The History of the Latin Language

Latin, the language of science, at one time the lingua franca of the western world, a language shaped by culture and spread by conquest, is now considered a "dead language." It is no longer spoken as a native tongue by any group or culture but is rather left to classicists who study the world of classical antiquity. The rise and spread of Latin has had a profound influence on the world that is still felt today in the form of the Romance Languages, and Latin terminology in medicine, law, and religion. Exploring its history reveals how and why it has had such an impact.

Latin is a member of the Indo-European Language family. It is descended from the Italic branch and is considered to be one of the oldest branches of Indo-European after Greek and Sanskrit. The Italic branch broke off into two main branches: the Osco-Umbrian branch and the Latino-Falisco branch. These branches in turn yielded the Oscan and Umbrian Languages; and the Latin and Faliscan languages. From this point Latin experienced changes of development from its archaic form into a classical form, and later through medieval times, into various Romance languages.

Archaic Latin

Latin appears to originate from around the mouth of the Tiber river. It later spreads throughout the entire Mediterranean world of antiquity (Pei 3). Pre-Roman Italy was filled with predominantly Italic speakers with speakers of Umbrian to the north, and speakers of Oscan to the south, although Etruscan speakers, a non-Indo-European language, were also to the north (43-44). As Rome was founded and began to expand its influence over neighboring territories, Latin-speaking Romans borrowed extensively from neighboring languages:

These early borrowings, however, were homely words, indicative of an earthy, primitive civilization. Latin forms like asinus, "donkey," and caseus, "cheese," seem to be Oscan or Umbrian rather than Latin in origin, for Latin would have turned s between vowels into r (ausis, the word for "ear," for instance, turned into auris). The appearance in many Italian words of a characteristic Oscan f where Latin has b between vowels (It. scarafaggio from Latin scarabeus, "beetle"; bifulco from bubulcus, "ploughman"; bufalo from bubalus, "wild ox") indicates that Oscan forms with f must have existed in the Vulgar Latin speech, even if unrecorded. (Pei 44-45).

Latin changed with the expansion of Roman territory. The progression of the expansion of Latin was as follows: "It first displaced the local dialects of the rest of Latium and those of the neighboring Sabines, Aequians, Marsians, Volscians, etc., later the Umbrian, Etruscan, Venetic, Celtic, etc., later still the Oscan, and last of all the Greek in the south. By 100 BC Italy was mainly of Latin Speech” (Buck 26-27). This is significant in that it shows that early in its development, Latin borrowed and adapted terms from neighboring languages until it became the dominant tongue.

The oldest examples of the Latin language are preserved in the form of inscriptions. These inscriptions offer information about the economy, society, and language of the time. What was once believed to be the oldest Latin inscription on record was the Praenestine Fibula, a belt buckle dating back to the seventh century BC which was inscribed Manius med fhefhaked Numasioi, or "Manius made me for Nummerius” (Pei 45). However, some scholars now believe it "to have been forged in collusion with learned scholars who conspired to pass it off as genuine” (Bonfante 4). If this is a forgery, it would make the next oldest example of Archaic Latin an inscription on a cup, the Viminal Vessel, dated to the fifth century BC, which says: Duenos med feced en manom einom Duenoi ne med malo statod, "Bonus made me against Manus, but let no harm come to Bonus through me” (Pei 45). This could be a critical element in the development of the Latin language due to the two hundred year interlude between the Praenestine Fibula and the Viminal Vessel.

Two inscriptions from the third century BC show the transition between the Archaic and Pre-Classical Latin periods. The first comes from Spoleto, and reads: Sei quis scies violasit Jovei bovid piaclum datod "If someone shall knowingly violate this, let him offer expiation to Jupiter with an ox” (Pei 45). The other reads: Honc oino ploirume cosentiont r(omai) duonoro optumo fuise viro (or virorum?) Luciom Scipione “Most people in Rome agree that Lucius Scipio was the best of good men” (45). The parentheses represent possible reconstructions of part of the inscription.

These examples may also suggest after some analysis that the older [Archaic] Latin is "still uncontaminated by higher cultural influences, and still fairly close to its Indo-European ancestry; therefore it is closer to other early-recorded Indo-European languages, such as Greek, than it would be at a later date” (Pei 45-46). This is also beneficial in comparing possible sound changes and correspondences to both prior and later versions of language.

The case endings often duplicate those retained by Greek; the verbs show a reduplication in the perfect tense that is practically universal in Greek, but only occasional in Classical Latin; there are numerous diphthongs that survived in Greek, but turned into simple long vowels in later Latin (ei to i; and oi to u).(Pei 46).

The Roman Republic and The Roman Empire

The expansion of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire signaled a time in which Latin thrived as a medium of communication stretching from Mesopotamia in Asia Minor down into Northern Africa over to Spain and Portugal and up into Great Britain. The Roman Empire reached its peak in 117 AD under the reign of Augustus Caesar. The expansion of Rome’s influence was not primarily due to trade, but conquest. Richardson notes that “it is clear that in empires such as that of Rome, economic interests, though always significant, were secondary to political and military interests” (Richardson 4). This coincided with the rise of Christianity and the beginning of the Pax Romana, which lasted for nearly two hundred years, and thus further facilitated the spread and influence of Latin.

Classical Latin

Classical Latin became the common language brought throughout the Roman Republic and Empire by the Roman Legions and the Imperial communications. The Classical Period extended from around 100 BC to 400 AD (Pei 55). This language often times absorbed or influenced the native tongues of the area. This produced regional differences in pronunciations, usages, and idiolects. Ultimately it led to such a vast difference in verbal speech that Latin and its associated dialects became more and more distinct from each other.

Classical Latin is marked by an increase in writing and written records beginning in the first century BC (Pei 48). During its early Classical Development, Latin borrowed extensively from the writing forms employed by the Greeks, inspired by the epics of Homer and the histories by Herodotus and Thucydides, and the tragic poets, as well as others. The Greek literary tradition included many forms of writing and so “when the Romans began their literary apprenticeship, Greek literature had passed its zenith” (Palmer 96-97).

Obvious differences between the writings contained in most records of Classical Latin compared to the writings of Plautus or the writings of Terence appear which may show a difference in the Latin language proper and the more common vernacular. The works of Sallust, Caesar, Cicero and others reflect a pristine form of Latin with careful attention to detail and grammatical structure. The writing style characterized by Plautus and Terence reflects a more base form of Latin. This is beneficial to modern students of Latin because it may more fully represent the spoken language of the time. The writings of Plautus and Terence are replete with colloquial speech “which often makes detailed and explicit linguistic reference unnecessary and tedious,” and shows “allusiveness, by deictic elements, abbreviation, ellipse, and aposiopeses,” contamination from Greek and other local languages, double comparatives, frequent superlatives, popular rhetorical devices, and “the replacement of simple verbs by more expressive compounds” (Palmer 74-76). The use of suffixes and diminutives show “a whole range of emotional attitudes-endearment, playfulness, jocularity, familiarity, and contempt. A muliercola is not a little woman, but a ‘bit of a hussy’ and is generally used with reference to a courtesan” (77). The “Classical” Latin texts do not generally reflect this level of common speech.

Law and religion tend to have a more elevated writing style which is distinguishable from colloquial speech (Palmer 118-119). In charting the growth of Latin, Palmer notes that “the ultimate source of any literary language is the spoken language in its various forms and modes,” because this evolves into various writing styles (118). Thus, a high level of formality (and archaic language) may arise due to the nature of the writing, although this may also be interspersed with some colloquial usages.

Classical Latin literature hit its high point during the Golden Age of Rome under Augustus. Characteristic of the Golden age are the Ciceronian-like oratories and the Vergilian-like epics in written records (Palmer 140-141). This is believed by many to have been the height of the Latin language.

Vulgar Latin and the Carolingian Reforms

As Latin became used over larger and larger areas, regional differences in pronunciation and usage became more common. The increase in rustic and common usage of Latin contributed to its change. Often the usage of language “is a mode of social behaviour” and spreads through popular usage (Palmer 148). This led to what became known as “Vulgar Latin.” The Vulgar Latin was influenced by local languages and eventually developed into the Romance languages (Buck 28). Interestingly, the written text of Latin appears to have been understood and used with various of the Romance Languages, though pronunciation differed greatly enough to suggest new languages emerging:

If we take mutual intelligibility of verbal messages to be a basic criterion of language identity, then the decisive linguistic gap between the language of a Latin text and the spoken usage of the population manifested itself some time between 620-630 and the middle of the 8th century, or soon thereafter. (Herman 372).

Approaching the disintegration of Latin as the unified spoken language among the masses, “it can be supposed that by 760-770 at the latest, the population at large was already unable to understand, without special help and explanation, a Latin text as simple as the Lord’s Prayer” (Herman 372). There is the possibility also that even early in the seventh century, “in the worst of cases, Isidore remarks, those pedants may even pretend not to understand what is being said” (Walsh 204). Social distinction becomes a factor in the “purity of language” showing a growing division between the Classical Latin and the vernacular in Rome.

The Christian tradition of Latin “is even more the language of translation from Greek” and from its earliest usage was inspired by the Greek converts to Christianity. Many of the first converts were the “poor and lowly,” and thus,

the missionaries who first preached the Gospel in the Latin West like the prophets of old spoke to their hearers in the language of the people. . . . To bring hope and comfort, to banish evil and dispel darkness, the missionaries used the homely speech of everyday life. (Palmer 185-187).

Thus, even from the beginning the Christian Latin diverged from the more pristine forms of Classical Latin and contributed to the spread of Vulgar Latin, ultimately leading to distinct languages. The clergy periodically attmepted to make the Christian Latin more uniform in pronunciation and usage which required training the clergy clear up through medieval times. Ultimately, even this was not enough to prevent the linguistic diversity from separating the Latin from the vulgar languages that emerged.

During the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemagne, an illiterate king from France, but with great influence, sought to revive Latin in its Classical form with special attention given to the pronunciation of Latin (Radice 9-10). He was fluent in spoken Latin and understood some Greek, and enjoyed the Classical forms of art, architecture, and language. He had a school set up by an Englishman, Alcuin of York, in which to teach and promote the rebirth of Latin (10). Yet despite the reforms he initiated to revive these things, it was short lived. Latin continued mainly as a vehicle for religion and religious reforms, law, and medicine.

Concerning the retention of sounds and pronunciation, Wright argues that the forms used in law are pronounced in the Latin vernacular. Walsh posits, “If, as W. hints, a Lawyers’ knowledge of Latin was confined chiefly to frequently occurring formulaic phrases, then he may be justified in assuming that they pronounced Latin in vernacular fashion” (Walsh 203). This could be very significant due to its repetition and its use even today. This could be one of the few forms in which original Latin pronunciation is maintained.

The Latin language became distinct at this time from other “daughter” languages which were once mutually intelligible with Latin. Most linguistic historians concur that Latin ceased being spoken as a native tongue in the 8th-c. AD (Herman 374-375). It is summarized well that:

During the last decades of the 7th century and, roughly, the first half or first two-thirds of the 8th, as a result of intralinguistic processes, especially certain phonetic changes that occurred in the spoken language of Frankish Gaul, [and keeping in mind Charlemagne’s efforts], it became impossible for the illiterate or minimally literate Romanized inhabitants of the country, . . . to understand without assistance the oral recitation of written, i.e., Latin, texts. (Herman 377).

Thus, Latin gave way to its daughter languages and was relegated to being the language of science, law, and learning for the next few centuries.

According to Pei Latin was displaced gradually in spoken form between 400-700 (78). Changes in pitch, vowel quality, loss of distinction, and unstressed vowels being shortened, “are the main indications we have of the initial process of change that leads gradually from a Latin to a Romance vowel structure” (78-79). Latin broke off into the Romance languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, ProvenV al, French, Italian, Rheto-Romance, and Rumanian. Spanish originated in the Cantabrians region in Eastern Spain following a Latinization of the area after the Second Punic War in 201 BC (Elcock 173). During the first century BC, Cicero stated that people in this area were using verba non trita Romae, or “words not current in Rome” (Pei 50). The first unmistakably Spanish document appeared during the mid tenth century in the form of glosses in a devotional book “composed in rather poor Latin” in a monastery in San Millan (95). The first Portuguese writing sample is from an act of partition in 1192 AD (Elcock 428-429). Catalan was the chancery language of the Kingdom of Aragon and “Modern Catolinia has its origins in the Marca Hispanica established by Charlemagne and Louis the Pious in order block the route of Muslim invasion” (436). ProvenV al began ofter 260 AD after the Romans were driven back by the Alamans, thus marking “ a beginning of the isolation of Vulgar Latin in Gaul from more easterly developments” (214). The first extant manuscript is the Boecis, which is from “no later than AD 1000” (372). French appeared “as a literary medium before the end of the ninth century” (Pei 93). Italian’s “first definite appearance is 960, continuing into the eleventh century, but only for notorial, devotional, and inscriptional purposes, blossoming forth as a literary tongue only in the twelfth” (93-94) (see also Elcock 448). Rheto-Romance originated in the areas which correspond to modern day Switzerland, Bavaria, and Austria (478). Latin was spoken there until 487 AD when “the whole population moved southwards” following Odovacar’s usurpation of power (478). Rumanian appeared in written form late in the sixteenth century “in texts of a purely religious character” (271).

Latin Today

Latin is still seen in the form of inscriptions, medical taxonomy, legal jargon, and some religious settings. Indeed, Latin is still used in some religious activities and “in some countries of Central Europe it was in official use up to the first decades of the 19th century [as] the language of research and philosophy in Europe,” although Latin was not the native tongue for any group of people during this time (Herman 364).

Thus, the history of the Latin language is long and diverse. The daughter Romance languages which descend to us today are proof of its legacy. The former lingua franca of the western world is now preserved through science, law, and religion, but more notably, it is preserved in the memory of its growth and long-lasting influence.

Works Cited

Bonfante, Larissa. Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies. Wayne State University Press: Detroit, 1986.

Buck, Carl Darling. Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1933.

Elcock, W. D. The Romance Languages. Faber & Faber Limited: London, 1960.

Herman, Jozsef. “The End of the History of Latin” Romance Philology. 49:4 (1996) pp364-382.

Palmer, Robert Leonard. The Latin Language. Faber & Faber Limited: London, c. 1954.

Pei, Mario. The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages. Harper & Row: New York, 1976.

Richardson, J. S. “Imperium Romanum: Empire and the Language of Power.” Journal of Roman Studies. 81 (1991) pp 1-9.

Thomas J. “Latin and Romance in the Early Middle Ages” Romance Philology. 40:2 (1996) pp 199-214.

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1998-1999 © Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen
Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999