The Latin language is one of the Roman Empire’s lasting legacies. We hear it around us every day in the form of direct Latin loan-words into English, like “abdomen” or “exterior.” Every time you say something is “necessary” or you need to make a “revision” to a document, you’re using a loan-word from French, which ultimately derives from Latin as well. Then, of course, we hear Latin’s descendants in the form of the Romance languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, and a profusion of less widely spoken tongues. Eight hundred million people today hear the legacy of the Roman Empire every time they open their mouths to speak.
Let’s go back 2500 years. As Rome transitioned from monarchy to republic in the middle of the first millennium BC, Latin was just one—and not even a particularly important one—of the profusion of languages spoken in the Italian peninsula. Other communities spoke related languages like Faliscan, Oscan, and Umbrian, all of which belonged to the Italic branch of Indo-European language family. The Greek colonies in the south of Italy spoke, naturally enough, Greek, which belongs to another branch of the broader Indo-European family. The Etruscans, at that point the dominant cultural and economic power in Italy, lived in northern Italy and spoke a totally unrelated language.
As the Romans expanded first throughout Italy and then beyond, Latin went with them. Language followed empire, swamping its Italic relatives within Italy, and Etruscan, too, before spreading throughout Europe. Greek proved more stubborn, but it too declined in importance. In Gaul, Spain, North Africa, the Balkans, Dacia (today’s Romania) and parts of Britain, Latin coexisted with and then eventually displaced an array of native languages. From Iberian in Spain to Gaulish in Gaul to Punic in North Africa, the rising tide of Latin finally swamped them all. Britain is a notable exception: The ancestors of today’s Welsh, Cornish, and Breton languages survived underneath and alongside Latin, which itself disappeared there in the fifth and sixth centuries.
With the exception of Dacia and the Balkans, Latin never made serious inroads in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Greek was too widely spoken, and had both a longer literary tradition than Latin and status as a prestige language everywhere from Greece to Syria to Egypt. To give an example of Greek’s dominance in the east, of the hundreds of bishops from the east who attended a church council at Ephesus in 431, only two of them—both from the Adriatic coast—could even speak Latin.
Latin mostly sank its roots in the western half of the Roman Empire. It was never a static language, or a homogeneous one. Speakers could distinguish educated, high-status Latin from that of common people. There were words and phrases that speakers associated with particular regions of the Empire. We do the same thing in American English, with the regional differences between hero and hoagie, tennis shoes and sneakers, or soda versus pop versus coke. There were regional accents, too: Latin speakers were aware that people from North Africa, for example, had a distinctive way of pronouncing vowels. Over time, just as English has today, Latin changed.
While the Roman Empire was still a going concern, though, the various regional accents and varieties of Latin never diverged all that much. Why? Constant movement. What defined the Roman Empire relative to the periods before and after was the mass transfer of goods and people from one region to another. North African grain fed the enormous population of Rome; olive oil from Spain and wine from Gaul supplied the troops on the Rhine frontier. Soldiers from the Balkans served in Britain and along the Danube. Merchants from Italy did business in Carthage, Tarragona, and Marseille.
In linguistic terms, this created a situation of constant “dialect leveling.” As speakers of different varieties of the same language come into contact, which they often did in the Roman world, the differences between those varieties tended to drop off. Sufficient movement of people over a long-enough time frame served to prevent the formation of distinctive dialects, and eventually languages.
But when the Roman Empire fell apart in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, that easy mass movement of goods and people slowly but surely came to an end. The unifying state institutions that had bound the Roman world together—the army and the tax system—no longer drove transfers of soldiers and grain over long distances. With far fewer people moving the process of dialect leveling, what had kept Latin relatively homogeneous, also slipped away. Over the course of centuries, the Romance languages began to diverge from the homogeneous Latin standard of the Roman Empire.
The problem is that it’s not easy to see this process happening. As with English today, the written standard of Latin—the baseline, “correct” way of writing the language instilled by teachers over the course of centuries—had an enormous influence on the texts we see. Even if the way they were speaking the language was changing dramatically in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, the written language wasn’t changing that much.
It’s only in the ninth century that we begin to see stirrings of a Romance language that was markedly different from Latin. Educational reforms under the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne helped to create an awareness of the difference between how folks were speaking and how they were writing. We see the first unequivocally Romance text, in the form of the Strasbourg Oaths, around the middle of the ninth century. Even then, though, it’s centuries more before evidence of divergent Roman languages—French vs. Catalan vs. Castilian vs. Venetian vs. Tuscan—truly starts to emerge.
If that sounds interesting to you, check out this episode of Tides of History, my new history podcast. We follow the story of Latin from its beginnings to its splintering into the Romance languages and try to understand how it was spoken, why it changed, and how that reflected the broader world around it.
As always, I’m Patrick Wyman. You may remember my old show, The Fall of Rome. In Tides, I’m covering not only the fall of the Roman Empire, but also the rise of the modern world, with topics like the rise of the state, the Military Revolution, the beginnings of capitalism, and the Reformation. Think of Tides of History like a TV show that happens to have two seasons running simultaneously.
If you have any questions or comments, let me know down in the comments.
Episode 11 - How Latin Became the Romance Languages
Roger Wright, A Sociophilological Study of Late Latin
J.N. Adams, The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC-AD 600
J.N. Adams, Social Variation and the Latin Language
J.N. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language
Jozsef Herman, Vulgar Latin
Roger Wright, Late Latin and Early Romance
James Clackson and Geoffrey Horrocks, The Blackwell History of the Latin Language