E Unibus Plurum, Part II: The Light Shineth in Darkness

Sam Quillen
6 min readFeb 17, 2021
Presumably remembering declensions is higher on Maslow’s hierarchy than shoes.

Today, it is fashionable to think of those who stand on the correct usage of language as snobs, arbitrarily impugning valid alternatives to the standard register. Strictly speaking, it is true that communication is not necessarily hindered by “improper” vocabulary or grammar, but this is only a fraction of the point. The past seventy or so generations of Europeans would have been spared an ocean of confusion, division, and strife had they all paid attention to their Latin teachers and continued to speak the same language.

It is also amusing to note that it was not just the Roman literati who took umbrage with what was becoming of their language: Vulgar Latin speakers clearly did not think very much of themselves, either. We see evidence of this in their choices of words. The typical Roman word for a house was domus. In most Romance languages it is casa, which in Classical Latin referred to a barbarian dwelling or a shack. Romance words for “to speak” come not from the proper Latin loqui or narrare, but from fabulare or parlare, “to make up stories” (figuratively, “to bullshit”). Taberna, originally a general term for respectable shops, was narrowed to refer exclusively to drinking establishments. Soldiers were no longer noble milites, but soldati, defining their identity by the solidus coins with which they were paid.

Some new words came right in from barbarian languages. It is testament to a troubled history that Romance languages’ words for war (guerra) and physical violence (atacare, assalto) are Germanic. By the same dint, the Romanian word for war, razbui, is Slavic. Latin speakers were not just victims, however: “vassal” is a Celtic word, and “slave” literally refers to the Slavs. Other shifts were just bizarre. Somehow caput lost its place as the word for “head” to testa, originally “jar.” The Spanish (cabeza/cabeça/cap) evidently resisted what I imagine was an annoying trend, but the French (tête) and Italians (testa) still call their heads jars. (Whether this has any connection to modern US Marines calling themselves “jarheads” is beyond me).

Our word “slave” comes from the Byzantine (also Frankish) proclivity for enslaving Slavs. Above, an illustration chronicling the great feats of Emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. (Latin had a vaguer word “servus,” covering a range of people from educated servants to chattel field hands.)

Vulgar Latin’s lexicon also underwent more profound changes as the language disintegrated. Latin, like modern Russian, Chinese, and many other languages, lacked articles (i.e. “the” and “a”). But over time, ille weakened from a demonstrative (i.e. “that”) to the familiar articles el, il, le, etc., that no modern Romance speaker could do without. (Sardinian and some dialects of Catalan and Occitan have a different article, su, from Latin ipse, “itself,” while Romanian appends articles to the ends of nouns). The articles probably owe some of their success to the example of Biblical Greek, which has articles and was vaguely familiar to the early Christian masses.

Grammar also simplified rather dramatically. Latin was a synthetic language with a complex case system. That is, words took different endings depending on their role (subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.), so word order was remarkably free. Over the centuries, lazy Latin speakers levelled all of these cases and declensions and settled on just one form (usually from the accusative). As a result, Romance languages are analytic, with a mostly fixed word order and a much simpler scheme of prepositions. English actually underwent a similar transformation, which distanced it from its Germanic cousins- it is interesting to note that Latin grammar is far more familiar to Germans than to Italians.

Unfortunately for language learners, medieval carelessness did not entirely wipe out grammatical gender. Latin’s neuter gender did disappear (except for some vestiges in Romanian and Neapolitan)- this apparently occurred quite early on, as words in any one Romance language virtually all share the same gender as their cognates in all the others. But for some reason, things stopped there.

Mare (“sea”) is one of the few nouns on whose gender Romance speakers broadly disagree. It was neuter in Latin, and became masculine in standard Spanish and Italian, but feminine in French, along with some maritime Spanish dialects. Pictured is Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, looking out toward Capri.

Romance also dropped many Latin verb tenses, but then replaced them with new ones. In a construction weirdly reminiscent of 1984 Newspeak, adverbs were now formed by appending -mente (basically “-minded”) to the ends of adjectives. The old Latin future tense disappeared in favour of appending the verb “to have” to the end of the conjugated verb (I suppose this implied forward-looking certainty). For example, in French conquérir (“to conquer”) + ai (“I have”) == conquerrai (“I shall conquer”).

Perhaps most significantly, Romance systematically simplified Latin phonology. As mentioned in Part I, this process was chronicled in depth even in the imperial era. Vowels veered off in different directions across budding languages, but there was a common trend of levelling diphthongs. Probus reminds us to call gold aurum non orum, to no avail. Consonant clusters were simplified, and even simple consonants often palatalised. This trend was especially pronounced in Gaul, where Germanic Franks so butchered their Latin that they made French by far the furthest from the original of all Romance languages. Amusingly, Vulgar Latin speakers sometimes overcorrected, inserting consonants that were not supposed to be there. People who were chided for pronouncing “table” mesa instead of mensa started to refer to Hercules as Herculens. Their descendants, however, really just let themselves go: in Italian, the hero is Ercole.

In the imperial era, Vulgar Latin generally maintained the familiar Classical suffixes -us and -um, but in the Middle Ages they were shortened to -o, or, in French and Catalan, dropped entirely. The Romance languages provide an excellent case study in divergent phonetic evolution. Each new language tended to shift Latin sounds in a characteristic way. For example, Latin lacte (“milk”) became Catalan llet, French lait, Italian latte, Romanian loapte, and Spanish leche. Likewise, nocte (“night”) became Catalan nit, French nuit, Italian notte, Romanian noapte, and Spanish noche, evolving in the same way in each respective language.

Under organic conditions, related languages vary along a spectrum. The local dialect of a town in the French Alps will be far closer to that of a neighbour than to Parisian French, even if that neighbour happens to be in Italy. But sometimes, due to geography or history, a more profound gap opens up. For Romance, the most important such boundary is the La Spezia-Rimini Line. Cutting across the top of the Italian peninsula, it demarcates a number of important isoglosses. Most significantly, languages south of the line (including standard, i.e. Tuscan, Italian) form plurals by adding an -i, as was typical in Latin, whereas those north of it add an -s, which comes from the Latin accusative (i.e., direct object) form. In part because they were not so heavily influenced by Germanic barbarians, Italians from Tuscany down sound more like Romans than any other Romance speakers. Sardinians, insulated (literally) on their rocky island from much of the chaos of the Middle Ages, preserved the language better than anyone else. Most people know Rimini as mecca for teenage British spring breakers, but who knew it had such linguistic significance?

An Italian map of major languages, including the La Spezia-Rimini Line.

Romance languages grew wild for most of the Middle Ages. But beginning in the Renaissance era, and from the 19th Century with tenacious abandon, European states brought them under cultivation. For the first time in over a millennium, linguistic entropy started to ebb.

Part I

Part III



Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets