Latin is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. It was found at first in Latium (modern Lazio) in Italy, a region which includes Rome. Particular features of Latin suggest that it arrived before about 1200BC.
The languages closest to Latin are those of the Celtic and Germanic families. The language which became the Italic, Celtic and Germanic families arrived in Europe about 2000BC with bronze technology.
Germanic turned north and Celtic+Italic turned south. The first wave started when certain words contained a K or Q sound which was later replaced by a P. Latin and some other minor Italic languages are Q-Italic, while proto-Celtic speakers moved into Spain and later over to Ireland, probably by sea; Irish and defunct languages in Spain are termed Q-Celtic.
After the Iron Age (c.1200BC) a second wave arrived in Italy and France. By then, Q/K had become P; this can be seen in the Latin word Coquina (kitchen) which in the later arrival Oscan became Popina. Latin Quinque (five) is cognate with Welsh Pump (compare with Germanic fünf).
Latin was lucky that this was what the Roman rulers spoke. More people in Italy spoke Oscan than Latin. More people in the Roman Empire (29BC to 641AD) spoke Greek than anything else.
The Latin Alphabet
We still use the Latin alphabet. However, we have added extra letters: K was a Greek letter, only found when quoting Greek. All Cs in Latin are K sounds. J was separated from I only in the High Middle Ages so Julius Caesar was actually Iulius and Caesar was pronounced Keezer. Z is known, but mostly used for Greek words borrowed. U and V are the same character, used according to however pronunciation wanted, and W was just UU or VV. V is pronounced as W until the first century AD, when it starts to become a ‘bv’ sound and eventually a V. Y is known, but mostly in foreign words and names as an ‘eye’ . Some languages later added a character for ‘th’ such as ∂ (dropped from English in the 1400s), but Latin used ‘th’ as we do.
The emperor Claudius had a hobby horse about letters and introduced three new ones: antisigma (a C backwards plus a C, merged) to denote BS and PS), digamma inversum (an F upside down) and sonus medius, an H missing the right downstroke, a sort of schwa vowel. They ceased to be used when died, but could still be seem in the second century AD, when Suetonius notes it in inscriptions, books and official registers.
|New Letters Invented by the Emperor Claudius|
The Frankish king Chilperic (r. AD561-584) also introduced four additional letters to Latin during his reign, according to Gregory of Tours. These too failed to survive his reign.
The King also wrote books of verses following the style of Sedelius, but they were not at all compounds metric/poetic rules. He also added several letters in our alphabet, namely, ω of the Greeks, æ, the, uui, he figured in the manner as follows: ω, ψ, Ζ, Δ, and sent orders in all cities of his kingdom we should teach children in this way, and that the books were written previously erased pumiced out, and rewritten again.
The ego of kings and emperors knows no bounds.
Some characteristics of Latin
There were two types of Latin running alongside each other at the same time: Classical Latin, the speech and writing of the educated upper levels of society, and Vulgar Latin, mostly spoken and seldom written down. ‘Vulgar’ comes from ‘vulgus’, meaning a crowd (cf French ‘foule’), and does not have quite the level of disgust that the name would suggest. However, it is clear that since the elite were only a few percent of the population, a lot more people spoke the Vulgar variety.
In Classical Latin, there are two numbers: singular and plural and three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Nouns follow three major groupings and two minor ones. Noun endings (‘cases’) change according to how the word is used in a sentence.
Accusative Direct Object
Dative Indirect Object
Words quoted in a dictionary are shown as Nominatives. When used in poetry, as in ‘O Caesar!’, this is called the Vocative and is often identical to the Nominative. There is a minor case called the Locative, used only with place names.
Adjectives follow the case, gender and number of the noun they are connected with.
The First Declension is feminine: nouns in the Nominative end in –a and this includes all females (femina, woman; puella, girl, etc.), female names (Olivia, Julia, etc.), most country names (Italia, Britannia, etc.) and most abstract words (philosophia, eloquentia, etc.) Oddly nauta (sailor), agricola (farmer) and incola (inhabitant) are feminine, although those are not particularly female activities, as well as other seemingly random words such as mensa, table. To give an idea of the declension, here is mensa:
This is not that useful to a Roman as the Genitive and Dative are identical and the Nominative and Ablative seem to be so too (in fact, from poetry we can tell the –a in the Ablative was slightly longer). The plural is odd too:
In the singular, Genitive and Dative were the same, but in the plural the Dative and Ablative are the same. To make things worse, pronunciation guides to Latin survive, and say things like ‘Don’t forget to include the –m in the Accusative; we may not say it anymore, but you have to write it’!
The second declension comprises masculine nouns ending in –us (e.g. tribus, tribe) and –er (such as magister, master) and neuter nouns ending in –um (such as bellum, war). Endings are different from the feminine words, but follow the same pattern.
Adjectives follow the first two declensions in endings and gender. So for a man, someone might say ‘pulcher est’ (he is handsome) and for a woman ‘pulchra est’ (she is beautiful); people would use that of themselves too.
The third declension is where it all gets a bit weird, if you didn’t think it was weird already.
Third declension nouns can be either masculine or feminine and you often have to guess which. Many have a different Nominative/Vocative form to all other endings, so all are listed as two words, Nominative and Genitive (e.g. flos, floris = flower). Caesar is third declension.
Verbs take their meaning from the endings, which denote person (first, second, third) and number (singular or plural) and tense or mood. Personal pronouns do exist, but were only used for emphasis or contrast. Otherwise (as Italian and Spanish still do) they could be omitted.
In theory, in Classical Latin, words could be written in any order, because the ending would indicate the meaning. In English, John loves Jane can’t mean the same as Jane loves John because the word order determines the meaning. In Classical Latin, Julius Juliam amat means Julius loves Julia, whilst Julium Julia amat means the reverse.
In truth, few people reading a military report or a book on agriculture could abide this silly word play, so it was confined to poetry. The actual word order tended to be Nom, Dat, Acc, Abl, Verb.
There is no word for ‘the’ or ‘a/an’ in Latin (no definite or indefinite article) and no words for Yes and No; they had to use a phrase, which might be ‘sic est’ (it is so) or ‘non est’ (it is not).
The Romans were very aware of the oddities of their language, and a book De Lingua Latina (On the Latin Language) was written by a writer called Varro at the time of Augustus (29BC-14AD), trying to trace its origins and development. A second century AD text, the Appendix of Probus (Appendix Probi) listed 227 words which were often given wrongly:
Word Ending Changed
In summary, there were 111 changes to vowels (49%), 68 changes to consonants (30%), 29 grammatical changes (13%) and 32 dispreferred neologisms (14%). Essentially four-fifths of the changes were in speech and did not impact grammar or lexis. We do not know what community spoke the way Probus noted, the number of samples he took or how typical such variants were. A modern linguist would be expected to provide such metrics. But we can say that the variants in sound found acceptance in the local community or the speaker would not have been emulated and Probus would not have heard about them.
We only get to see Vulgar Latin (VL) in chance survivals such as graffiti and in the comic phrases of lower-class characters in plays. VL used different words to Classical Latin (CL). So while CL called your head caput, capitis (whence ‘capital’), VL called it a testa, literally a pot, from which we get modern Italian testa and French tête. Likewise CL said equus (horse) but CL had caballus (nag) hence French cheval and Spanish caballo. Very often, when a modern Spanish, French or Italian word does not come from CL, it comes from VL.
Latin was at that time a living language and it does seem that many people spoke VL but wrote in CL. Some of the least VL is actually from the soldiers who wrote the Vindolanda Tablets, because they made almost no mistakes, even that pesky –m in the Accusative.
Latin had always changed. We are told by a Greek, Polybius, that in the 150s BC the Romans found an inscribed tablet about a trade treaty from 509BC, but which they were unable to read, c.350 years later.
From Donatus we know that the -m which ends words when they are the Direct Object of the sentence (the Accusative Case) was no longer pronounced, so that Mensa (table) was not pronounced ‘Mensam’ in the Accusative, but just ‘Mensa’. Donatus says that people should not forget to write ‘Mensam’, even if the -m is not actually spoken. Certain difficult clusters of consonants were simplified in speech, but not in writing, so for example ‘Mensa’ was actually pronounced ‘Mesa’, just as it is in Spanish today. It seems that the -us ending was weakened to an -o, so that ‘Marcus’ was actually pronounced ‘Marco’, as in modern Italian. The Emperor Constantine was therefore not ‘Constantinus’ but ‘Costantino’. In languages derived from forms of Latin, consonantal clusters are not preserved; either they are cut down, abandoned or have added vowels to make them easier to say.
When the Roman school system collapsed in the fifth century AD, local preferences and quirks took over, the Church (a big user of Latin) started changing meanings and pronunciations. Complex sentences began to disappear. The sixth century Latin writer Gregory of Tours, who was Archbishop of that city and primate of France, comments that nobody understands a speechifier, but everyone understands a plain speaker.
By 800AD, the situation had become that everyone still wrote in Latin but spoke in something quite different. The French ruler Charlemagne had documents written for his government in ‘lingua latina rustica’ (rustic Latin), while the bulk of people spoke something that was no longer Latin, but wrote it down in Latin,
The first document to appear in writing in something that was clearly no longer Latin was the Oaths of Strasbourg (843AD). These were oaths given in front of soldiers by two kings, Charles of France and his brother Louis (Ludwig) of Germany to cooperate to fight another brother (Lothar) of the bit in-between and Italy, Charles swore in German and Louis in French, so their soldiers could understand:
Pro Deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant Deus savir et podir me dunant, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo et in aiudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum om per dreit son fradei salva dift in o quid il mi altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid nunquam prindrai, qui, meon vol cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.
For the love of God and for the Christian people and for our common salvation, from this day forward so long as God gives me knowledge and power, I will help this my brother Charles both with my aid and in everything as by right one ought to help one's brother, on condition that he does the same for me, and I will not hold any court with Lothar, which, of my own will, might cause my brother Charles harm.
While it seems to have the odd Latin word (nunquam) in it, this proto-French contains many different things. ‘Romance’ as it is often called looks a bit like French and Italian, but is a long way from either and just as far from CL. The vocabulary is still rather closer to Latin than to ModFr (Deus, not Dieu, di not jour, podir not pouvoir, fradre not frère, cosa not chose, etc). Some Latin words (pro, nunquam, ab) survive unchanged in writing. Grammatically, Romance at this stage did not yet requirer je as French does today – meaning was still given through a case ending.
The important thing is that this is a supposedly accurate rendition of precisely what was spoken in front of an army of ordinary West Frankish people. It has not been glossed or dressed up, and therefore shows that Latin had changed massively to the point where a CL speaker could not have understood the vast majority of it in speech, although a CL speaker might have followed it in writing. But nor does it much resemble VL, having gone much further in the abandonment of case and the overall morphology of any variety of Latin.
In conclusion, it can be argued that CL was an artificial construct, used for specific purposes, namely oratory and literature, and hence an elite, prestige social dialect, that was used as the basis for military language, as evidenced from Vindolanda and Bu Njem (in North Africa), but which did not form the everyday speech of the vast majority of Romans, that is, those outside of elite circles. The fact is that many VL words formed the basis of later Romance languages whilst CL ones did not, or were borrowed much later from classical literature as prestige forms.