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.
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 FECIT SIBI
ET L[VCIO] PETRONIO PHILEMONI FILIO
ET LIBERTIS LIBERTABVSQVAE
‘Petronia Hedone made this for herself and for Lucius Petronius, son of Philemon, and for her freedmen and freedwomen and their descendants.’
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.
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:
VIXIT ANNIS VI, DIEBVS XXI
MATER FILIO BENE MERENTI FICIT
ET SIBI ET SVIS POSTERISQVE SVORUM
‘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!”’
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’).
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’).
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.
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!’)
- 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.
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 . 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 . 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.