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13.11.19 Latin into Romance


There is a people’s history of Latin, but it can’t be written, only imagined. The first thing to remember is that the texts we have are, as J.N. Adams notes, an anthology, a kind of greatest hits collection, owing its survival partly to quality but mainly to random chance. We have lots of Cicero, but little Varro; Catullus survived by a thread, but his poet friends weren’t so lucky. And the second thing to remember is that we have only texts, and mainly very literary texts at that. Language is first and foremost something spoken, said aloud, and without audio recordings of native speakers speaking Latin, there is just so much we cannot know about the language.

In older scholarship a distinction was made between ‘classical’ and ‘vulgar’ Latin, between the highly literary language of the classics and sermo vulgaris, the Latin of the common people. In more recent work scholars have altered this slightly to distinguish between ‘literary’ and ‘submerged’ Latin, a distinction which recognizes that people of all classes and eras tend to write more formally than they speak. Cicero, for instance, in one of his rhetorical treatises, says that he would prefer to say posmeridianus – ‘in the afternoon’ – without the ‘t’ that postmeridianus should properly have. And in late antiquity we have scattered evidence of grammar teachers trying to correct mistakes in spoken usage – trying to maintain a linguistic standard: they say things like ‘it’s mensa not mesa’ (for ‘table’),  ‘it’s rivus not rius’ (for ‘river’), and so on.  

What I’m getting at here is that spoken language of any kind is so diverse and so rich that textual evidence cannot do it justice. Imagine many years from now that linguists of the future are studying the English spoken in Dublin in 2019; for them the English language is, like Latin to us, a relic of past. They might assume that Dubliners said hello and thank you, but would they know about howiye, cheers, and thanks a mil; that sound and deadly and the bee’s knees were all synonyms for something close to ‘excellent’, or the particular range of meaning we give to grand and nice? Or how the structures and words of Irish have permeated the English spoken in this part of the world? An Italian friend told me recently of his initial confusion when cashiers would say ‘now’ at the checkout, now meaning not ‘at this time’ but ‘there you are’ or ‘I’m ready for you to pay.’

The same applies to Latin. We know about salve and gratias tibi ago but who knows, really, about all the ways Latin speakers in Europe communicated with each other: regional and social variations, accents and dialects, private codes between lovers and friends, all stretching over a period of many centuries. And we know that Latin was not just one language but many different ones because it’s still around today, in the theme-and-variation soundscape of French and Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, Catalan, Sardinian, and Romanian. The history of this metamorphosis is very patchy: every so often a text has survived from a certain point in time that allows us to chart the journey from Latin to Romance, but not enough for us to build up a detailed picture.

But we can work backwards from these Romance languages and make some deductions, because along the way people made decisions about they words they used, and the consequences of those decisions are still with us. In many areas they ditched cras (‘tomorrow’) and used a version of mane (‘in the morning’) to give us demain, domani, and mañana; they replaced the Latin loqui (‘to speak’) with a whole host of more colourful verbs related the telling of a story (narrare, fabulari, parabolare), and they took in words from the languages and cultures they interacted with: guerre for ‘war’ from the Germans, caminare for ‘walk’ from the Gauls, algodón for ‘cotton’ from the Arabs of Andalusia. Or maybe cras was never the word most people used for ‘tomorrow’ in Latin, just a red herring based on the limited evidence of our mainly classical texts. We don’t know, but as I’ve said, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a history there.

Note: for a classic account of Latin’s journey to Romance, see Elcock’s The Romance Languages (London: Faber, 2nd edn 1975). I’ve also drawn in this post on the work of J. N. Adams (The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC - AD 600 (Cambridge, 2007), among others) and J. Clackson (‘Latin as a source for the Romance languages’ in Ledgeway and Maidan’s The Oxford Guide to the Romance Languages (Oxford, 2016), 3–13). The image above is that of a fresco from Pompeii.