History and Literature | Latin Words and Grammar

What Is Vulgar Latin?

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What is Vul­gar Latin, and how does it dif­fer from Clas­si­cal Latin? As a Latin­ist or Latin enthu­si­ast, chances are that you’re going to be asked this ques­tion at some point. The answer usu­al­ly giv­en is that Vul­gar Latin was the lan­guage of the peo­ple, while Clas­si­cal Latin, com­ing down to us as a lit­er­ary lan­guage, was clos­er to how the elite spoke. This, how­ev­er, is a very simplified—and maybe not alto­geth­er accurate—picture of how things were. This arti­cle will give a fuller answer and show a few exam­ples of what char­ac­ter­ized Vul­gar Latin pro­nun­ci­a­tion, vocab­u­lary, and grammar.

But first, let me tell you a story.

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Learning To Be Emperor

Ear­ly in 101 AD, the young Hadri­an, a favourite of Emper­or Tra­jan, had just been appoint­ed quaestor. One of his duties was to con­vey the emperor’s deci­sions to the sen­ate and recite his speech­es in his absence. With­out a doubt, Hadri­an had pre­pared well, sit­ting at his desk or roam­ing about the room read­ing the speech time and again. This was his pub­lic debut, his chance of mak­ing a good first impres­sion on a mis­trust­ful sen­ate. His­to­ria Augus­ta, a 4th-cen­tu­ry com­pi­la­tion of the lives of the emper­ors, tells us what hap­pened next:

“Quaes­tu­ram ges­sit Tra­iano quater et Artic­uleio con­sulibus; cum ora­tionem imper­a­toris in sen­atu agrestius pro­nun­tians ris­us esset, usque ad sum­mam peri­ti­am et facun­di­am Lati­nis oper­am dedit. ”

— His­to­ria Augus­ta, Vita Hadri­ani 3.1

‘He was questor in the fourth con­sul­ship of Tra­jan and Artic­uleius [101 AD]. After hav­ing been laughed at by the sen­ate while recit­ing a speech by the Emper­or in a some­what unpol­ished man­ner, he exert­ed him­self in the study of Latin let­ters to the point of the high­est pro­fi­cien­cy and fluency.’

As this account shows, Hadri­an spent much time per­fect­ing his Latin before dar­ing to open his mouth in pub­lic again. Some­how, I find this very relat­able! Of course, noth­ing is as harm­ful to author­i­ty as laugh­ter, and a future emper­or need­ed to be tak­en seri­ous­ly. Lan­guage was key to this. 


But what about Hadrian’s speech had so amused the sen­ate? He must have been one of the most cul­tured young men in the empire. Was his accent tru­ly that rus­tic? Was his ora­tion full of errors in pro­nun­ci­a­tion? Was it, dare I say, vul­gar? Though Hadri­an was like­ly born in Ital­i­ca, a Roman colony in His­pania, by the age of 14 he had already been called to Rome by Tra­jan. Antho­ny R. Bir­ley (Hadri­an: The Rest­less Emper­or, p. 46) writes that it “is hard to believe that he had picked up a ‘Span­ish’ accent in his short stay at Ital­i­ca a decade ear­li­er. Per­haps, rather, his unusu­al­ly long spell in the army and asso­ci­a­tion with cen­tu­ri­ons and rankers affect­ed his dic­tion.” Indeed, Hadri­an had spent time in Ger­ma­nia Supe­ri­or as tri­bune in the 22nd legion, which was like­ly to blame for his blun­der. Well edu­cat­ed as Hadri­an must have been, he had for­got­ten to whom he was speak­ing – if only for a moment. Per­haps he had even acquired new habits of speech. It is not rare that a per­son adapts his speech to his audi­ence, and the one that he was used to address­ing was com­posed of coarse cen­tu­ri­ons. It was in their com­pa­ny that he had spent a large part of his youth, and as we shall see, the army was a focal point of Vul­gar Latin.

By “vul­gar”, I mean it in the sense of infor­mal, col­lo­qui­al or every­day speech. Vul­gar can also sug­gest some­thing that is wide­ly spread. The Latin adjec­tive vul­garis has its ori­gin in vul­gus, ’the people/masses’, but this might be mis­lead­ing. Despite the name, Vul­gar Latin was not the lan­guage of most peo­ple. The down­trod­den slaves and day labor­ers, the orphans, beg­gars and rur­al poor have left very lit­tle in the way of lin­guis­tic evi­dence. Vul­gar Latin was the Latin of the mid­dle class. It was the Latin of peo­ple with some, but lim­it­ed, school­ing: the mer­chants, arti­sans, low­er pub­lic offi­cials and army offi­cers, who were required to know how to read and write for prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es. The mid­dle class was influ­en­tial. Army offi­cers serv­ing in every cor­ner of the empire would affect the way their troops spoke. Some­times this mil­i­tary vari­ant is called ser­mo cas­tren­sis, ‘the lan­guage of the army camp.‘ Add to this the far-trav­el­ing mer­chants, who were con­vers­ing with all sorts of peo­ple in ports, inns, and mar­kets along the trade routes. The mid­dle class was con­sid­er­ably larg­er than the refined Roman elite who could afford to spend years learn­ing how to write wit­ty epi­grams and among whom a lin­guis­tic faux pas could be the source of life­long embar­rass­ment. Sure enough, we still know of Hadrian’s blun­der after almost two millennia! 

It is in the con­text of the mid­dle class that we find the most evi­dence for every­day speech: inscrip­tions, graf­fi­ti and some­times curse tablets (defix­iones) and frag­ments of let­ters in papyrus or wood. There are also many col­lo­qui­al traits in the come­dies of Plau­tus, in the let­ters of Cicero and in lat­er Latin, often that of Chris­t­ian authors who were address­ing a wide audi­ence. Fur­ther­more, some com­pi­la­tions by gram­mar­i­ans con­tain cor­rec­tions of cer­tain words and mis­takes, but the fact is that many of these errors did not sur­vive into the Romance lan­guages that devel­oped after the fall of the West­ern Empire. Those errors may have been local or more com­mon with the less influ­en­tial low­er classes.

The Term “Vulgar Latin”

Before we begin in earnest to explore what kind of mis­takes Hadri­an could have made, it should be men­tioned that the term Vul­gar Latin is not with­out its crit­ics. The Black­well His­to­ry of the Latin Lan­guage (p. 231) states that the idea of Vul­gar Latin as a com­mon tongue for the low­er class­es is “dis­cred­it­ed among lin­guists but still tena­cious among non-spe­cial­ists.” Cer­tain­ly, we’d make a grave error if we used the term in the way that many ear­li­er schol­ars have done, posit­ing a clear dis­tinc­tion between Vul­gar and Clas­si­cal Latin, the stan­dard form of the lan­guage found in lit­er­ary works and offi­cial inscrip­tions. They were not two dif­fer­ent lan­guages and they were not iso­lat­ed from each oth­er. If this had been the case, we’d have more tes­ti­mo­ny on this from the writ­ten sources. Though clas­si­cal writ­ers some­times con­trast Latini­tas, the high­est ide­al of Latin, with ser­mo vul­garis or cot­tid­i­anus, every­day speech, this seems to be a dif­fer­ence in qual­i­ty, not nec­es­sar­i­ly in the essence of the lan­guage. The qual­i­ty or—to use a more unfash­ion­able word—the puri­ty of your Latin, as under­stood by Cicero and oth­er clas­si­cal authors, was linked to your social stand­ing. To prove your blue-blood­ed back­ground, you need­ed to speak in a cer­tain way. You’d be laughed out of the sen­ate if you mis­pro­nounced your h’s!

The Black­well His­to­ry is right that Vul­gar Latin was not uni­form, but not even Clas­si­cal Latin—as a lit­er­ary language—was as rigid as is some­times believed. Take as an exam­ple one of the most basic fea­tures of Latin gram­mar, the sequence of tens­es. No one clings to it as firm­ly as Cae­sar, not even Cicero. Livy has his own traits, often pre­fer­ring pri­ma­ry tens­es in indi­rect speech where oth­ers would have used sec­ondary tens­es. Con­sid­er­ing this and many oth­er vari­a­tions in what are regard­ed as the paragons of Gold­en Age prose, the spo­ken lan­guage must have been even less stan­dard­ized. In fact, this is part of what is typ­i­cal for Vul­gar Latin, in the sense of col­lo­qui­al, non-elite, Latin: it was not fixed in the way that Clas­si­cal Latin was, whether in spelling, gram­mar or vocab­u­lary. There must have been more vari­a­tion between the dif­fer­ent provinces and cities of the empire, between the dif­fer­ent social class­es and pro­fes­sions, and even between the old­er and younger generations.

So why is it still a use­ful term? 

The answer is that the Romance lan­guages of today have many traits which are rare or com­plete­ly miss­ing in Clas­si­cal Latin lit­er­a­ture but are com­mon for what has been called Vul­gar Latin. Though ear­li­er def­i­n­i­tions of Vul­gar Latin may have been flawed, per­haps the solu­tion is not to stop using the term, but to be more pre­cise in what we mean by it. Vul­gar Latin was a soci­olect (or group of soci­olects) main­ly of the mid­dle class from the time of Plau­tus to a cen­tu­ry or so after the fall of the West­ern Empire. It was less stan­dard­ized in its gram­mar and vocab­u­lary than Clas­si­cal Latin, but many of its dis­tinc­tive traits were com­mon through­out the Latin-speak­ing part of the empire. The rea­son for this was that its speak­ers were high­ly mobile and influ­en­tial. Many oth­er schol­ars, includ­ing the authors of The Black­well His­to­ry of the Latin Lan­guage, pre­fer the some­what wider term sub-elite Latin. This is worth com­mit­ting to mem­o­ry, but for the pur­pos­es of this arti­cle, I will con­tin­ue refer­ring to the lan­guage as Vul­gar Latin, see­ing as this term is in wider use.

How Was Vulgar Latin Pronounced?

Before we delve deep­er into any vul­gar traits, one ques­tion is espe­cial­ly impor­tant to con­sid­er: How can we know how Latin was pro­nounced? Besides the Latin alpha­bet itself, which was cre­at­ed on the basis of the spo­ken lan­guage, the pri­ma­ry sources are lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, loan­words and spelling mis­takes (in graf­fi­ti and inscrip­tions) as well as the mod­ern Romance lan­guages. Cicero him­self dis­cuss­es pro­nun­ci­a­tion in many of his pri­vate let­ters. Oth­er writ­ers, such as Aulus Gel­lius (2nd cen­tu­ry AD), can also give valu­able infor­ma­tion, as can lat­er gram­mar­i­ans com­plain­ing about com­mon mis­takes. A work of some inter­est for our inquiry into Vul­gar Latin is Appen­dix Pro­bi (3rd or 4th cen­tu­ry), which is found in the same man­u­script as the gram­mat­i­cal work Insti­tu­ta artium, ascribed to a cer­tain Probus (pos­si­bly Mar­cus Valerius Probus). Appen­dix Pro­bi con­tains a list of com­mon mis­takes in vocab­u­lary and pro­nun­ci­a­tion togeth­er with the cor­rect forms. 

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As stat­ed above, loan­words from Latin into oth­er ancient lan­guages, main­ly Greek, but also Goth­ic, are anoth­er source that lin­guists can use. For instance, the Greek Καῖσαρ and Goth­ic 𐌺𐌰𐌹𐍃𐌰𐍂 (Kaisar) show that Latin Cae­sar must have been pro­nounced with a hard /k/ in antiquity. 

Inscrip­tions in stone are also an impor­tant source, but since they are so for­mu­la­ic, clues to pro­nun­ci­a­tion are most­ly found in uncon­scious mistakes—what Leonard Palmer calls “the occa­sion­al inad­ver­ten­cies.” As such, they often con­tain one or only a few errors, but can oth­er­wise be with­out fault. The stone carvers who made these inscrip­tions are the per­fect exam­ple of peo­ple who had lim­it­ed edu­ca­tion in the Roman world. Like the mer­chants and offi­cers, their use of the writ­ten lan­guage was for prac­ti­cal rea­sons only, not for high literature.

To pick up where we left off: What kind of vul­gar pro­nun­ci­a­tion did Hadri­an acquire dur­ing his time in the Roman army? If it was an into­na­tion or a rhythm that seemed rough to the learned ear, then it is almost impos­si­ble to say what it sound­ed like. How­ev­er, there are many traits, com­mon in his army camp, that could have occurred in his speech.

One that comes to mind con­cerns the diph­thong /ae/. There was a ten­den­cy already dur­ing the late repub­lic to pro­nounce it as a monoph­thong, prob­a­bly as [ɛː], if it stood in an unac­cent­ed posi­tion. This devel­op­ment con­tin­ued dur­ing the 1st cen­tu­ry AD, spread­ing to the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of /ae/ in accent­ed posi­tions. It is unsure to what extent the cul­tured elite tried to retain the diph­thong. They cer­tain­ly did so in writ­ing, and it would not be sur­pris­ing if they had made an effort in the spo­ken lan­guage as well. Nev­er­the­less, inscrip­tions reveal the con­fu­sion of non-elite Latin speak­ers. Hyper­cor­rec­tions (i.e. mis­tak­en cor­rec­tions) like “baene” for “bene” (‘well’), though rare, are evi­dence of this. Some also show enclitic -que (‘and’) spelled like “quae”, as in the funer­ary mon­u­ment of Petro­n­ia Hedo­ne, now locat­ed in the Muse­um of Fine Arts, Boston. 





‘Petro­n­ia Hedo­ne made this for her­self and for Lucius Petro­n­ius, son of Phile­mon, and for her freed­men and freed­women and their descendants.’

Funerary inscription in stone from early 2nd century with busts of a Roman woman and a young boy.
Funer­ary inscrip­tion, ear­ly 2nd. cen­tu­ry A‑D- CIL VI.24037. Muse­um of Fine Arts, Boston, pho­to Vic­tor Frans.

Anoth­er exam­ple that I hap­pened to see in the Gre­go­ri­ano Pro­fano Muse­um in the Vat­i­can last Autumn had “aeo­rum” for “eorum” (‘their’, CIL, VI, 2365 & 2366), of which there are sev­er­al oth­er exam­ples from around the time of Hadri­an (AE 1983, 0086, AE 1984, 0129, CIL III, 01808). A num­ber of curse tablets (defix­iones) found in Roman Africa, in what is today Tunisia, dis­re­gard the diph­thong in “dae­mon”, sev­er­al of them begin­ning with the words “adi­uro te demon qui­cunque es…” (‘I entreat you, spir­it, who­ev­er you are…’; Audol­lent, Defix. Tab. 265, 286, 290, 291, 293–295).

Despite the sound change hav­ing tak­en place many cen­turies before, the digraph spelling <ae> remained in use for a long time in offi­cial inscrip­tions. But by the 5th cen­tu­ry AD, even these show an <e>. A case in point is the fol­low­ing tile from the reign of the Goth­ic king Theoder­ic the Great (ruled 493–526 AD), who tried to show his good will to the peo­ple of Rome by restor­ing pub­lic works. 

Roman tile stamped with +REG(NANTE) D(OMINO) N(OSTRO) THEODE + RCO BONO ROME.
Tile stamped with +REG(NANTE) D(OMINO) N(OSTRO) THEODE + RCO BONO ROME. Case Romane del Celio, Rome. Pho­to: Vic­tor Frans.

This tile has the stamp: “Reg­nante domi­no nos­tro Theoder[i]co, bono Rome”, ‘In the reign of our lord Theoder­ic, for the good of Rome.’ “Rome” would nat­u­ral­ly be “Romae” (dativus com­mo­di) in Clas­si­cal Latin!

When it came to oth­er vow­els, long /eː/ and short /i/ coa­lesced into a sound some­where in between the two, usu­al­ly writ­ten [ẹ] in pho­net­ic nota­tion. In some instances this is evi­denced by the con­fu­sion of <i> and <e>, as in the fol­low­ing inscrip­tion on a 1st cen­tu­ry AD sepul­chre (CIL VI, 35337) in the Capi­to­line Museums:







‘To the Manes. For Fruc­tus, the ser­vant of Domitian’s wife Domi­tia. He lived six years and twen­ty days. His moth­er made it for her well-deserv­ing son and for her­self and her kins­men and their descendants.’

This exam­ple shows the carver’s uncer­tain­ty in how to repro­duce [ẹ], which led to the spelling of ficit for fecit. This is quite an ear­ly exam­ple, but the trait is recur­ring all through­out Roman impe­r­i­al his­to­ry. A lat­er 4th cen­tu­ry AD inscrip­tion fea­tures the word tri­bunus (‘tri­bune’) spelled as <tre­bunus> (AE 1907, 0143).

A trait which most cer­tain­ly exist­ed among Hadrian’s sol­diers was the drop­ping of ini­tial /h/. Already in the late repub­lic it was pro­nounced “leniter et leviter” (‘gen­tly and soft­ly’, from the poem below) by the elite, but cer­tain peo­ple were inclined to drop it alto­geth­er. A few tried to over­com­pen­sate for this ten­den­cy, as is evi­denced by Cat­ul­lus ridi­cul­ing a cer­tain Arrius for putting an /h/ where it didn’t belong, say­ing “hin­sidias” (‘ham­bush’) for “insidias” (‘ambush’), pro­nounc­ing it with the same vig­or as his rus­tic forebears:

Cat­ul­li car­men LXXXIV ad Arrium

Chom­mo­da dice­bat, si quan­do com­mo­da vel­let 
dicere, et insidias Arrius hin­sidias,
et tum mir­i­fice sper­abat se esse locu­tum,
cum quan­tum poter­at dix­er­at hin­sidias.
Cre­do, sic mater, sic Liber avun­cu­lus eius,
sic mater­nus avus dix­er­at atque avia.
Hoc mis­so in Syr­i­am requier­ant omnibus aures;
audibant eadem haec leniter et leviter,
nec sibi pos­til­la metue­bant talia ver­ba,
cum subito affer­tur nun­tius hor­ri­bilis:
Ion­ios fluc­tus, postquam illuc Arrius isset,
iam non Ion­ios esse sed Hio­n­ios.

‘Arrius said “ghains”, if he ever want­ed to say “gains”, and “ham­bush” for “ambush”, and hoped he had spo­ken admirably well, hav­ing said “ham­bush” as vig­or­ous­ly as pos­si­ble. The same way, I think, did his moth­er, his uncle Liber [or ‘freed­man uncle’] and his mater­nal grand­fa­ther and grand­moth­er speak. When he was sent to Syr­ia, our ears could final­ly rest! They heard the same words spo­ken gen­tly and soft­ly, and did not fear them, when sud­den­ly a ter­ri­ble mes­sage was brought: The Ion­ian waves, after Arrius had gone there, were no longer “Ion­ian”, but “Hion­ian!”

Painting called "Catullus" with Romans reading outside under the trees, by Stefan Bakalowicz.
Ste­fan Bakalow­icz, Cat­ul­lus (1885)

Though the elite might have tried to main­tain ini­tial /h/, by Hadrian’s time it had all but dis­ap­peared from com­mon speech. There are clues to this devel­op­ment in curse tablets (defix­iones), that drop <h> in “hoc” and “hac” (‘this’), as in: “ex oc die, ex ac ora” (‘from this day, from this time’, Audol­lent, Defix. Tab. 229) and in: “ex oc die” (Audol­lent, Defix. Tab. 287).

The let­ter <b>, when stand­ing between two vow­els (and some­times after a vow­el and a nasal /m/ or /n/), was from the 1st cen­tu­ry AD onwards increas­ing­ly pro­nounced like a voiced bil­abi­al frica­tive [β]. You can hear how [β] and oth­er pho­net­ic sym­bols are pro­nounced on this web page . Since this sound is some­where between /b/ and /w/ (the con­so­nan­tal pro­nun­ci­a­tion of <u>), con­fu­sion arose in some speak­ers as to how these let­ters should be spelled. Appen­dix Pro­bi, a 3rd or 4th cen­tu­ry list of cor­rec­tions of mis­takes in Latin, points to the mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion or mis­pelling of the word ‘com­mon peo­ple’: “plebes non ple­vis.” The exam­ple of [β] in the 3rd cen­tu­ry mosa­ic below, from the ruins of a fishmonger’s shop in Ostia Anti­ca, might seem puz­zling. A pos­si­ble rea­son (giv­en by Gio­van­ni Becat­ti, a promi­nent schol­ar and exca­va­tor of Ostia) why cus­tomers were asked to step on a dol­phin, is that dol­phins were believed to scare away all the fish. Anoth­er the­o­ry has it that is is instead the octo­pus in the dolphin’s mouth that was meant as the object of the visitor’s scorn. What­ev­er the truth might be, the mosa­ic works as an exam­ple of an apotropa­ic image, a ward against harm or bad luck. It fea­tures <b> in “inbide”, which should be “invide” (‘envi­ous one’).

Black and white mosaic of fish from Ostia Antica with the text "INBIDE, CALCO TE".
Mosa­ic in Ostia Anti­ca, 3rd Cen­tu­ry AD. “INBIDE, CALCO TE.” ‘Envi­ous one, I step on you!’ Pho­to: Vic­tor Frans.

An oppo­site exam­ple occurs in this 2nd cen­tu­ry funer­ary inscrip­tion from the necrop­o­lis at Por­ta Medi­ana, Cumae. Here, /b/ spelled as <v> can be seen in the words “fem­i­nae incon­par­avili” (‘to an incom­pa­ra­ble woman’). 

Funer­ary inscrip­tion, Por­ta Medi­ana, Cumae (2nd cen­tu­ry ad). Pho­to: Vic­tor Frans.

Besides this con­fu­sion regard­ing inter­vo­cal­ic /b/, there was also a lat­er ten­den­cy dur­ing the 2nd cen­tu­ry AD, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Italy, to pro­nounce ini­tial /b/ or /w/ as a voiced bil­abi­al frica­tive [β] (a sound which, as men­tioned, lies between these two), but this pro­nun­ci­a­tion seems to have dis­ap­peared before it was passed on to the Romance lan­guages. The cur­rent pro­nun­ci­a­tion of some Span­ish speak­ers of ini­tial /b/ as an approx­i­mant of [β] hap­pened much later.

Anoth­er vul­gar trait that does not seem to have left many traces was pro­nounc­ing the diph­thong /au/ as /oː/. Indeed, Cicero’s adver­sary Claudius Pul­cher once ensured that he’d be renamed Clodius after being adopt­ed into a Ple­beian fam­i­ly! That the same trait was still alive in the 1st cen­tu­ry AD can be glimpsed from an enter­tain­ing anec­dote from Sue­to­nius about the emper­or Ves­pasian: “Mestri­um Flo­rum con­sularem, admoni­tus ab eo ’plaus­tra’ potius quam ’plostra’ dicen­da, pos­tero die ’Flau­rum’ salu­tavit.” ‘After the ex-con­sul Mestrius Florus had remind­ed him to say “plaus­tra” instead of “plostra” (‘wag­ons’), the fol­low­ing day he greet­ed him with the name “Flau­rus”’ (De vita Cae­sarum, De Ves­pasiano XXII.I). How­ev­er, the devel­op­ment of /au/ to /oː/ seems to not have been passed on to the Romance lan­guages. Though there is an /o/ in French or and in Span­ish and Ital­ian oro (‘gold’) for Latin aurum, this change hap­pened much lat­er. In fact, Roman­ian and Occ­i­tan still have aur, and sim­i­lar forms can be found in var­i­ous dialects in the West.

There are many oth­er vul­gar traits in pro­nun­ci­a­tion worth explor­ing, but in this arti­cle, I’ll just give a quick run­down of the most impor­tant ones:

  • Final /m/, as in noun end­ings like -um or -em and in verbs forms such as -eam or -am, was very light­ly pro­nounced even dur­ing the late repub­lic. It grad­u­al­ly began dis­ap­pear­ing from com­mon speech. A 1st cen­tu­ry AD exam­ple of this can be seen in the Vat­i­can Muse­ums (in Gre­go­ri­ano Pro­fano) on a funer­ary inscrip­tion made “in honore[m] L(ucii) Caci Rebur­ri f(ilii)” (‘to the hon­or of Lucius Cacus, son of Rebur­rus’), where “in hon­ore” is miss­ing a final <m> (CIL XIV, 00413 (1)). One result of the loss of final /m/ was a nascent con­fu­sion between the accusative and ablative.
  • /x/ and /ps/ was often assim­i­lat­ed into a dou­ble /ss/. This is already clear in Pom­peian graf­fi­ti, where we find “isse” for “ipse” (‘he him­self’). Like­wise, in lat­er inscrip­tions from oth­er parts of Italy, it’s not rare to see “vis­it”, or even “visse”, for “vix­it” (‘he/she lived’). True enough, in mod­ern Ital­ian the same form is “visse.”
  • A lat­er trait, which was like­ly not yet com­mon in Hadrian’s day, was that short /u/ was grad­u­al­ly approach­ing an o-sound. Latin cum (‘with’) is spelled as <con> (as lat­er in Ital­ian and Span­ish) in a let­ter writ­ten on papyrus by a sol­dier from the 2nd cen­tu­ry AD (CEL 146). How­ev­er, the change seems to not have tak­en place in some parts of the empire, for exam­ple in Sar­dinia and Dacia. Exam­ples are found in Appen­dix Pro­bi, giv­ing the cor­rec­tion of the word for ‘girl’ as “puel­la non poella.”

We’ll get to the gram­mar soon enough, but this is a good place to note that sound change was one of the rea­sons why the cas­es start­ed to dis­ap­pear, even­tu­al­ly becom­ing only two (nom­i­na­tive and accusative/ablative) in the West (lat­er to be lost), and three in Dacia (nominative/accusative, dative/genitive, vocative).

Vulgar Latin Vocabulary

We’ve delved into the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Hadrian’s times, but there are more aspects of Vul­gar Latin that are impor­tant for under­stand­ing its devel­op­ment. For instance: How was Vul­gar Latin vocab­u­lary dif­fer­ent from that of Clas­si­cal Latin?

A fea­ture that can be traced back to repub­li­can Latin is the use of diminu­tives in col­lo­qui­al speech. Diminu­tive end­ings make a word more famil­iar, inti­mate or in some cas­es con­de­scend­ing, like “Britun­culi”, ‘those lit­tle Britons’, an expres­sion found in let­ters from Roman sol­diers in Vin­dolan­da. Diminu­tives were cre­at­ed with a suf­fix, adding -culus, -cula or -culum (depend­ing on gram­mat­i­cal gen­der) or sim­i­lar forms to the end of a word. Plau­tus (Asi­nar­ia 668) has “pre­hende auri­culis” (‘grab [me] by [my] lit­tle ears’). Diminu­tives are also found in the let­ters of Cicero, main­ly when he is writ­ing to close friends. In these we find words like lit­teru­lae, ‘a lit­tle let­ter’ and febric­u­la, ‘a lit­tle fever.’ Ad Heren­ni­um, a 1st cen­tu­ry BC guide to rhetoric, gives a sam­ple show­ing how to speak in a rhetor­i­cal­ly low­er style (adten­u­a­tum genus). There are many col­lo­qui­alisms here, but most notice­able is the word oric­u­lae, ’lit­tle ears.’ Much lat­er, in the 3rd or 4th cen­tu­ry AD, Appen­dix Pro­bi warns against the same exact word (in its syn­co­pat­ed form): “auris non ori­cla” (‘ear, not lit­tle ear’). In fact, many of the cor­rec­tions in Appen­dix Pro­bi seem to indi­cate that diminu­tives were tak­ing the place of the orig­i­nal word, and true enough, Romance lan­guages often only have the diminu­tive form left. Vul­gar Latin auri­cla (giv­en as oric­u­la/ori­cla in the exam­ples above) became orec­chia (lat­er most­ly orec­chio) in Ital­ian, ore­ja in Span­ish and oreille in French.

Incised wall-plas­ter from Her­cu­la­neum (CIL IV, 10520), ca 1–79 AD. Pho­to: Vic­tor Frans.

The graf­fi­ti above is an exam­ple of diminu­tives (and oth­er vul­gar traits) from Her­cu­la­neum. It’s not easy to make out the text, but cat­a­logues give it as “con­si­tonts Her­cu­lane­ses navcu­lae”, which in Clas­si­cal Latin would read “con­sis­tunt Her­cu­la­nens­es nav­ic­u­lae” (‘The Her­cu­lanean ships make a stop’). 

Some oth­er diminu­tives from Appen­dix Pro­bi:

  • “nep­tis non nep­ti­cla” (‘grand­daugh­ter, not lit­tle granddaughter’)
  • “anus non anu­cla” (‘old woman, not lit­tle old woman’)
  • “fax non facla” (‘torch, not lit­tle torch’)

As can be seen in “ori­cla” from “oric­u­la”, syn­cope (the loss of a sound inside the word, also present in the exam­ple of the graf­fi­ti from Her­cu­la­neum) was often remarked upon in Appen­dix Pro­bi. The gram­mar­i­an gives more exam­ples of this, as in “frigi­da non fric­da”, ‘cold’ (refer­ring to “aqua frigi­da”, ‘cold water’), which has some clear coun­ter­parts in Ital­ian fred­do/fred­da, Span­ish frío/fría and froid/froide in French. It is also impor­tant to remem­ber that Romance lan­guages could bor­row Latin words in lat­er times, as in Span­ish frígido/frígida from frigidus/frigida, which there­fore do not show the same sound changes.

In many cas­es, where Latin had two fair­ly close syn­onyms of the same con­cept, only one sur­vived into the Romance lan­guages. This is most often the one which had been com­mon in col­lo­qui­al speech. A few exam­ples are list­ed below: 

  • The adjec­tive bel­lus increas­ing­ly replaced pul­cher (‘beau­ti­ful’). It had exist­ed before, but with a slight­ly dif­fer­ent nuance, clos­er to ‘pret­ty, fine’, not rarely in a sar­cas­tic sense, as in Cicero (Facete dic­ta 21.1): “O hominem bel­lum!” (‘Oh, what a fine fellow!’)
White marble bust of Cicero against a red background.
Bust of Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero, Capi­to­line Muse­ums, Rome. Phot: Vic­tor Frans.
  • Oppidum (‘town’) and urbs (‘city’) were often replaced by civ­i­tas, which orig­i­nal­ly meant ‘state’, as in Sp. ciu­dad, It. cit­tà, Fr. cité.
  • Cabal­lus (‘horse, pack horse’) was nor­mal­ly not used in Clas­si­cal Latin prose, but occa­sion­al­ly in its poet­ry. It might orig­i­nal­ly have been a Celtic loan­word. Grad­u­al­ly, how­ev­er, it replaced the usu­al equ­us (‘horse’), even­tu­al­ly result­ing in Span­ish cabal­lo, Ital­ian cav­al­lo, French cheval and Roman­ian cal.

Some words changed mean­ing and replaced oth­er words, such as homo (‘human being, per­son’), which took the place of vir (‘man’), as is lat­er evi­denced by Ital­ian uomo, French homme, Span­ish hom­bre and Por­tuguese homem.

Some new and inge­nious cre­ations were also made in Vul­gar Latin: While Clas­si­cal Latin would have advenire (‘arrive’), which also sur­vives in many Romance lan­guages, the Vul­gar Latin arri­pare, hav­ing its ori­gin in ad ripam (‘to shore’), also has a few descen­dants, like Ital­ian arrivare, Span­ish arrib­ar and French arriv­er.

Vulgar Latin Grammar

As we have seen, the cas­es were slow­ly dis­ap­pear­ing in the devel­op­ment of Vul­gar Latin. They were often replaced by prepo­si­tion­al phras­es or sim­ply dis­ap­peared (like the vocative).

  • Gen­i­tive reg­is (‘of the king’) was often sub­sti­tut­ed by “de rege.”
  • Dative regi (‘for/to the king’) could be giv­en as “ad rege(m).” 
  • Pure abla­tive, that is when the abla­tive was used with­out prepo­si­tions, for exam­ple in some sep­a­r­a­tive con­texts, like domo (‘from home’), or in the instru­men­tal glad­io (‘with the sword’), was increas­ing­ly replaced by prepo­si­tion­al phras­es, like “a/de domo” or “cum gladio.”
  • Voca­tive was grad­u­al­ly lost except in set phras­es, for exam­ple domine (‘lord’) in Chris­t­ian con­texts. Even in the works of ear­ly writ­ers like Plau­tus you can find the nom­i­na­tive instead of the voca­tive, as in “meus ocel­lus” for “mi ocelle” (‘oh, my sweet­heart’, Asi­nar­ia 664), but some of these exam­ples might be due to the meter. Though lost in the West, voca­tive is still present in Romanian.

There are more devel­op­ments in Vul­gar Latin gram­mar wor­thy of note.

Charles H. Grand­gent calls Vul­gar Latin “more explic­it” than Clas­si­cal Latin. One thing that today’s stu­dents of Latin often strug­gle with is the lack of arti­cles: fem­i­na might mean ‘woman’, ‘a woman’ or ‘the woman.’ Appar­ent­ly, the same dif­fi­cul­ty faced the Romans of antiq­ui­ty. Because of this, in their dai­ly speech they some­times used unus/una/unum (‘one’) as an indef­i­nite arti­cle, like Eng­lish a/an before a noun. There are even exam­ples of this in Plau­tus: “una ader­it muli­er” (‘a/one women will be present’, Pseudo­lus 948) and “unus ser­vos vio­len­tis­simus” (‘a/one very impetu­ous ser­vant’, Tru­cu­len­tus 250). Like­wise, per­son­al pro­nouns had orig­i­nal­ly been used only for empha­sis, since the verb forms often gave enough clues. In Vul­gar Latin, pro­nouns like ego and tu slow­ly lost their empha­sis and start­ed being used more fre­quent­ly. Like­wise, ille and illa took on the roles of def­i­nite arti­cles (as Eng­lish ‘the’), result­ing in Ital­ian il and la, French le and la and Span­ish el and la.

Gram­mat­i­cal gen­der was some­times con­fused. Petro­n­ius (mid 1st cen­tu­ry AD) – though he might have been par­o­dy­ing the bro­ken Latin of Greek freed­men – has some of his char­ac­ters say vinus and caelus for vinum and caelum (‘wine’ and ‘sky’), mis­takes pos­si­bly attrib­uted to Greek οἶνος and οὐρανός. How­ev­er, con­fu­sion of gram­mat­i­cal gen­der can also be attest­ed among native speak­ers, espe­cial­ly regard­ing mas­cu­line and neuter, which were lat­er to merge. Also, neuter plur­al forms, like cas­tra (‘camp’) were often inter­pret­ed as fem­i­nine sin­gu­lar. This can be seen in Appen­dix Pro­bi, which makes the fol­low­ing cor­rec­tion: “vico cas­tro­rum non vico cas­trae” (‘street of the camp’).

Verbs were not spared the new developments.

Fre­quen­ta­tive verbs were more com­mon in col­lo­qui­al speech. Even­tu­al­ly, many of these start­ed to take the place of the verbs from which they orig­i­nat­ed. Latin canere was replaced by cantare, ‘to sing’ (Fr. chanter, It. cantare, Sp. can­tar) and like­wise iacere by iactare/iectare, ‘to throw’ (Fr. jeter, It. gettare, Sp. echar).

In the per­fect pas­sive, as in “mis­sus est” (‘he was sent’), the “est” (and cor­re­spond­ing forms) was more often replaced by the per­fect form “fuit” etc. You can occa­sion­al­ly see this even in clas­si­cal writ­ers (as in Sal­lust and Valerius Max­imus), but it is more preva­lent in Late Antiq­ui­ty. Even His­to­ria Augus­ta (4th cen­tu­ry AD), which most­ly tries to give the cor­rect forms, at one point has “usus fuer­at” for “usus erat” (‘he had used’). This con­struc­tion became the norm in the Mid­dle Ages, which, admit­ted­ly, makes these exam­ples some­what uncer­tain, since they might be changes made by medieval scribes. 

The mod­ern Romance lan­guages most­ly cre­ate their per­fect forms by using the verb for ‘to have.’ Thus, “I have seen him” would in Span­ish be ”lo he vis­to”, in Ital­ian “l’ho vis­to” and in French “je l’ai vu.” The ori­gin of this form can already be seen in Plau­tus, as in “insti­tu­ta … cunc­ta … defor­ma­ta habebam” (‘I had all my plans arranged’, Pseudo­lus 677). This exam­ple demon­strates that using habere with an objec­tive pred­ica­tive was only a small step away from the per­fect. Com­pare also the expres­sion “com­per­tum habere” (‘to know full well, to have ascer­tained’) found in clas­si­cal authors.

Old wall painting from Pompeii from before 79 A.D. showing Romans gambling, etc.
Wall Paint­ing from the Caupona of Salvius, Pom­peii (before 79 A.D.; CIL IV 3494) Pre­suhn, Emil. 1882. Pom­pe­ji. Die neuesten aus­grabun­gen von 1874 bis 1881. Abtheilung v, pl. 36. The paint­ing is now in the archae­o­log­i­cal muse­um of Naples.

One last thing: Do you remem­ber the pic­ture above the intro­duc­tion? It might not be easy to see, but the words above their heads give an enter­tain­ing lit­tle exchange between two gamblers!

Man 1: “Exsi.” (Cor­rect­ed: “Exii.” ‘I went out!’ i.e. ‘I won!’)

Man 2: “Non tria, duas est.” (Cor­rect­ed: “Non trias, dyas est.” ‘Not a three, it’s a two.’)

Man 1: “Noxsi! A me tria. Eco fui!” (Cor­rect­ed: “Noxi! A me trias. Ego fui!” ‘You crook! A three by me! I was (the winner)!’)

Man 2: “Orte, fel­la­tor! Eco fui!” (Cor­rect­ed: “Orte, fel­la­tor! Ego fui!” ‘Ortus, you c********r! I was (the winner)!’)

Innkeep­er: “Itis foras, rixsatis!” (Cor­rect­ed: “Ite foras, [ibi/foris] rix­am­i­ni” ‘Go out­side and quarrel!’)

Today, the wall paint­ing is dam­aged to such a degree that we must rely on old­er draw­ings like the one above. There are a few uncer­tain­ties in the dia­logue: Is “Orte” a name, like Ortus or Hor­tus (in Pom­peii the <h> is some­times left out), or, less like­ly, a par­tici­ple (mean­ing ‘born’)? Should the num­bers be inter­pret­ed as trias and dyas, a ‘tri­ad’ and a ‘dyad’, orig­i­nal­ly Greek loan­words? There are also some pecu­liar­i­ties of Pom­peian graf­fi­ti on dis­play here, such as eco for ego and <x> spelled like <xs>. One trait regard­ing gram­mar is the dis­ap­pear­ance of the depo­nent verbs (that have a pas­sive form but an active mean­ing); “rixsatis” is an exam­ple of this, where the imper­a­tive “rix­am­i­ni” (‘quar­rel [out­side]!’) is like­ly intend­ed. Alter­na­tive­ly, it could be the indica­tive with the same form (‘you’re quar­relling’) or the sub­junc­tive “rix­em­i­ni” (‘you may quar­rel [out­side]’).

Toward The Romance Languages

The gap between lit­er­ary and non-elite Latin widened dur­ing Late Antiq­ui­ty. Cer­tain­ly, sound changes that start­ed out as vul­gar were often adopt­ed by the elite lat­er on, but the sit­u­a­tion was slight­ly dif­fer­ent for gram­mar and vocab­u­lary. Read­ing some of the best 4th cen­tu­ry AD writ­ers, one could hard­ly guess how much had hap­pened in every­day speech from the days of Cicero. Still, it was like­ly that the schools in the cities and small towns of the West had a con­serv­ing effect on the lan­guage of many Latin speak­ers. The elites who could afford a thor­ough edu­ca­tion, and the mid­dle class­es who went to school only to learn the basics, prob­a­bly had the declen­sions and con­ju­ga­tions ham­mered into them. Gram­mar­i­ans waged a con­stant war on pleonas­tic expres­sions, faulty syn­tax, sole­cisms, and bar­barisms, hold­ing the most vul­gar nov­el­ties at bay. How­ev­er, once the West­ern Empire col­lapsed, so did most of the school­ing sys­tem. After not too long, it was main­ly church­men who helped their flocks and young ini­ti­ates to pre­serve a mod­icum of cor­rect speech. 

But when was Latin no longer Latin? When did it become the pre­de­ces­sors of the Romance lan­guages? An easy (but per­haps arbi­trary) way of deter­min­ing when the lan­guage should no longer be called Latin, would be to ask when the dif­fer­ent tongues of the Latin-speak­ing world stopped being mutu­al­ly intel­li­gi­ble. When would a Spaniard no longer under­stand a Dacian? It might be impos­si­ble to say, since this peri­od has much less evi­dence for every­day speech. Anoth­er way of deter­min­ing a bound­ary would be when Latin writ­ings could not be under­stood by the com­mon peo­ple. In rela­tion to this, there is evi­dence that saints’ lives in Latin were read in church­es and under­stood by con­gre­ga­tions in Gaul as late as the 7th cen­tu­ry. But already a few gen­er­a­tions after this there are ref­er­ences to lin­gua Romana (‘the Roman lan­guage’) as dis­tinct from the Latin of the church. Should we there­fore say that the 7th or 8th cen­tu­ry forms the end of Latin as a native language?


Vari­a­tion in every­day speech has always been so great that any bound­ary in time or descrip­tion we give of it—nay, even the def­i­n­i­tions themselves—will with­out doubt be sim­pli­fi­ca­tions. Nev­er­the­less, they can help us in under­stand­ing the broad­er strokes of the lan­guage. Vul­gar Latin gives us insight both into what it is not, i.e. Clas­si­cal Latin, and into what it would become, the Romance lan­guages of today: Por­tuguese, Span­ish, French, Ital­ian, Roman­ian and more. It also paints a pic­ture of oth­er denizens of Rome and its empire than we nor­mal­ly meet in clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture. I’m not the only one, I’m sure, who has dreamt of hear­ing the Latin of the forum, of the mar­kets and tav­erns of ancient Rome. Yet the thought of a moth­er remem­ber­ing her six-year-old son in a sim­ple Latin inscrip­tion or of Hadri­an grap­pling with the speech of high soci­ety gives us an inkling that Latin once was a liv­ing lan­guage for every­one, not just for scholars.


The Vul­gar Latin traits that I’ve addressed here are just a selec­tion. Assured­ly, a whole book would be need­ed to describe all the dif­fer­ences between Vul­gar and Clas­si­cal Latin and the devel­op­ment of the Romance lan­guages. Luck­i­ly enough, there has been much writ­ten on these sub­jects. An acces­si­ble cat­a­logue of Vul­gar Latin traits is found in Grand­gent (1907), reprint­ed in 2009. Leonard Palmer (1954) pro­vides an absorb­ing and elo­quent account of the his­to­ry of the Latin lan­guage. A more updat­ed work is The Black­well His­to­ry of the Latin Lan­guage (2007), which con­tains a chap­ter on sub-elite Latin. The dis­cus­sion there is main­ly based on three let­ters – one by a mer­chant and the oth­er by two sol­diers – which are a fas­ci­nat­ing read. 

To study a larg­er selec­tion of texts, I’d rec­om­mend An Anthol­o­gy of Infor­mal Latin, 200 BC–AD 900 (2016), edit­ed by J. N. Adams, one of the lead­ing experts on sub-elite Latin. The data­base which has been most help­ful in find­ing inscrip­tions is the Epi­graph­ic Data­base Roma. The quotes from Plau­tus most­ly come from the Exem­pla Plauti­na in Rohlfs (1969), but some have been found by search­ing PHI Latin Texts.

Adams, James N. (ed.). 2016. An Anthol­o­gy of Infor­mal Latin, 200 BC–AD 900: Fifty Texts with Trans­la­tions and Lin­guis­tic Com­men­tary. Cam­bridge, UK: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

AE = L’An­née Épigraphique

Audol­lent, Defix. Tab. = Defix­ion­um tabel­lae quotquot innotuerunt. Audol­lent (ed.)

CEL = Cor­pus Epis­tu­larum Lati­narum Papyris Tab­u­lis Ostracis Servatarum

CIL = Cor­pus Inscrip­tion­um Latinarum

Clack­son, James & Hor­rocks, Geof­frey C. 2007. The Black­well His­to­ry of the Latin Lan­guage. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Grand­gent, Charles H. 2009 [1907]. An Intro­duc­tion to Vul­gar Latin. Rich­mond: Tiger Xenophon.

Her­man, József. 2000. Vul­gar Latin. Trans­la­tion by Roger Wright. Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Palmer, Leonard R. 2001 [1954]. The Latin Lan­guage. Lon­don: Bris­tol Clas­si­cal Press.

Pre­suhn, Emil. 1882. Pom­pe­ji. Die neuesten Aus­grabun­gen von 1874 bis 1881.Leipzig: T.O. Weigel.

Rohlfs, Ger­hard. 1969. Ser­mo vul­garis Lat­i­nus: Vul­gär­lateinis­ches Lese­buch. 3rd edi­tion. Tübin­gen: Niemeyer.

Victor Frans

Victor Frans

Victor Frans holds a BA in Latin from Stockholm University and an MA in Medieval Studies from the University of Oslo. He has worked in the Swedish National Archives and on a project on St. Birgitta of Sweden (14th century). He is currently writing his dissertation on Saxo Grammaticus.
Written by Victor Frans

Written by Victor Frans

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