E Unibus Plurum, Part I: How Latin Became Romance
Italicus es, an provincialis?
Tacitus was spending a sunny day at the arena in the 1st Century A.D. when the man sitting next to him casually asked whether he hailed from Italy, or the provinces. A few generations earlier, that question would have been inconceivable. Romans of olde jealously restricted true Romanitas to natives of the Eternal City and its immediate environs. Other Latins and Italians more broadly were better than barbarians, but that was not saying much. But with the extension of Roman citizenship to most Italians in the 80s B.C., Romanisation picked up rapidly. By Tacitus’ day, people from across the Mediterranean looked, acted, and spoke like Romans.
It took longer for Latin to become the language of everyday life for everyone at all levels of society. In the East (Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and greater Syria), it never supplanted Greek. But by the latter days of the Roman Empire, the old languages of Western Europe were mostly extinct.
Latin triumphed, and then reigned for as long as it did, thanks to three major drivers. Commerce connected people from across the vast empire, especially in cosmopolitan cities. The army, whose command language was of course Latin, was the strong arm of the state, and the best path to social advancement for provincials. And although probably less than a third of Romans could themselves read, the relatively high level of literacy was a stabilising influence on the language.
But even for people who spoke nothing else, Latin is hard. We have abundant records from erudite Romans fretting about commoners mangling pronunciations or grammar. Some wrote entire books of corrections of the errors of what came to be known as Vulgar Latin. Through them, we can peer into the nebula of early Romance. A busybody named Probus reminds us to call tables mensa non mesa, and eyes oculus non oclus. He would be dismayed to learn that dictionaries printed across Europe today prescribe even more degraded versions.
Still, the various dialects of Vulgar Latin were mutually intelligible with each other, and indeed with Classical Latin. Familiar analogies for modern English speakers might be particularly strong Cockney or African-American vernacular. St. Augustine (354–430) remarks that his Italian friends sometimes have trouble understanding less-educated inhabitants of his native province of Africa (present-day Algeria and Tunisia), but interlocutors of any background could easily get on each other’s level if put to it.
As the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th Century, things started to change. The three pillars of commerce, the army, and literacy all crumbled. As law and order broke down, cities emptied, and the formerly bustling highways went quiet. The centre no longer held, so the various dialects of Vulgar Latin veered wildly off in different directions.
Latin still held together for a time, mainly because everyone heard it for at least a few hours per week in church. Priests still spoke Latin, but increasingly had to learn it as a foreign language. By the 8th Century, even monks had to refer to an index of proper Latin translations called the Reichenau Glosses just to read the Bible. Eventually, priests standing at the altar looked out at glazed-over eyes and realised that no one had any idea what they were saying.
Linguistic disintegration only accelerated as the nameless centuries wore on. We have stories from the Middle Ages of people being unable to understand the dialect of a village ten miles from their own. Studying the drift of Vulgar Latin into new Romance languages is complicated by the fact that people at the time did not even realise that they were no longer speaking Latin. The Franks, themselves Germanic barbarians who had less compunction about admitting reality, were the first to make records in the actual language of their kingdom. The Oaths of Strasbourg, an A.D. 842 mutual assistance pact between two princes against their elder brother, are the first official record in Romance (in this case, early French) rather than Latin.
Ironically, because the Romans’ descendants were so deep in denial, Latin was often best preserved by men whose forefathers had never been Romans. The Irish love to boast about the erudition of their medieval monks. Hungarians, whose forebears were in Siberia eating raw bear meat during the days of Augustus, kept Latin as the official language of their kingdom until 1844. When the Anglo-Saxon monk Wynfreth (later St. Boniface) visited Rome in 722, he spoke (proper) Latin so much better than the Italian pope that the two could not understand each other.
About a hundred years later, in 813, Church leaders bowed to reality and instructed priests to preach in the local sermo vulgaris (literally “common speech”). Fatefully, they reversed themselves a few centuries later, but for several centuries, Romance ran free. If the only literate man in a hundred miles could not speak proper Latin, who would? In the long night of the Dark Ages, a new linguistic epoch dawned.