BackBright Hub EducationBrowse

A Brief History of the Latin Language: Vulgar Latin

By John Garger

Vulgar Latin is the variety that gave rise to the precursors of modern Romance languages. By the middle of this period, English was in its earliest forms.

Sermo Vulgaris or Folk Speech is the name given to Latin following the Silver Age of the Classical Latin period. Sometimes called Vulgar Latin, this period in the language’s history dates from about 200 to 900 A.D.. Actually, Vulgar Latin refers to various dialects of the Latin language which later gave rise to Romance languages such as Italian, French, and Spanish.

Spoken Latin differed greatly from its Classical father in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. As it was a language spoken by people across a huge expanse of the Roman Empire, dialectic divergences created pockets of similarities from which modern Romance languages are derived. Indeed Vulgar Latin has its roots in the spoken language of the common people throughout the Classical period and well into the Medieval period centuries later.

Generally, Vulgar Latin is not associated with the Latin of literature. As a spoken language, it is difficult to trace its origins and, consequently, the origins of the Romance languages. Some describe this period as a theoretical language which shifted greatly to accommodate the local variety of Latin in conjunction with other dialects and native tongues of various regions across Europe prior to the middle ages.

English has its roots in Northern Europe starting at about 500 A.D.. As a Germanic language, Old English had much the same structure and grammar as ancient German. As a general rule, speakers of modern English would not be able to speak with their Old English brethren. It wasn’t until much later, during the Middle English period that the language began to take on the grammatical characteristics of modern English. The concurrent evolution of Vulgar Latin and Old English during this period resulted in language exchange with words from Latin finding a home among Old English speakers.

One characteristic of Vulgar Latin that makes it so difficult to study is its general lack of use as an inscribed language. Consequently, the language is often studied indirectly through its influence from earlier Latin periods and its own influence on later periods of Latin history. One method, called the comparative method, investigates Vulgar Latin by noting differences in how Classical Latin influenced the Romance languages. Much extrapolation is needed to explain the shifts from one form to another that may have centuries between them during the time Vulgar Latin was evolving. Some words from Classical Latin such as autem (however), enim (in fact, truly), and etiam (also) disappeared from the language all together and have no counterparts in the Romance languages that followed.

Vulgar Latin, spoken by a largely illiterate continent, evolved into the many Romance languages that survived to today. These early languages borrowed greatly from this folk speech and mingled with local idiosyncrasies to create languages that only vaguely reveal their ancient origin.