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A Brief History of the Latin Language: Old Latin

By John Garger

Few actual writing samples from old Latin exist as examples of the ancient language. What does exist is a collection of fragments and inscriptions that give only clues to Latin’s origin.

Old Latin (sometimes called ancient, archaic, or early Latin) is generally considered to have existed before about 75 B.C.. Latin was Latin in the Bible from Wikimedia Commons only one dialect spoken on the Italian peninsula, competing with others such as Oscan and Umbrian. Eventually, Latin won out over the other dialects as a result of being the language of the victors of the many wars and battles fought on the peninsula during the early part of first millennium B.C..

Extant examples of Old Latin are scarce and often exist in fragmented form on inscriptions or the rare surviving parchment. For example, the Duenos Inscription dates from about the sixth century B.C. in the form of text carved into a kemos. This kemos is a small vessel with three bowls connected by clay struts. The artifact was found by Dressel in the late nineteenth century on Quirinal Hill in Rome, Italy. Three phrases running from right to left adorn the vessel. As with many examples of Old Latin, the text was written without spaces between words making the inscription difficult to read. The word duenos is thought to be an archaic spelling of classical Latin bonus, good.

Grammar, particularly the formation of inflections in Old Latin, differs from the more popular classical Latin taught today. For example, the first declension word femina (woman) is declined as follows, with classical Latin forms shown in parentheses for comparison:

Nom. Sing. femina (femina), Plur. feminai (feminae)

Gen. Sing. feminas (feminae), Plur. feminom (feminarum)

Dat. Sing. feminai (feminae), Plur. feminais (feminis)

Acc. Sing. feminam (feminam), Plur. femina (feminas)

Abl. Sing. feminad (femina), Plur. feminais (feminis)

Notice that unlike classical Latin, Old Latin distinguishes among the cases without ambiguity in the singular but retains similar forms for the dative and ablative in the plural, albeit with different forms between classical and Old Latin.

Some Old Latin verbs retain similar forms to classical Latin. The word sum, to be, which forms the basis for much of the conjugations in any language, looks surprisingly similar. For example:

1st Sing. som (sum), Plur. somos (sumus)

2nd Sing. es (es), Plur. esteis (estis)

3rd Sing. est (est), Plur. sont (sunt)

Notice that in both examples above the –o is sometimes replaced with a –u when going from Old to Classical Latin. This carry-over is significant since pronunciation is generally thought to coincide with the –os in the English word osmosis in both periods of Latin history.

Although few examples of Old Latin exist for scholars to study the beginnings of the Latin language, those examples that did survive provide invaluable insight into the evolution of the language. Pronunciation is quite a problem, however, because the language went through many cultural changes throughout the warring period on the Italian peninsula. Without much to go on, some of our understanding of Old Latin has relied on histories written about the language long after it ceased to exist. These histories are ancient in their own right and provide only a glimpse into the complexity of a language that was spoken mainly by illiterate commoners.