divisive topic fairly early — Petrarch favored Latin while Dante Alighieri championed the vernacular, for instance. However, Latin remained the primary language of liturgy and science for a long time, if only because it served as a convenient standard language across national boundaries that didn't favor any present nation above others; the Catholic Church only stopped holding masses in Latin in the late 20th Century, while scientific texts were written chiefly in Latin until early modernity and the language remains the main source of taxonomic names today.
  • From the 12th century until the 15th century, the courts of England used three languages: Latin for writing, Norman French as the main oral language during trials, and Middle English in less formal exchanges between the judge, the lawyer, the complainant or the witnesses. The judge gave his sentence orally in Norman French, which was then written in Latin. Only in the lowest level of the manorial courts were trials entirely in Middle English. The form of French used in courts became known as Law French, which still left traces such as voir dire and replevin and the use of legal doublets. The UK parliament and monarchy still use Law French / Norman for certain ceremonial affairs, such as the prorogation of Parliament or the transmission of bills between the houses. Indeed, the official formulas for granting Royal Assent (the official act by which a bill becomes law) is in Law French: Le Roynote  le veult, "The Kingnote  wills it" is used for most legislation, but there are different formulas for supply bills (in which Le Roy thanks his good subjects for being so kind as to give His Majesty money) and personal bills. (There’s another one, Le Roy/La Reyne s'avisera, "The King/Queen will consider it", for when assent is withheld; however, it hasn’t been used since 1708.) It remains an official language of the UK Parliament, while many actual British languages (such as Welsh) are not.
  • Koine Greek was the language of Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty since they were the descendants of Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire. As a result, very few members of the Ptolemy family ever spoke the Egyptian language with the exception of Cleopatra VII. Thanks to this, Champollion finally managed to decypher hieroglyphs because of a stone found in Rosetta on which were written the same text in three languages, including Greek and Egyptian.
  • Due to an important political and cultural rayonment, from the Renaissance to the 20th century, the French language became hugely important across European nobilities:
    • French became the mother tongue of most of the Russian nobility, to the point some had to be provided translators to communicate with subordinates only speaking Russian. Due to the reforms of Peter the Great, French was used to teach the nobility due to this language being an important international language. Even the war against Napoléon Bonaparte didn't stop this habit, and Nicholas I had to ban the use of any language other than Russian for official purposes.
    • After Huguenots came to Germany as a result of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, French became fashionable among the upper classes to the point some considered it as their mother tongue, and French speakers outnumbered German speakers in Berlin for a time. Frederick the Great strongly preferred the French language, but he did also provide funding for German-language academies and gave grants to German writers and poets in order to "refine" the German language so that it would become in time as prestigious as French.
  • In Haiti, the urban upper classes speak French while the rural lower classes use Creole. French is the language favored in society, with Creole only recently becoming widely used in administration and education.
  • In colonial societies, the language of the colonizer usually had a higher status than the natives'. Even after the end of colonialism, such elites still speak the colonizers' language, since it was in these languages they were educated in. Also, a colonial language may remain in use because at least it's equally foreign to everyone, and doesn't privilege any one native linguistic group at the others' expense. History Matters explains this as the reason why the Philippines still use their colonial name — it's equally offensive to everyone, and doesn't favor one native culture over another.
  • In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Polish language became the language of all nobility, even the Lithuanian one.
  • In a curious subversion, after the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, it was Nahuatl (the Aztecs' language) and not Spanish, that became the noble tongue in the rest of conquered territories from Central to North America, even in those where there were zero native Nahuatl speakers. The Spaniards realized that adopting the mainstream language was way easier than teaching the entire continent to speak a wholly foreign one, so they just ran with it for the rest of the conquest (another factor was that most of their conquering armies were actually composed by native allies from Nahuatl-speaking zones too), and this in turn made it more accessible and convenient to learn Nahuatl rather than Spanish for other native tribes. Spanish would take many centuries to catch up, and even then, Nahuatl and its variations remain alive and healthy.
  • Quechua was originally the courtly language of the Inca empire, whose citizens mostly spoke Aymara. Gradually, though, use of Quechua was imposed across the Incan territories. Then the Spaniards conquered the Inca, and did the same as in Mexico above.
  • In Belgium, until the Flemish nationalists started to gain traction, French was the dominant language, mainly used by the Wallon upper classes. There were cases of Flemish troops who died because they couldn't understand their French-speaking officers. Even inside Wallonia, French was the elite language since the lower classes spoke the Wallon language.
  • Until the 19th century Fennoman movement, Swedish was the language used in Finland by the upper classes of the nobility and the wealthier merchants, while most of the peasantry was Finnish-speaking, and the clergy had to practice bilingualism. When Russian immigrants came to Finland and became wealthy, they asked for and got Orthodox worship in Swedish.
  • The ruling classes of the Mughal Empire frequently spoke Persian as their first language alongside a Hindustani language known as Urdu. This was in stark contrast to the other castes of Mughal society which tended to speak Urdu's sister language of Hindi or the local dialect of their home province.
  • In Indonesia, Dutch was rarely spoken or studied by Indonesians (as the Dutch adopted Malay as the main language of their Asian colonies, similar to the Spanish examples listed above). But laws and court cases were written in Dutch, so Indonesian lawyers, even post-independence, need to be able to at least read Dutch in order to read old court cases in the event that a precedent they are using was decided pre-independence.