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In order to understand how Latin broke up into the various Romance languages between late antiquity and the early middle ages, it is important to analyse historical and principal linguistic factors. The fact that a language can change into several other languages is due to language change. It is possible to examine how Vulgar Latin derived from its parent language, Classical Latin, and then in turn, how Vulgar Latin became the proto-language from which its daughter languages, the Romance Languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, and others derived.
In Latin Alive: The survival of Latin and English in the Romance Languages, Solodow explains that Latin and Roman history are inextricably bound. The establishment of the empire which encompassed the greater part of the ‘known’ world at the time, led to the spread of Latin. This language was important for trade and communication throughout the empire (2010, p.9). As a result, when the final emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustus was deposed by the Germanic general, Odoacer and the collapse of the empire was complete, Vulgar Latin itself had already been subject to language change throughout the empire. After the collapse, a very gradual process saw a move away from speaking Vulgar Latin to the evolution of its daughter languages collectively known as the Romance Languages.
It is worth noting the main principle difference between Classical and Vulgar Latin. Classical Latin is a highly artificial language, so much so, that it has remained unaltered for two millennia. This raises the question of why it has remained this way for such a long time and the answer is simply this, Classical Latin was spoken by a very small minority. However, a concentrated effort by Caesar (100-44 b.c.), Cicero (106-43 b.c.), and others shaped the language into a form they deemed pure and worthy. This highly formed and formal language is still taught in schools today with unchanging vocabulary, syntax, and forms. Vulgar Latin, on the other hand, was the spoken language of the people. The name Vulgar is not a judgemental term, it has an etymological sense, ‘of the vulgus, the common people’ (Solodow, 2010, p.107-108).
In time, spoken Latin became increasingly different from the written literary standard. It belonged more to the masses, was less affected by schooling and was rooted in speech rather than writing (Solodow, 2010, p.113). However, there are examples of written instances of Vulgar Latin. When the first archaeologists started to excavate the town of Pompeii, they discovered that some of the walls were covered with writing. There were all sorts of messages, but quite a lot of these were like the type of writings or graffiti on the walls of any modern town especially in public lavatories (Janson, 2004, p.67).
It is also possible to get an idea of how common people spoke from the comedies of Plautus. In this brief extract, we get a sense of this in the dialogue between two housewives, Cleostrata and Myrrinha, who meet in the street:
Cleostrata: Myrrinha, salve.
Myrrinha: Salve, mecastor: sed quid tu’s tristis, amábo?
Cleostrata: Ita solent omnes quae sunt male nuptae: Domi et foris
aegre quod sit, satis sempre est. Nam ego ibam ad te.
Myrrinha: Et pol ego istuc ad te. Sed quid est, quod tuo nunc ánimo
Aegre’st? Nam quod tibi’st aegre, idem mihi’st dividiae.
Cleostrata: Hello, Myrrinha.
Myrrinha: Hello: but why are you so sad, my dear?
Cleostrata: Everybody feels like that when they have made a bad
marriage: indoors or out, there’s always something to make you miserable.
I was just on my way to see you.
Myrrinha: Well fancy that! I was on my way to visit you. But what is it
That has upset you so? Because what ever upsets you upsets me too.
What Plautus demonstrated in this scene was ordinary spoken language, with short sentences, expressions which were typical of everyday speech and quite a lot of repetition of the same words (Janson, 2004, p.66).
The Appendix Probi is a fascinating document, and, by virtue of its format, it allows immediate access to the revelations about Vulgar Latin that it contains. The Appendix consists of 227 entries, all of the type X, not Xⁱ, where X is the correct form of a word and Xⁱ a variant judged incorrect. For example, the anonymous author, a champion of Classical Latin, teaches the reader that the word for ‘never’ is supposed to have an -m at the end, therefore the Spanish word for ‘never,’ nunca is incorrect (Solodow, 2010, p.115). And yet, the word nunca is part of the evolving Romance language of Spain which derives from Vulgar Latin. At this point it is time to investigate the similarities present in the languages derived from Vulgar Latin.
In his introduction to the study of language relationships and the comparative method, Benjamin Forston IV states that, ‘All languages are similar in certain ways, but some are more striking and interesting than others. Consonants, vowels, words, phrases, sentences, and their ilk are fundamental structural units common to all forms of human speech; by contrast, identical or near identical words for the same concept are not, and when two or more languages share such words, it attracts notice (2010, p.1).’ Forston IV points out three types of language similarities. The first source for such a resemblance is chance. There are only so many sounds that the human vocal tract can produce… therefore a certain number of words that coincidentally resemble one another in any two languages have no historical relationship with one another. For example, the Greek and Latin words for ‘god’ theós and deus. A second source is borrowing. People speaking different languages are often in contact with one another, and this contact typically leads to mutual borrowing of both cultural and linguistic material. English for example, has borrowed the Inuit (Eskimo) word iglu ‘house’ for a type of shelter (igloo). A third source of similarity is a sundry collection of language universals. A common example of this is onomatopoeia such as English cuckoo and German kuckuck (Forston IV, 2010, p.1).
Sometimes languages present similarities in their vocabulary that cannot be attributed to chance or borrowing or a sundry collection of language universals. Below is a concrete example of the words for the numerals 1-10 in Spanish, Italian and French – three of the Romance Languages.
Spanish Italian French
1 uno uno un
2 dos due deux
3 tres tre trois
4 cuatro quattro quatre
5 cinco cinque cinq
6 seis sei six
7 siete sette sept
8 ocho otto huit
9 nueve nove neuf
10 diez dieci dix
From the chart it is possible to see that one or all of the languages borrowed its numerals from one of the other languages, or that they all borrowed them from the same outside source. In order to investigate this idea even further it is possible to notice that numerals are not the only words evincing such strong mutual resemblance:
Spanish Italian French
‘two’ dos due deux
‘ten’ diez dieci dix
‘tooth’ diente dente dent
‘of’ de di de
‘they sleep’ duermen dormono dorment
In the above chart all the words agree in beginning with d- in each language.
Spanish Italian French
‘am’ soy sono suis
‘you (sing.) are’ eres sei es
‘is’ es è est
‘we are’ somos siamo sommes
‘you (pl.) are’ sois siete êtes
‘they are’ son sono sont
In the above chart the whole present tense of the verb ‘to be’ is similar across the languages. ‘If two or more languages share similarities that are so numerous and systematic that they cannot be ascribed to chance, borrowing, or linguistic universals, then the only hypothesis that provides a satisfactory explanation for those similarities is that they are descended from the same parent language. This is the essential statement of what is known as the ‘comparative method’ (Forston IV, 2010, p.3). In the case of Spanish, Italian and French this hypothesis would be correct: we know from other evidence that these languages all descended from a variety of Latin. As a result, these languages are said to be genetically related (Forston IV, 2010, p.3).
During the fifth century a.d. all the Latin speakers in the Roman empire saw profound change. The arrival of Germanic tribes who seized power spoke their own dialect at first but in time they started speaking the same language as the people they ruled over. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman empire there seemed to be little need for a common language. By the eleventh century in Northern France, a number of writers started writing a language which was based on the spoken language of that time. This was radically different from Latin, and after many changes it developed into modern written French (Janson, 2004, p.92). The French versions of The Strasburg Oaths of 842 constitute the oldest substantial text in any Romance Language (Solodow, 2010, p.268). In Italy and Spain similar changes happened, but not until a couple of hundred years later, in the thirteenth century. Gradually all the Romance languages acquired their own written languages (Janson, 2004, p.92).
To conclude, Spanish, Italian and French amongst others are daughter languages of Vulgar Latin which in itself is a daughter language of Classical Latin. During the rule of the Roman Empire, Vulgar Latin branched off into many variations of itself throughout the empire as a result of changing colloquial dialect. The Romance languages evolved in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire when invading forces, with their own languages, in time borrowed from Latin and vice-versa to create new languages. As a result, similarities in the Romance languages such as linguistic and written text provide concrete evidence that they have descended from the same parent language, Vulgar Latin, which in turn descended from the highly formal language of Classical Latin.
FORTSON IV, B.
Indo-European Language and Culture An Introduction
In-text: (Fortson IV, 2010)
Your Bibliography: Fortson IV, B. (2010). Indo-European Language and Culture An Introduction. 2nd ed. Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell.
A Natural History of Latin
In-text: (Janson, 2004)
Your Bibliography: Janson, T. (2004). A Natural History of Latin. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
SOLODOW, J. B.
Latin Alive, The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages
In-text: (Solodow, 2010)
Your Bibliography: Solodow, J. (2010). Latin Alive, The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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