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Vulgar Latin

Vulgar Latin is a blanket term covering the vernacular dialects of the Latin language spoken in the vast provinces of the Roman Empire starting from the second and 3rd century CE, until its direct merging with the early romance idioms.

The name "vulgar" simply means "common": it derives from the Latin word "vulgus", meaning "people". By "vulgar Latin", Latinists mean a number of not necessarily identical things.

Vulgar Latin developed differently in the various provinces of the Roman Empire, thus gradually giving rise to modern French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, etc. Although the official language was Latin, Vulgar Latin was what was popularly spoken until the popular language finally turned to "proper" localised forms. Obviously Vulgar Latin is considered lost when the local dialects start collecting enough local characteristics to form a different idiom. They evolved into romance languages when an independent value was recognisable in them (eg. Oil, Oc, Sė). The word "Romance" comes from "romanicae loci", of a place in the Roman Empire; this still ideally includes all the dialects as a part of the whole Latin family.

The 3rd century AD is presumed to be the age in which, apart from declensions, many roots were changing (i.e., "equus" → "caballus", etc.). Recently, some studies (which still perhaps need more scientific development) have suggested that pronunciations too started to diverge, supposedly with already a similarity to modern local pronunciations, with the most spectacular (alleged) effect in the area of Naples. However, these changes were obviously not uniform in the Empire's territory, so the greatest differences were perhaps to be found among different forms of Vulgar Latin in different areas (also due to the acquisition of newer "local" roots), even if it should be noted that most of theory is based on reconstruction a posteriori rather than, evidently, on texts (poor people could use poor supports, of which poor remains could last for a direct knowledge in our age).

Political graffiti at Pompeii

Table of contents
1 Phonology
2 Vocabulary
3 Grammar
4 History
5 External link


One profound change that affected every Romance language reordered the vowel system of classical Latin. Latin had ten distinct vowels: long and short versions of A, E, I, O, U, and three (or four) diphthongs, AE, OE, AU, and according to some, UI. What happened to Vulgar Latin can be summarised as follows:

Long I ---- /I/ (see SAMPA Chart);

Short I >--- /e/ Long E

Short E --- /E/

Long A >--- /a/ Short A

Long U ---- /U/

Short U >--- /o/ Long O

Short O --- /O/

Both the diphthongs AE and OE also fell in with /e/. AU was initially retained, and turned into /O/ after the original /O/ fell victim to further changes.

Thus, the ten vowel system of Classical Latin, which relied on phonemic vowel length was new-modelled into a system in which vowel length distinctions were suppressed and alterations of vowel quality became phonemic. Because of this change, the stress on accented syllables became much more pronounced in Vulgar Latin than in Classical Latin. This tended to cause unaccented syllables to become less distinct, while working further changes on the sounds of the accented syllables.

The sounds /o/ and /e/ proved to be unstable in the daughter languages, and tended to break up into diphthongs. Classical FOCU(M), "hearth," became the general word in proto-Romance for "fire," but its short 'O' sound became a diphthong --- a different diphthong --- in most daughter languages:

Languages differed in the extent of this process. Long /e/ was retained in French fer, "iron," but diphthongized in Spanish hierro, both from Latin FERRUM.

Palatalization of Latin /k/, /t/, and often /g/ was almost universal in vulgar Latin; the only Romance dialect it did not affect was some varieties of Sardinian. Thus Latin CAELUM, pronounced /kailum/ (SAMPA) beginning with /k/, became French ciel, /sjel/, beginning with /s/. The former semivowels written in Latin as V as in uinum, pronounced /w/, and I as in iocunda, pronounced /j/, came to be pronounced /v/ and /dZ/, respectively. Between vowels, /b/ and /w/ or /v/ merged into an intermediate sound /B/.

N.B. In the Latin alphabet, the letters U and V, I and J, were only graphic variations that were not distinguished until the early modern period.

Gender was remodelled in the daughter languages by the loss of final consonants. In classical Latin, the endings -US and -UM distinguished masculine from neuter nouns in the first declension; with both -S and -M gone, the neuters merged with the masculines, a process that is complete in Romance. By contrast, some neuter plurals such as gaudia, "joys," were reanalyzed as feminine singulars.

Evidence of these and other changes can be seen in the late third century Appendix Probi (ext. link), a collection of glosses prescribing "correct" classical Latin forms for certain "vulgar" forms. These glosses describe:


Certain words from Classical Latin were consistently dropped from the vocabulary. Classical equus, "horse", was consistently replaced by caballus, "nag." Classical aequor, "sea," yielded to mare universally. A very partial listing of words that are exclusively Classical, and those that were productive in Romance, follows:

Classical OnlyClassical and RomanceMeaning
domuscasa, mansiohouse

Some of these words, dropped in Romance, were borrowed back as learned words from Latin itself. The vocabulary changes affected even the basic grammatical particles of Latin; there are many that vanish without a trace in Romance, such as an, at, autem, donec, enim, ergo, etiam, haud, igitur, ita, nam, postquam, quidem, quin, quoad, quoque, sed, sive, utrum, vel.

Verbs with prefixed prepositions frequently displaced simple forms. The number of words formed by such suffixes as -bilis, -arius, -itare and -icare grew apace.


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 synthetic language to an 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 from AE /ai/ to E /e/ entailed for a typical first declension noun:

Classical Latin

Vulgar Latin

Similar changes occured throughout the declensional patterns. As a result, with the exception of Old French, which retained for some time a nominative/oblique distinction, and Romanian, which preserved elements of the genitive case, the only distinction marked on the noun was of singular versus plural.

This distinction 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 distinguished from the plural, usually, 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.

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.

Classical Latin had a number of different suffixes that made adverbs from adjectives: carus, "dear," made 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 originally meant "mind." This originally separate word becomes a suffix in Romance. This change was well under way as early as the first century B.C, and the construction appears several times in Catullus, most famously in Catullus VIII:

Nunc iam illa non vult; tu, quoque, impotens, noli
Nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser vive,
Sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.

("Now she doesn't want you anymore; you, too, should not want her, neither chase her as she flees, nor pine in misery: but carry on obstinately: get over it!")

The verb forms were much less affected by the phonetic losses that eroded the noun case systems, and at least in the active system a Spanish verb strongly continues to resemble its Latin ancestor, as do most other Romance languages. However, the passive voice was utterly lost in Romance; which entailed its replacement with auxiliary verbs.

The future tense was remodelled, originally with auxillary verbs, in Romance. This may have been due to phonetic merger of intervocalic /b/ and /v/, which caused future tenses such as AMABIT to become ambiguous to perfect tenses such as AMAVIT. A new future was formed, originally with the auxiliary verb HABERE, *AMARE HABEO, literally "I have to love." This was contracted into a new future suffix in Romance forms such as French j'aimerai, "I will love."


At the third Council of Tours in 813, priests were ordered to preach in the vernacular language -- either the "rustica lingua romanica", Vulgar Latin now recognizably distinct from the frozen Church Latin; or German -- to be comprehensible. This could be a documented moment of the evolution. Late Latin, still based in Rome, presumedly reflected these acquisitions, recording what was changing in a nearer area - fairly identifiable with Italy. Formal Latin was then "frozen" by the codifications of roman law on one side (Justinian) and of the Church on the other side, finally unified by the medieval copyists and since then forever separated from already independent romance vulgar idioms.

Vulgar Latin is then a collective name for a group of derived dialects with local - not necessarily common - characteristics, that don't make a "language", at least in a classical sense. It could perhaps be described as a sort of "magmatic" undefined matter that slowly locally crystallized into the several earlier forms of each Romance language, that consequently find their ultimate proper ancestry in formal Latin. Vulgar Latin was therefore an intermediate point of the evolution, not a source.

Vulgar Latin should not be confused with Pig Latin.

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