Vulgar Latin

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Not to be confused with Latin profanity.
Vulgar Latin, as in this political engraving at Pompeii, was the way that ordinary people of the Roman Empire spoke, which was different from the Classical Latin used by the Roman elite.
Vulgar Latin, as in this political engraving at Pompeii, was the way that ordinary people of the Roman Empire spoke, which was different from the Classical Latin used by the Roman elite.

Vulgar Latin (in Latin, sermo vulgaris, "common speech") is a blanket term covering the vernacular dialects of the Latin language spoken mostly in the western provinces of the Roman Empire until those dialects, diverging still further, evolved into the early Romance languages — a distinction usually made around the ninth century. It is important to remember that it is an abstract term, and not the name of any particular dialect. The term itself predates the field of sociolinguistics, and was in some ways a precursor to sociolinguistics which studies language variation associated with social variables and which tends not to see language variation as such a strict standard/non-standard dichotomy (e.g. Classical/Vulgar Latin) but rather as a large pool of variations. In light of fields such as sociolinguistics, dialectology, and historical linguistics, Vulgar Latin can be seen as nearly synonymous to "language variation in Latin" (socially, geographically, and chronologically) except that it tries to exclude the speech and especially writings of the upper, more-educated classes. It is because there are so many different types of variation that definitions of Vulgar Latin differ so much.

This spoken Latin differed from the literary language of classical Latin (i.e., the perceived standard) in its pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Some features of Vulgar Latin did not appear until the late Empire. Other features are likely to have been in place in spoken Latin, in at least its basilectal forms, much earlier. Most definitions of "vulgar Latin" mean that it is a spoken language, rather than a written language, because literature tends to be more conservative and therefore, less prone to variation. Because no one transcribed phonetically the daily speech of any Latin speakers during the period in question, students of Vulgar Latin must study it through indirect methods.

Our knowledge of Vulgar Latin comes from three chief sources. First, the comparative method can reconstruct the underlying forms from the attested Romance languages, and note where they differ from classical Latin. Second, various prescriptive grammar texts from the late Latin period condemn linguistic errors that Latin users were likely to commit, providing insight into how Latin speakers used their language. Finally, the solecisms and non-Classical usages that occasionally are found in late Latin texts also shed light on the spoken language of the writer.

What was Vulgar Latin?

The Cantar de Mio Cid is the earliest text of reasonable length we have in Mediaeval Spanish, and marks the beginning of this language as distinct from Vulgar Latin
The Cantar de Mio Cid is the earliest text of reasonable length we have in Mediaeval Spanish, and marks the beginning of this language as distinct from Vulgar Latin

The name "vulgar" simply means "common"; it is derived from the Latin word vulgaris, meaning "common", or "of the people". "Vulgar Latin" to Latinists has a variety of meanings.

  1. It means variation within Latin (socially, geographically, and chronologically) that differs from the perceived Classical literary standard. As such, it typically excludes the language of the more educated, upper-classes which, although it does include variation, comes closest to the perceived standard.
  2. It means the spoken Latin of the Roman Empire. Classical Latin represents the literary register of Latin. It represented a selection from a variety of available spoken forms. The Latin brought by Roman soldiers to Gaul, Iberia or Dacia was not identical to the Latin of Cicero, and differed from it in vocabulary, syntax, and grammar. By this definition, Vulgar Latin was a spoken language and "late" Latin was used for writing, its general style being slightly different from earlier "classic" standards.
  1. It means the hypothetical ancestor of the Romance languages ("Proto-Romance"). This is a language which cannot be directly known apart from through a few graffiti inscriptions; it was Latin that had undergone a number of important sound shifts and changes, which can be reconstructed from the changes that are evident in its descendants, the Romance vernaculars.
  2. In an even more restrictive sense, the name Vulgar Latin is sometimes given to the hypothetical proto-Romance of the Western Romance languages: the vernaculars found north and west of the La Spezia-Rimini Line, France, and the Iberian peninsula; and the poorly attested Romance speech of northwestern Africa. According to this hypothesis, southeastern Italian, Romanian, and Dalmatian developed separately.
  3. "Vulgar Latin" is sometimes used to describe the grammatical innovations found in a number of late Latin texts, such as the fourth century Itinerarium Egeriae, Egeria's account of her journey to Palestine and Mt. Sinai; or the works of St Gregory of Tours. Since written documentation of Vulgar Latin forms is scarce; these works are valuable to philologists mainly because of the occasional presence of variations or errors in spelling that provide some evidence of spoken usage during the period in which they were written.

Some literary works in a lower register of language from the Classical Latin period also give a glimpse into the world of Vulgar Latin. The works of Plautus and Terence, being comedies with many characters who were slaves, preserve some early basilectal Latin features, as does the recorded speech of the freedmen in the Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius Arbiter.

Vulgar Latin developed differently in the various provinces of the Roman Empire, thus gradually giving rise to modern French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan and Romansh. Although the official language, in all of these areas, was Latin, Vulgar Latin was what was popularly spoken until the new localized forms diverged sufficiently from Latin to emerge as separate standard languages. It is important to note that despite the widening gulf between the spoken and written ("late") form of Latin, that throughout the time of the empire and up till the eight century A.D. there was not an unbridgeable gap between them. Joszef Herman states: -

It seems certain that in the sixth century, and quite likely into the early parts of the seventh century, people in the main Romanized areas could still largely understand the biblical and liturgical texts and the commentaries (of greater or lesser simplicity) that formed part of the rites and of religious practice, and that even later, throughout the seventh century, saint's lives written in Latin could be read aloud to the congregations with an expectation that they would be understood. We can also deduce however, that in Gaul, from the central part of the eight century onwards, many people, including several of the clerics, were not able to understand even the most straightforward religous texts

—Joszef Herman, Vulgar Latin

The third century AD is presumed to be an age in which much vocabulary was changing (e.g., equuscaballus "horse", etc.) and recently, some studies (which still perhaps need more scientific development) have suggested that pronunciations too started to diverge, supposedly even then becoming similar to modern local pronunciations, with the most spectacular (alleged) effect in the area of Naples. However, these changes could not have been uniform across the Empire's territory, so the greatest differences were perhaps to be found among different forms of Vulgar Latin in different areas (some due to the acquisition of newer "local" roots). However it must be noted that most of this theory is based on reconstruction a posteriori rather than on texts.

For several centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Vulgar Latin continued to coexist with written Late Latin: for when people who spoke one of the Romance vernaculars set out to write using proper grammar and spelling, what they put down was language that at least paid lip service to the norms of classical Latin. However, at the third Council of Tours in 813, priests were ordered to preach in the vernacular language in order to be comprehensible — either the rustica lingua romanica, Vulgar Latin now recognisably distinct from the frozen Church Latin; or German. This could be a documented moment of the evolution. Within the space of a lifetime after the Council of Tours, in 842, the Oaths of Strasbourg, recording an agreement between two of Charlemagne's heirs, were spoken in a Romance language that was obviously not Latin:

Extract of the Oaths
Extract of the Oaths

Extract of the full text which is at Oaths of Strasbourg.

Pro Deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant Deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo et in ajudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum om per dreit son fradra salvar dift, in o quid il me altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid numquam prindrai, qui, meon vol, cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.
For the love of God and for Christendom and our common salvation, from this day onwards, as God will give me the wisdom and power, I shall protect this brother of mine Charles, with aid or anything else, as one ought to protect one's brother, so that he may do the same for me, and I shall never knowingly make any covenant with Lothair that would harm this brother of mine Charles.

Late Latin, still based in Rome, presumably 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. The written language continued to exist as mediaeval Latin. The Romance vernaculars were recognised as separate languages, and began to develop local norms and orthographies of their own. "Vulgar Latin" ceases to be a useful name for either language.

Vulgar Latin is then a collective name for a group of derived dialects with local — not necessarily common — characteristics, that do not 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 early 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.



Letter Pronunciation
Classical Vulgar
A, a short A [a] [a]
Ā, ā long A [aː] [a]
e, e short E [e] [ɛ]
Ē and ē long E [eː] [e]
I and i short I [i] [e]
Ī and ī long I [iː] [i]
O and o short O [o] [ɔ]
Ō and ō long O [oː] [o]
U and u short V [u] [o]
Ū and ū long V [uː] [u]
Y and y short Y [y] [i]
Y and y long Y [yː] [i]
Ae and ae AE [ai] [ɛ]
Oe and oe OE [oi] [e]
Au and au AV [au] [au]
(see International Phonetic Alphabet for an explanation of the symbols used);

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, V, and three diphthongs, AE, OE and AV (four according to some, including VI). There were also long and short versions of the Greek borrowing, Y.

At some time during the classical Latin period, all the vowels except [a] began to differ by quality as well as by length. The long vowels became more close, while the short vowels became more open. So, for example, /eː/ remained [eː], while /e/ became [ɛ]; /iː/ remained [iː], while /i/ became [e]; /oː/ remained [oː], but /o/ became [ɔ]; and /uː/ remained [uː], but /u/ became [o]. Thus the five-times-two triangular vowel system of Latin became a nine-vowel triangular system, with a close set corresponding to the open set.

In effect, Latin went from this:

ī i u ū
ē e o ō
ā a

to this:

/iː/ /e/ /o/ /uː/
/eː/ /ɛ/ /ɔ/ /oː/

In Vulgar Latin, next, long /eː/ and short /e/ merged, and long /oː/ and short /o/ merged in the West, yielding the seven vowel system of proto-Western-Romance. As a result for example, Latin pira ("pear (fruit)", fem. sing.) and vēra ("true", fem. singular), came to rhyme in most of the daughter languages: Italian, French, and Spanish pera, vera; Old French poire, voire. Similarly, in the western Roman Empire, Latin nuce(m) ("nut", acc. sing) and vōce(m) ("voice") become Italian noce, voce, Portuguese noz, voz, and French noix, voix. This change did not occur in Romanian (nucă, voce), or, of course, in Sardinian.

Apart from Sardinian, which preserved the position of the classical Latin vowels (but lost phonemic vowel length), what happened to Vulgar Latin can be summarized as in the table to the right.

The diphthongs AE and OE usually became [ɛ] and [e] respectively. OE was always a rare phoneme in Classical Latin; in Old Latin times oinos ("one") regularly became unus. The results of Latin AE were also subject to at least some early changes; French proie ("spoils") presumes [e] rather than [ɛ] from classical Latin praeda. Latin AV was under some pressure to change in the Roman Republican period; a number of populist politicians adopted the spelling Clodius for the well known Roman name Claudius, but this change was not universal, and marked as basilectal well into the early Empire. AV was initially retained, but was eventually reduced in many languages to [o] after the original [o] and [oː] experienced further changes. (Portuguese evolved only as far as [ou] until much more recently; Occitan and Romanian preserve [au].)

Thus, the ten-vowel system of Classical Latin (not counting diphthongs and the Greek Y), which relied on phonemic vowel length was newly modelled into a system in which vowel length distinctions were suppressed and alterations of vowel quality ( vowel height, more specifically) 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 result was a system with seven stressed vowel phonemes (six in Romanian, five in Sardinian) and five unstressed vowel phonemes.

The results of short O and E proved to be unstable in the daughter languages, and tended to break up into diphthongs. Classical focus (accusative focum), "hearth", became the general word in proto-Romance for "fire" (replacing ignis), but its short 'O' sound became a diphthong — a different diphthong — in many daughter languages:

  • French: feu (now no longer a diphthong but /fø/)
  • Italian: fuoco
  • Spanish: fuego

In French and Italian, these changes occurred only in open syllables. Spanish, however, diphthongized in all circumstances, resulting in a simple five-vowel system in both stressed and unstressed syllables. In Portuguese, no diphthongization occurred at all (fogo ['fogu]). Romanian shows diphthongization of short E (fier from Latin ferrum) but not of short O (foc). Portuguese actually avoided some of the instability of its vowels by retaining the Latin distinction between long and short vowels to a certain extent in its system of closed and open vowels. Long Latin e and o generally became closed vowels in Portuguese (written ê and ô when accented), while the corresponding short vowels became open vowels in Portuguese (é and ó when accented). The pronunciation of these vowels is the same as is indicated in the table of Vulgar Latin vowels to the right. Some vowel instability did occur, however, particularly with unstressed o, which changes to [u], and unstressed e, which changes to [i] or [ɨ].

In Catalan, the process was similar to that of Portuguese. The short Latin o turned into an open vowel, while short e eventually turned into a closed [e] in Western dialects and a schwa in the Eastern ones. This schwa slowly evolved towards an open [ɛ], although in most of the Balearic Islands the schwa is mantained even nowadays. Eastern dialects have some vocalic instability similar to that of Portuguese as well: unstressed /e/ and /a/ turn into a schwa (in some point of the evolution of the language, this change didn't affect /e/ in prestressed position, a pronunciation that is still kept alive in part of the Balearics), and, except in most of Majorca, unstressed /o/ and /u/ merge into [u].


Palatalization of Latin /k/, /t/, and often /g/ was almost universal in vulgar Latin; the only Romance languages it did not affect were Dalmatian and some varieties of Sardinian. Thus Latin caelum ('sky', 'heaven'), pronounced /kaelu(m)/ beginning with /k/, became Italian cielo, /tʃɛlo/, French ciel, /sjɛl/, Catalan cel, /sɛl/, Spanish cielo, /θjelo/ or /sjelo/ (depending on dialect) and Portuguese céu, /'sɛu/, beginning with sibilant consonants. The former semivowels written in Latin as V as in vinum, pronounced /w/, and I as in iocunda, pronounced /j/, came to be pronounced /v/ and /dʒ/, respectively. Between vowels, /b/ and /w/ or /v/ often merged into an intermediate sound /β/.

Note that in the Latin alphabet, the letters U and V, I and J were not distinguished until the early modern period. Upper-case U and J did not exist, while lower-case j and v were only graphic variations of i and u, respectively. These graphic variants were used (mainly at the beginning of words) for esthetic purposes, or to help differentiate i and u from similar-looking letters such as n and m. It was only from the 16th century that the consonant value started to be assigned to j and v, while only the vocalic value remained assigned to i and u, probably based on the fact that the consonant value of I and V occurred more commonly at the beginning of a word. In was only after this phonetic differentiation took place that upper-case U and J were introduced, in order to show the newly introduced phonetic distinction also in upper-case.

In the Western Romance area, an epenthetic vowel was inserted at the beginning of any word that began with s and another consonant: thus Latin spatha ("sword") becomes Portuguese and Spanish espada, Catalan espasa, French épée. Eastern Romance languages preserved euphony rules by adding the epenthesis in the preceding article when necessary instead, so Italian preserves feminine spada as la spada, but changes the masculine *il spaghetto to lo spaghetto.

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 second 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 re-analysed as feminine singulars. The loss of final -M is a process which seems to have begun by the time of the earliest monuments of the Latin language. The epitaph of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, who died around 150 BC, reads TAVRASIA CISAVNA SAMNIO CEPIT, which in classical Latin would be written Taurāsiam, Cisaunam, Samnium cēpit ("He captured Taurasia, Cisauna, and Samnium"). Final -M was, however, consistently written in the literary language, though it is often treated as silent for purposes of scansion in poetry.

Evidence of changes

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

  • a process of syncope, the loss of unstressed vowels (MASCVLVS NON MASCLVS);
  • the reduction of formerly syllabic /e/ and /i/ to /j/ (VINEA NON VINIA);
  • the levelling of the distinction between /o/ and /u/ (COLVBER NON COLOBER) and /e/ and /i/ (DIMIDIVS NON DEMEDIVS);
  • regularization of irregular forms (GLIS NON GLIRIS);
  • regularization and emphasis of gendered forms (PAVPER MVLIER NON PAVPERA MVLIER);
  • levelling of the distinction between /b/ and /v/ between vowels (BRAVIVM NON BRABIVM);
  • the substitution of diminutives for unmarked words (AVRIS NON ORICLA, NEPTIS NON NEPTICLA)
  • the loss of syllable-final nasals (MENSA NON MESA) or their inappropriate insertion as a form of hypercorrection (FORMOSVS NON FORMVNSVS).

Many of the forms castigated in the Appendix Probi proved to be the productive forms in Romance; oricla is the source of French oreille, Catalan orella, Spanish oreja, Italian orecchio, Romanian ureche, Portuguese orelha, "ear", not the classical Latin form.


Classical Only Classical & Romance English
brassica caulis cabbage
cruor sanguis blood
domus casa house
emere comparare buy
equus caballus horse
ferre (perfective stem tul-) portare carry
ludere jocare play
magnus grandis big
pulcher bellus beautiful
os bucca mouth
sidus (stem sider-) stella star

Certain words from Classical Latin were dropped from the vocabulary. Classical equus, "horse", was consistently replaced by caballus (but note Romanian iapă, Sardinian èbba, Spanish yegua, Catalan egua and Portuguese égua all meaning "mare" and deriving from Classical equa). Classical aequor, "sea", yielded to mare universally. A very partial listing of words that are exclusively Classical, and those that were productive in Romance, is to be found in the table to the right.

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, quod, quoque, sed, utrum, and vel.

On the other hand, since Vulgar Latin and Latin proper were for much of their history different registers of the same language, rather than different languages, some Romance languages preserve Latin words that usually were lost. For example, Italian ogni ("each/every") preserves Latin omnes. Other languages use cognates of totus (accusative totum) for the same meaning; for example tutto in Italian, tudo in Portuguese, todo in Spanish, tot in Catalan, tout in French and tot in Romanian.

Frequently, Latin words reborrowed from the "higher" register of the language are found side by side with the evolved form. The (lack of) expected phonetic developments is a clue that one word has been borrowed. In Spanish, for example, Vulgar Latin fungus (accusative fungum), "fungus, mushroom", became Italian fungo, Catalan fong, Portuguese fungo and Spanish hongo, with the F > H that was usual in Spanish (cf. filius > Spanish hijo, "son" or facere > Spanish hacer, "to do"). But hongo shares its semantic space with fungo, which by its lack of the expected sound shift displays that it has been re-borrowed from the higher register of classical Latin.

Sometimes, a classical Latin word was kept along side a Vulgar Latin word. In Vulgar Latin, classical caput, "head", yielded to testa (originally "pot", a metaphor common throughout Western Europe — cf. English cup with German Kopf) in some forms of western Romance, including French and Italian. But Italian, French and Catalan kept the Latin word under the form capo, chef, and cap which retained many metaphorical meanings of "head", including "boss". The Latin word with the original meaning is preserved in Romanian cap, together with ţeastă, both meaning 'head' in the anatomical sense. Southern Italian dialects likewise preserve capo as the normal word for "head". Spanish and Portuguese have cabeza/cabeça, derived from *capetia, a modified form of caput, while testa was retained in Portuguese as the word for "forehead". Overall, this demonstrates a common pattern observed in many circumstances -- peripheral dialects tend to be more conservative than central dialects.

Verbs with prefixed prepositions frequently displaced simple forms. The number of words formed by such suffixes as -bilis, -arius, -itare and -icare grew apace. These changes occurred frequently to avoid irregular forms or to regularise genders.

Insight into the vocabulary changes of late Vulgar Latin in France can be seen in the Reichenau glosses, written into the margins of a copy of the Vulgate Bible, which explain fourth-century Vulgate words no longer readily understood in the eighth century, when the glosses were likely written. These glosses are likely of French origin; some vocabulary items are specifically French.

These glosses show vocabulary replacement:

  • FEMVR > coxa (Portuguese and Old Spanish coxa, French cuisse, Italian coscia, Catalan cuixa, Romanian coapsă, "thigh")
  • ARENA > sabulo (Spanish arena, Portuguese areia, French sable, Italian sabbia, "sand")
  • CANERE > cantare (Portuguese/Spanish/Catalan cantar, French chanter, Italian cantare, Romanian cânta, "to sing")

grammatical changes:

  • OPTIMUS (best) MELIORES (better) > meliores ("optimum" survived in Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Italian, and French as óptimo, ó(p)timo, òptim, ottimo and optimal/optimum respectively, which mean the best, whereas mejor and melhor mean better; Portuguese melhores, Spanish mejores, Catalan millors, French meilleurs, Italian migliori, "better [plural]")
  • SANIORE > plus sano (French plus sain, Italian più sano, Romanian mai sănătos, Catalan més sa, Spanish más sano, Portuguese mais são "healthier")

Germanic loan words:

  • TVRBAS > fulcos (Spanish turbia, Portuguese/Catalan turba, French foule, Italian folla, "mob")
  • CEMENTARIIS > mationibus (French maçons, "stonemasons")
  • NON PERPERCIT > non sparniavit (French épargner, "to spare")
  • GALEA > helme (French heaume, Italian/Portuguese elmo, Catalan elm, Spanish yelmo, "helmet")

and words whose meaning has changed:

  • IN ORE > in bucca (Portuguese/Spanish/Catalan boca, French bouche, Italian bocca, "mouth")
  • ROSTRVM > beccus (Spanish/Galician rostro, and Portuguese rosto survived to mean "face". French bec, Italian becco, Catalan bec, Spanish pico, Portuguese bico, "beak")
  • ISSET > ambulasset (French allait, "he went"; Catalan anar, Italian andare, "to go")
  • LIBEROS > infantes (French enfants, "children"; Italian infantile, "childish, infantile")
  • MILITES > servientes (French sergents, "soldiers")


The Romance articles

It is difficult to place the point in which the definite article, absent in Latin but present in some form in all of the Romance languages, arose; largely because the highly colloquial speech it arose in seldom was written until the daughter languages had strongly diverged; most surviving texts in early Romance show the articles fully developed.

Definite articles formerly were demonstrative pronouns or adjectives; compare the fate of the Latin demonstrative adjective ille, illa, (illud), in the Romance languages, becoming French le and la, Catalan and Spanish el and la, and Italian il and la. The Portuguese articles o and a are ultimately from the same source. Sardinian went its own way here also, forming its article from ipsu(m), ipsa (su, sa); some Catalan and Occitan dialects have articles from the same source. While most of the Romance languages put the article before the noun, Romanian has its own way, by putting the article after the noun, eg. lupul ("the wolf") and omul ("the man" — from lupum illum and *hominem illum).

This pronoun is used in a number of contexts in some early texts in ways that suggest that the Latin demonstrative was losing its force. The Vetus Latina Bible contains a passage Est tamen ille dæmon sodalis peccati, ("The devil is a companion of sin"), in a context that suggests that the word meant little more than an article. The need to translate sacred texts that were originally in Greek, which has a definite article, may have given Christian Latin an incentive to choose a substitute. Aetheria uses ipse similarly: per mediam vallem ipsam ("through the middle of the valley"), suggesting that it too was weakening in force.

Another indication of the weakening of the demonstratives can be inferred from the fact that at this time, legal and similar texts begin to swarm with prædictus, supradictus, and so forth (all meaning, essentially, "aforesaid"), which seem to mean little more than "this" or "that". Gregory of Tours writes, Erat autem. . . beatissimus Anianus in supradicta ciuitate episcopus ("Blessed Anianus was bishop in that city.") The original Latin demonstrative adjectives were felt no longer to be specific enough. In less formal speech, reconstructed forms suggest that the inherited Latin demonstratives were made more forceful by being compounded with ecce (originally an interjection: "look!") or *eccu, from Classical eccum ("look at it!"). This is the origin of Old French cil (*ecce ille), cist (*ecce iste) and ici (*ecce hic); Spanish aquel and Portuguese aquele (*eccu ille); Italian questo (*eccu istum), quello (*eccu illum) and obsolescent codesto (*eccu tibi istum); Spanish acá and Portuguese , (*eccu hac), Portuguese acolá (*eccu illac) and aquém (*eccu inde); and many other forms.

On the other hand, even in the Oaths of Strasbourg, no demonstrative appears even in places where one would clearly be called for in all the later languages. (Pro Deo amur — "for the love of God".) Using the demonstratives as articles may have still been too slangy for a royal oath in the ninth century. Considerable variation exists in all of the Romance vernaculars as to their actual use: in Romanian, the articles can be suffixed to the noun, as in other members of the Balkan Sprachbund and the North Germanic languages.

The numeral unus, una (one) supplies the indefinite article everywhere. This is anticipated in Classical Latin; Cicero writes cum uno gladiatore nequissimo ("with a quite immoral gladiator"). This suggests that unus was beginning to supplant quidam in the meaning of "a certain" or "some" by the first century BC.

Gender: loss of the neuter

The three grammatical genders of Classical Latin were replaced by a two-gender system in the Romance languages (though see below). In Latin gender is partly a matter of agreement, i.e. certain nouns take certain forms of the adjectives and pronouns, and partly a matter of inflection, i.e. there are different paradigms associated with the masculine/feminine on the one hand and the neuter on the other.

The classical Latin neuter was normally absorbed by the masculine both syntactically and morphologically. The syntactical confusion starts already in the Pompeian graffiti, e.g. cadaver mortuus for cadaver mortuum "dead body" and hoc locum for hunc locum "this place". The morphological confusion shows primarily in the adoption of the nominative ending -us ( after -r) in the o-declension: in Petronius Arbiter, we find balneus for balneum "bath", fatus for fatum "fate", caelus for caelum "heaven", amphiteater for amphitheatrum "amphitheatre" and conversely the nominative thesaurum for thesaurus "treasure".

In Modern Romance, the nominative s-ending has been abandoned and all substantives of the o-declension have the ending -UM > -u/-o/: MURUM > Italian and Spanish muro, Catalan and French mur and CAELUM > Italian, Spanish cielo, French ciel, Catalan cel. Old French still had -s in the nominative and in the accusative in both original genders (murs, ciels).

For some neuter nouns of the third declension, the oblique stem was the productive form in Romance; for others, the nominative/accusative form, identical in Classical Latin, was the form that survived. Evidence suggests that the neuter gender was under pressure well back into the Roman Empire period. French (le) lait, Catalan (la) llet, Spanish (la) leche, Portuguese (o) leite, Italian (il) latte, and Romanian lapte(le) ("milk"), all derive from the non-standard but attested Latin nom./acc. neut. lacte or acc. masc. lactem; the standard nominative and accusative form in classical Latin was lac. Note also that Spanish assigned it to the feminine gender, while French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian made it masculine. Other neuter forms, however, were preserved in Romance; Catalan and French nom, Portuguese nome, and Italian nome ("name") all preserve the Latin nominative/accusative nomen, rather than the oblique stem form *nominem used in Spanish nombre.

Most neuter nouns had plural forms ending in -A or -IA; some of these were reanalysed as feminine singulars, such as gaudium, plural gaudia (joy(s)); the plural form lies at the root of French feminine singular la joie, as well as Catalan and Occitan la joia (Italian la gioia is a borrowing from French); same for lignum, plural ligna (wood stick(s)) that originated Catalan feminine singular la llenya, or Spanish la leña. Some Romance languages still have a special plural form of the old neuters which is treated as a feminine syntactically: e.g. BRACCHIUM : BRACCHIA "arm(s)" > Italian (il) braccio : (le) braccia, Romanian braţ(ul) : braţe(le). Cf. also Merovingian Latin ipsa animalia aliquas mortas fuerant.

Typical Italian endings
Nouns Adj. & determiners
sing. plur. sing. plur.
m giardino giardini buono buoni
f donna donne buona buone
(n uovo uova buono buone)

Forms such as Italian l'uovo fresco ("the fresh egg") / le uova fresche ("the fresh eggs") are usually explained away by saying that they are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural, and that they have an irregular plural in -a (heteroclisis). However, it is also consistent with the facts to say that uovo is simply a regular neuter noun (< ovum, plural ova) and that the characteristic ending for words agreeing with these nouns is o in the singular and e in the plural. Thus, neuter nouns can arguably be said to persist in Italian and Romanian.

These formations were especially common when they could be used to avoid irregular forms. In Latin, names of trees were usually feminine gender, but many were declined in the second declension paradigm which was dominated by masculine or neuter nouns. Latin pirus (" pear tree"), a feminine noun with a masculine looking ending, became masculines in Italian ((il) pero) and Romanian (păr(ul)); in French and Spanish it has been replaced by the masculine derivations (le) poirier, (el) peral, in Portuguese or Catalan by the feminine derivation (a) pereira, (la) perera). Fagus (" beech"), another feminine noun in masculine dress, is preserved in some dialects as a masculine, e.g. Romanian fag(ul) or Catalan (el) faig; other dialects have replaced it with its adjective forms fageus or fagea ("made of beechwood"), thus Italian (il) faggio, Spanish (el) haya, and Portuguese (a) faia.

As usual, irregularities persisted longest in frequently used forms. From the fourth declension manus ("hand"), another feminine noun with a "masculine" ending, Italian and Spanish derived (la) mano, Catalan (la) mà, and Portuguese (a) mão, which preserves its feminine gender even though it remains masculine in appearance.

Except for the Italian and Romanian "heteroclitic" nouns, other major Romance languages have no trace of neuter nouns, but all have neuter pronouns. French: celui-ci, celle-ci, ceci; Spanish: éste, ésta, esto (all meaning "this"); Italian: gli, le, ci ("to him", "to her", "to it"); Catalan: ho, açò, això, allò ("it", this, this/that, that over there); Portuguese: todo, toda, tudo ("every" m., "every" f., "everything").

Some varieties of Astur-Leonese maintain endings for the three genders such as follows: bonu, bona, bono ("good").

(Note: Spanish has a neuter gender of sorts with the neuter article 'Lo', usually used with nouns denoting abstract categories: "lo bueno", i.e. that or everything which is 'good', from bueno: good; "lo importante", i.e. that or everything 'important'. "Sabes LO TARDE que es?", literally "Do you know 'that which is late' that it is?", or more idiomatically: "Do you know how late it is?" from tarde: late. As far as pronouns, Spanish also has a neuter singular ello, aside from the well cited él, ella.)

The loss of the noun case system

Classical Latin
Nominative: rosa
Accusative: rosam
Genitive: rosae
Dative: rosae
Ablative: rosā
Vulgar Latin
Nominative: rosa
Accusative: rosa
Genitive: rose
Dative: rose
Ablative: rosa

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 markedly synthetic language to a more 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 /ɛ/ entailed for a typical first declension noun (see table).

The complete elimination of case happened only gradually. Old French still maintained a nominative/ oblique distinction (called cas-sujet/cas-régime); this disappeared in the course of the 12th or 13th centuries, depending on the dialect. Old Occitan also maintained a similar distinction, as did many of the Rhaeto-Romance languages until only a few hundred years ago. Romanian still preserves a separate genitive/ dative case along with vestiges of a vocative case.

The distinction between singular and plural 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 usually distinguished from the plural 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.

Prepositions multiply

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. The descendant Romance languages are full of grammatical particles such as Spanish donde, "where", from Latin de + unde, or French dès, "since", from de + ex or dans, "in" from de intus, "from the inside", while the equivalent Spanish and Portuguese desde is de + ex + de. Spanish después and Portuguese depois, "after" represents de + ex + post. Some of these new compounds appear in literary texts during the late empire; French dehors, Spanish de fuera and Portuguese de fora ("outside") all three represent de + foris (Romanian "afara" ad + foris), and we find St Jerome writing si quis de foris venerit ("if anyone goes outside").


As Latin was losing its case system, prepositions started to move in to fill the void. In colloquial Latin, the preposition ad followed by the accusative was sometimes used as a substitute for the dative case.

  • Classical Latin:
    • Iacōbus patrī librum dat.—James is giving his father a/the book.
  • Vulgar Latin:
    • ´Jacọmọs ´lẹvrọ a ´ppatre ´dọnat.—James is giving a/the book to his father.

Just as in the disappearing dative case, colloquial Latin sometimes replaced the disappearing genitive case with the preposition de followed by the ablative.

  • Classical Latin:
    • Iacōbus mihi librum patris dat.—James is giving me his father's book.
  • Vulgar Latin:
    • ´Jacọmọs mẹ ´lẹvrọ dẹ ´patre ´dọnat.—James is giving me the book of (belonging to) his father.


  • Vulgar Latin:
    • ´Jacọmọs ´lẹvrọ dẹ ´patre a ´mmẹ ´dọnat.—James is giving the book of (belonging to) his father to me.


Classical Latin had a number of different suffixes that made adverbs from adjectives: carus, "dear", formed 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 was originally the ablative of mentis, and so meant "with a _____ mind". So velox ("quick") instead of velociter ("quickly") gave veloce mente (originally "with a quick mind", "quick-mindedly") This explains the nigh-invariable rule to form regular adverbs in almost all Romance languages: add the suffix -ment(e) to the feminine form of the adjective. 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 8:

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 [obstinate-mindedly]: get over it!")


The verb forms were much less affected by the phonetic losses that eroded the noun case systems; indeed, an active verb in Spanish (or other modern Romance language) will still strongly resemble its Latin ancestor. One factor that gave the system of verb inflections more staying power was the fact that the strong stress accent of Vulgar Latin, replacing the light stress accent of Classical Latin, frequently caused different syllables to be stressed in different conjugated forms of a verb. As such, although the word forms continued to evolve phonetically, the distinctions among the conjugated forms did not erode (much).

For example, in Latin the words for "I love" and "we love" were, respectively, āmo and amāmus. Because a stressed A gave rise to a diphthong in some environments in Old French, that daughter language had (j')aime for the former and (nous) amons for the latter. Though several phonemes have been lost in each case, the different stress patterns helped to preserve distinctions between them, if perhaps at the expense of irregularising the verb. Regularising influences have countered this effect in some cases (the modern French form is nous aimons), but some modern verbs have preserved the irregularity, such as je viens ("I come") versus nous venons ("we come").

Another set of changes already underway by the first century AD was the loss of certain final consonants. A graffito at Pompeii reads quisque ama valia, which in Classical Latin would read quisquis amat valeat ("may whoever loves be strong/do well"). In the perfect tense, many languages generalized the -aui ending most frequently found in the first conjugation. This led to an unusual development; phonetically, the ending was treated as the diphthong /au/ rather than containing a semivowel /awi/, and the /w/ sound was in many cases dropped; it did not participate in the sound shift from /w/ to /v/. Thus Latin amaui, amauit ("I loved; he/she loved") in many areas became proto-Romance *amai and *amaut, yielding for example Spanish amé, amó, Portuguese amei, amou. This suggests that in the spoken language, these changes in conjugation preceded the loss of /w/.

Another major systemic change was to the future tense, remodelled in Vulgar Latin with auxiliary verbs. This may have been due to phonetic merger of intervocalic /b/ and /v/, which caused future tense forms such as amabit to become identical to perfect tense forms such as amauit, introducing unacceptable ambiguity. A new future was originally formed with the auxiliary verb habere, *amare habeo, literally "to love I have". This was contracted into a new future suffix in Western Romance forms which can be seen in the following modern examples of "I will love":

  • French: j'aimerai (je + aimer + ai) < aimer ["to love"] + ai ["I have"].
  • Portuguese: amarei (amar + [h]ei) < amar ["to love"] + hei ["I have"]
  • Spanish and Catalan: amaré (amar + [h]e) < amar ["to love"] + he ["I have"].
  • Italian: amerò (amar + [h]o) < amare ["to love"] + ho ["I have"].

An innovative conditional (distinct from the subjunctive) also developed in the same way (infinitive + conjugated form of habere). The fact that the future and conditional endings were originally independent words is still evident in Portuguese, which in these tenses allows clitic object pronouns to be incorporated as infixes between the root of the verb and its ending: "I will love" (eu) amarei, but "I will love you" amar-te-ei, from amar + te ["you"] + (eu) hei = amar + te + [h]ei = amar-te-ei.

Contrary to the millennia-long continuity of much of the active verb system, the passive voice was utterly lost in Romance, which entailed its replacement with auxiliary verbs—forms of "to be" plus a passive participle—or impersonal reflexive forms.

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