Vulgar Latin

Vulgar Latin

Vulgar Latin (in Latin, "sermo vulgaris", "folk speech") is a blanket term covering the popular dialects and sociolects of the Latin language which diverged from each other in the early Middle Ages, evolving into the Romance languages by the 9th century. The terms Vulgar Latin and Late Latin are often used synonymously. Vulgar Latin can also refer to vernacular speech from other periods, including the Classical period, in which case it may also be called Popular Latin.

Spoken Latin differed from literary Latin in its pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, though some of its features did not appear until the late Empire. Other features are likely to have been present much earlier in spoken Latin.

During the Middle Ages, Vulgar Latin coexisted with a more classically structured form of the language used by scholars, scribes and the clergy in formal settings, but lacking any native speakers, called Medieval Latin.

What was Vulgar Latin?

The name "vulgar" simply means "folk", derived from the Latin word "vulgaris", meaning "of people". "Vulgar Latin" has a variety of meanings:

# Variation within Latin (socially, geographically, and chronologically) that differs from the Classical literary standard in an age when most people were illiterate and the primary method of language transmission between people was oral. This typically excludes the language of the more educated upper classes, which, although it does include variation, comes closest to the literary standard.
# The spoken Latin of the Roman Empire. Classical Latin represents the literary register of Latin, based on the model of ancient literary Greek. It represented a selection from a variety of spoken forms. The Latin brought by Roman soldiers to Gaul, Iberia or Dacia was not identical to the Latin of Cicero, and differed from it in vocabulary, and later in syntax and grammar as well.Palmer (1954).] By this definition, Vulgar Latin was a spoken language and Classical Latin was used for writing, with the later style of literary Latin being slightly different, showing greater influence from the vulgar dialects, compared to the earlier "classical" standards.
# The hypothetical ancestor of the Romance languages ("Proto-Romance"), which cannot be directly known, except from a few graffiti inscriptions. Proto-Romance is a hypothetical vernacular derived from Latin that had undergone important and varying sound shifts and other changes which can be reconstructed from the changes evident in its descendants.
# "Vulgar Latin" is sometimes used to describe the grammatical changes found in some Late Latin texts, such as the 4th-century "Itinerarium Egeriae", Egeria's account of her journey to Palestine and Mt. Sinai; or the works of St Gregory of Tours. Since written documentation of Vulgar Latin forms is scarce, these works are invaluable to philologists, mainly because of the occasional presence of variations or errors in spelling, providing some evidence of spoken usage during the period in which they were written.

Most definitions of "Vulgar Latin" define it as the spoken, rather than written, language. It is important to remember that "Vulgar Latin" is an abstract term, not the name of any particular dialect. The term itself predates the field of sociolinguistics, and research into the history of Vulgar Latin was in some ways a precursor to sociolinguistics.Fact|date=August 2008 The latter studies language variation associated with social variables, and tends not to view variation as a strict standard–non-standard dichotomy (for example, Classical–Vulgar Latin) but as variations. In light of fields such as sociolinguistics, dialectology, and historical linguistics, Vulgar Latin is the sociological, geographical and historic variations in Latin that excludes the speech and the writings of the educated classes. It is because there are so many types of variation that definitions of Vulgar Latin differ so much.


Because the daily speech of Latin speakers was not transcribed, Vulgar Latin can only be studied indirectly. Knowledge of Vulgar Latin comes from three chief sources: First, the comparative method reconstructs the underlying forms from the attested Romance languages, and notes where they differ from Classical Latin; second, various prescriptive grammar texts from the Late Latin period condemn linguistic errors that Latin speakers were liable to commit, giving us an idea of how Latin was spoken; third, the solecisms and non-Classical usages that occasionally are found in Late Latin texts also reveal, in part, the author's spoken language. [Charles H. Grandgent, [ "An Introduction to Vulgar Latin"] (Heath & Co., 1907)]

Some literary works written in a lower register of Latin also provide a glimpse into the world of early Vulgar Latin. The works of Plautus and Terence, being comedies with many characters who were slaves, preserve basilectal Latin features, as does the recorded speech of freedmen in the "Cena Trimalchionis" by Petronius Arbiter.

For many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Vulgar Latin continued to coexist with a written form of Late Latin, Medieval Latin; for when speakers of Romance vernaculars set out to write with correct grammar and spelling, they attempted to emulate the norms of Classical Latin. This scholarly Latin, "frozen" by Justinian's codifications of Roman law on the one hand, and by the Catholic Church on the other, was eventually unified by the medieval copyists; it continued to exist as a "Dachsprache" in the Middle Ages, and a "lingua franca" well beyond them.

Vulgar Latin developed differently in the various provinces of the Roman Empire, gradually giving rise to such languages as French, Catalan, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and several dozen other languages. [ [ Ethologue Latin Family] ] Although the official language in these areas was Latin, Vulgar Latin was popularly spoken until the new localized forms diverged sufficiently from Latin, thus emerging as separate languages. However, despite the widening gulf between the spoken and written Latin, throughout the imperial era and until the 8th century CE, it was not significant enough as to make them mutually unintelligible. József Herman states:

Indeed, at the third Council of Tours in 813, priests were ordered to preach in the vernacular language — either in the "rustica lingua romanica" (Vulgar Latin), or in the Germanic vernaculars — since the common people could no longer understand formal Latin. Within a generation, the Oaths of Strasbourg (842), a treaty between Charlemagne's grandsons Charles the Bald and Louis the German, was proffered and recorded in a language that was already distinguished from Latin. Consider the excerpt below:

From this point on, the Latin vernaculars began to be treated as separate languages in practice, developing local norms and orthographies of their own, and "Vulgar Latin" ceases to be a useful term.


Most neuter nouns had plural forms ending in -A or -IA; some of these were reanalysed as feminine singulars, such as "gaudium" ("joy"), plural "gaudia"; the plural form lies at the root of the French feminine singular "(la) joie", as well as of Catalan and Occitan "(la) joia" (Italian "la gioia" is a borrowing from French); the same for "lignum" ("wood stick"), plural "ligna", that originated the Catalan feminine singular noun "(la) llenya", and Spanish "(la) leña". Some Romance languages still have a special form derived from the ancient neuter plural which is treated grammatically as feminine: e.g. BRACCHIUM : BRACCHIA "arm(s)" > Italian "(il) braccio" : "(le) braccia", Romanian "braunicode|ț(ul)" : "braunicode|țe(le)". Cf. also Merovingian Latin "ipsa animalia aliquas mortas fuerant".

Alternations such as "l'uovo fresco" ("the fresh egg") / "le uova fresche" ("the fresh eggs") in Italian are usually analysed as masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural, with an irregular plural in "-a" (heteroclisis). However, it is also consistent with their historical development to say that "uovo" is simply a regular neuter noun (< "ovum", plural "ova") and that the characteristic ending for words agreeing with these nouns is "-o" in the singular and "-e" in the plural. Thus, neuter nouns can arguably be said to persist in Italian, and also Romanian.

These formations were especially common when they could be used to avoid irregular forms. In Latin, the names of trees were usually feminine, but many were declined in the second declension paradigm, which was dominated by masculine or neuter nouns. Latin "pirus" ("pear tree"), a feminine noun with a masculine-looking ending, became masculine in Italian "(il) pero" and Romanian "păr(ul)"; in French and Spanish it was replaced by the masculine derivations "(le) poirier", "(el) peral"; and in Portuguese and Catalan by the feminine derivations "(a) pereira", "(la) perera". "Fagus" ("beech"), another feminine noun ending in "-us", is preserved in some languages as a masculine, e.g. Romanian "fag(ul)" or Catalan "(el) faig"; other dialects have replaced it with its adjectival forms "fageus" or "fagea" ("made of beechwood"), whence Italian "(il) faggio", Spanish "(el) haya", and Portuguese "(a) faia".

As usual, irregularities persisted longest in frequently used forms. From the fourth declension noun "manus" ("hand"), another feminine noun with the ending "-us", Italian and Spanish derived "(la) mano", Catalan "(la) mà", and Portuguese "(a) mão", which preserve the feminine gender along with the masculine appearance.

Except for the Italian and Romanian heteroclitic nouns, other major Romance languages have no trace of neuter nouns, but all have vestigial, semantically neuter pronouns. French: "celui-ci, celle-ci, ceci"; Spanish: "éste, ésta, esto" (all meaning "this"); Italian: "gli, le, ci" ("to him", "to her", "to it"); Catalan: "ho", "açò", "això", "allò" ("it", "this", "this/that", "that over there"); Portuguese: "todo, toda, tudo" ("all of him", "all of her", "all of it"); Venetian: " 'sto qua, 'sta qua, questo" (meaning "this") and "qûeło là, qûeła là, queło=queła" (meaning "that").

In Spanish, a three-way contrast is also made with the definite articles "el", "la", and "lo". The last is used with nouns denoting abstract categories: "lo bueno", literally 'the good' or 'that which is good', from "bueno": good; "lo importante", i.e. that which is important." "¿Sabes lo tarde que es?", literally "Do you know 'the late' that it is?", or more idiomatically "Do you know how late it is?", from "tarde": late. This is traditionally interpreted as the existence of a neuter gender in Spanish, although no morphological distinction is made anywhere else but in the singular definite article.

Some varieties of Astur-Leonese maintain endings for the three genders such as follows: "bonu, bona, bono" ("good").

The loss of the noun case system

The sound changes that were occurring in Vulgar Latin made the noun case system of Classical Latin harder to sustain, and ultimately spelled doom for the system of Latin declensions. As a result of the untenability of the noun case system after these phonetic changes, vulgar Latin moved from being a markedly synthetic language to a more analytic language where word order is a necessary element of syntax. Consider what the loss of final /m/, the loss of phonemic vowel length, and the sound shift of "ae" from IPA|/ai/ to IPA|/ɛ/ entailed for a typical first declension noun ("see table").

The complete elimination of case happened only gradually. Old French still maintained a nominative/oblique distinction (called "cas-sujet"/"cas-régime"); this disappeared in the course of the 12th or 13th centuries, depending on the dialect. Old Occitan also maintained a similar distinction, as did many of the Rhaeto-Romance languages until only a few hundred years ago. Romanian still preserves a separate genitive/dative case along with vestiges of a vocative case.

The distinction between singular and plural was marked in two ways in the Romance languages. North and west of the La Spezia-Rimini line, which runs through northern Italy, the singular was usually distinguished from the plural by means of final -"s", which was present in the old accusative plurals in masculine and feminine nouns of all declensions. South and east of the La Spezia-Rimini Line, the distinction was marked by changes of final vowels, as in contemporary standard Italian and Romanian. This preserves and generalizes distinctions that were marked on the nominative plurals of the first and second declensions.

Prepositions multiply

Loss of a productive noun case system meant that the syntax purposes it formerly served now had to be performed by prepositions and other paraphrases. These particles increased in numbers, and many new ones were formed by compounding old ones. The descendant Romance languages are full of grammatical particles such as Spanish "donde", "where", from Latin "de" + "unde", or French "dès", "since", from "de" + "ex" or "dans", "in" from "de intus", "from the inside", while the equivalent Spanish and Portuguese "desde" is "de" + "ex" + "de". Spanish "después" and Portuguese "depois", "after", represent "de" + "ex" + "post". Some of these new compounds appear in literary texts during the late empire; French "dehors", Spanish "de fuera" and Portuguese "de fora" ("outside") all represent "de" + "foris" (Romanian "afară" - "ad" + "foris"), and we find St Jerome writing "si quis de foris venerit" ("if anyone goes outside").

As Latin was losing its case system, prepositions started to move in to fill the void. In colloquial Latin, the preposition "ad" followed by the accusative was sometimes used as a substitute for the dative case.

Classical Latin::"Jacōbus patrĭ librum dat." "James is giving his father a/the book."

Vulgar Latin::"´Jacọmọs ´lẹvrọ a ´patre dat." "James is giving a/the book to his father."

Just as in the disappearing dative case, colloquial Latin sometimes replaced the disappearing genitive case with the preposition "de" followed by the ablative.

Classical Latin::"Jacōbus mihi librum patris dat." "James is giving me his father's book."

Vulgar Latin::"´Jacọmọs mẹ ´lẹvrọ dẹ ´patre dat." "James is giving me the book of (belonging to) his father."


:"´Jacọmọs ´lẹvrọ dẹ ´patre a ´mẹ dat." "James is giving the book of (belonging to) his father to me."


Classical Latin had a number of different suffixes that made adverbs from adjectives: "carus", "dear", formed "care", "dearly"; "acriter", "fiercely", from "acer"; "crebro", "often", from "creber". All of these derivational suffixes were lost in Vulgar Latin, where adverbs were invariably formed by a feminine ablative form modifying "mente", which was originally the ablative of "mentis", and so meant "with a _____ mind". So "velox" ("quick") instead of "velociter" ("quickly") gave "veloce mente" (originally "with a quick mind", "quick-mindedly")This explains the widespread rule for forming adverbs in many Romance languages: add the suffix -"ment(e)" to the feminine form of the adjective. This originally separate word becomes a suffix in Romance. This change was well under way as early as the 1st century BCE, and the construction appears several times in Catullus, for example in Catullus 8, line 11: "sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura" "but carry on obstinately [obstinate-mindedly] : get over it!"


The verb forms were much less affected by the phonetic losses that eroded the noun case systems; indeed, an active verb in Spanish (or other modern Romance language) will still strongly resemble its Latin ancestor. One factor that gave the system of verb inflections more staying power was the fact that the strong stress accent of Vulgar Latin, replacing the light stress accent of Classical Latin, frequently caused different syllables to be stressed in different conjugated forms of a verb. As such, although the word forms continued to evolve phonetically, the distinctions among the conjugated forms did not erode (much).

For example, in Latin the words for "I love" and "we love" were, respectively, "amō" and "amāmus". Because a stressed A gave rise to a diphthong in some environments in Old French, that daughter language had "(j')aime" for the former and "(nous) amons" for the latter. Though several phonemes have been lost in each case, the different stress patterns helped to preserve distinctions between them, if perhaps at the expense of irregularising the verb. Regularising influences have countered this effect in some cases (the modern French form is "nous aimons"), but some modern verbs have preserved the irregularity, such as "je viens" ("I come") versus "nous venons" ("we come").

Another set of changes already underway by the 1st century CE was the loss of certain final consonants. A graffito at Pompeii reads "quisque ama valia", which in Classical Latin would read "quisquis amat valeat" ("may whoever loves be strong/do well"). In the perfect tense, many languages generalized the "-aui" ending most frequently found in the first conjugation. This led to an unusual development; phonetically, the ending was treated as the diphthong /au/ rather than containing a semivowel IPA|/awi/, and the IPA|/w/ sound was in many cases dropped; it did not participate in the sound shift from IPA|/w/ to IPA|/β̞/. Thus Latin "amaui", "amauit" ("I loved; he/she loved") in many areas became proto-Romance *"amai" and *"amaut", yielding for example Portuguese "amei", "amou". This suggests that in the spoken language, these changes in conjugation preceded the loss of IPA|/w/.

Another major systemic change was to the future tense, remodelled in Vulgar Latin with auxiliary verbs. This may have been due to phonetic merger of intervocalic IPA|/b/ and IPA|/w/, which caused future tense forms such as "amabit" to become identical to perfect tense forms such as "amauit", introducing unacceptable ambiguity. A new future was originally formed with the auxiliary verb "habere", *"amare habeo", literally "to love I have". This was contracted into a new future suffix in Western Romance forms which can be seen in the following modern examples of "I will love":
* French: "j'aimerai" ("je" + "aimer" + "ai") < "aimer" ["to love"] + "ai" ["I have"] .
* Portuguese and Galician: "amarei" ("amar" + ["h"] "ei") < "amar" ["to love"] + "hei" ["I have"]
* Spanish and Catalan: "amaré" ("amar" + ["h"] "e") < "amar" ["to love"] + "he" ["I have"] .
* Italian: "amerò" ("amar" + ["h"] "o") < "amare" ["to love"] + "ho" ["I have"] .

An innovative conditional (distinct from the subjunctive) also developed in the same way (infinitive + conjugated form of "habere"). The fact that the future and conditional endings were originally independent words is still evident in Portuguese, which in these tenses allows clitic object pronouns to be incorporated as infixes between the root of the verb and its ending: "I will love" ("eu") "amarei", but "I will love you" "amar-te-ei", from "amar" + "te" ["you"] + ("eu") "hei" = "amar" + "te" + ["h"] "ei" = "amar-te-ei".

Contrary to the millennia-long continuity of much of the active verb system, which has now survived 6000 years of known evolution, the synthetic passive voice was utterly lost in Romance, being replaced with periphrastic verb forms—composed of the verb "to be" plus a passive participle—or impersonal reflexive forms—composed of a verb and a passivizing pronoun.

Apart from the grammatical and phonetic developments there were many cases of verbs merging as complex subtleties in Latin were reduced to simplified verbs in Romance. A classic example of this is the verbs expressing the concept "to go". Consider three particular verbs in Classical Latin expressing concepts of "going": "ire", "vadere", and "ambulare". In Spanish and Portuguese "ire" and "vadere" merged into the verb "ir" which derives some conjugated forms from "ire" and some from "vadere". "andar" was maintained as a separate verb derived from "ambulare". Italian instead merged "vadere" and "ambulare" into the verb "andare". And at the extreme French merged all three Latin verbs with, for example, the present tense deriving from "vadere" and "ambulare" and the future tense deriving from "ire". Similarly the Romance distinction between the Romance verbs for "to be", "essere" and "stare", was lost in French as these merged into the verb "être".


The copula (that is, the verb signifying "to be") of Classical Latin was "esse". This evolved to *"essere" in Vulgar Latin by attaching the common infinitive suffix "-re" to the classical infinitive; this produced Italian "essere" and French "être" through Proto-Gallo-Romance *"essre" and Old French "estre" as well as Spanish and Portuguese "ser" (Romanian "a fi" derives from "fieri" which means "to become"). However, in Vulgar Latin a second copula developed utilizing the verb "stare", which originally meant (and is cognate with) "to stand" to denote a more temporary meaning. That is, *"essere" signified the "esse"nce, while "stare" signified the "sta"te. "Stare" evolved to Spanish and Portuguese "estar" and Old French "ester" (both through *"estare"), while Italian retained the original form.

The semantic shift that underlies this evolution is more or less as follows: A speaker of Classical Latin might have said (hypothetically, Classical Latin was nearly fully restricted to writing and reserved for rhetorical purposes): "vir est in foro", meaning "the man is at the marketplace". The same sentence in Vulgar Latin should have been *"(h)omo stat in foru", "the man stands at the marketplace", replacing the "est" (from "esse") with "stat" (from "stare"), because "standing" was what was perceived as what the man was actually doing. The use of "stare" in this case was still actually correct assuming that it meant "to stand", but soon the shift from "essere" to "stare" became more wide-spread, and, in the end, "essere" only denoted natural qualities that would not change. (Although it might be objected that in sentences like Spanish "la catedral está en la ciudad", "the church is in the city" this is also unlikely to change, but all locations are expressed through "estar" in Spanish, as this usage originally conveyed the sense of "the church "stands" in the city".)

In French, the evolved forms of the two verbs, "estre" and "ester", merged in the late Middle Ages, as the "s" disappeared from words beginning in "est-", as this phenomenon produced Modern French "être" and an obscure form *"éter", which eventually merged.

See also

* Oaths of Strasbourg
* Romance copula
* Romance languages
* Veronese Riddle

History of specific Romance languages

* Catalan phonology and orthography
* History of French
* History of Portuguese
* History of the Spanish language
* Latin to Romanian sound changes
* Old French



*Allen, W. Sidney. (2003). "Vox Latina – a Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin". 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37936-9.
*Boyd-Bowman, Peter. "From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts". Contains a great deal of data showing exactly how various Latin words developed into their Romance equivalents.
*Harrington, K. P., J. Pucci, and A. G. Elliott. (1997). "Medieval Latin". 2nd edition. Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-31712-9. Discusses the vocabulary, orthographical, and grammatical changes of Late Latin as they appear in literary sources and texts.
*Herman, József. (2000). "Vulgar Latin". First published in French as "Le latin vulgaire", Paris, 1967. Trans. by Roger Wright. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-02001-6). A good overview of the phonological, morphological and lexical changes leading to Vulgar Latin and Proto-Romance.
*Palmer, L. R. (1954). "The Latin Language". Repr. 1988, Univ. Oklahoma. ISBN 0-8061-2136-X. A general history of the Latin language from the earliest monuments of the language to the present. It confirms that a number of features of early Romance, excluded in classical Latin, appear in early texts.
*cite journal| title=Spoken and Written Latin| first=Ernst| last=Pulgram| journal=Language| volume=26| issue=4| year=1950| pages=458–466| doi=10.2307/410397
*Sihler, A. L. (1995). "New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin". Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0-19-508345-8. A more recent comparative grammar giving an etymological treatment with focus on the older language.
*Tucker, T. G. (1931). "Etymological Dictionary of Latin". Repr. 1985, Ares Publishers. ISBN 0-89005-172-0. An older attempt at tracing the etymological roots of Latin words.
*Vincent, Nigel. (1990). "Latin". In M. Harris and N. Vincent (eds), "The Romance Languages". Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0-19-520829-3. Contains an extensive discussion of the subject, including syntactic changes.
*von Wartburg, Walther. (1928-). "Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch". In German and French. An extensively detailed work covering the etymology of French and Occitan words, with a great deal of information on the lexical development of Vulgar Latin.

Various books cover the changes between Latin and specific Romance languages, including:
*For French: Glanville Price (1984) "The French language: present and past" (Grant and Cutler) is an excellent overview of the phonological, morphological and syntactic changes occurring between Latin and modern French; Mildred K. Pope (1934) "From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman Phonology and Morphology" (Manchester University Press), is an older etymological reference grammar focusing specifically on sound changes; William W. Kibler, "An Introduction to Old French" also contains a good account of the sound changes leading to Old French.
*For Spanish: Ralph Penny (2002) "A History of the Spanish Language" (Cambridge Univ. Press) covers the sound changes leading to Spanish in exacting detail.
*For Portuguese: Edwin B. Williams (1968) "From Latin to Portuguese: Historical Phonology and Morphology of the Portuguese Language" (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press) is the standard reference, and highly detailed.
*For Occitan: William D. Paden, "An Introduction to Old Occitan" is a good overview of the changes leading to Old Occitan. (It includes a 150-page glossary of all the terms found in the readings in the book, with extensive etymological information on each.)

External links

* [ "An Introduction to Vulgar Latin"] by C.H. Grandgent
* [ "Latin at the End of the Imperial Age"] by Dag Norberg
* [ Orbis Latinus] , a website about Latin and the Romance languages

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