Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Language Profile: Vulgar Latin and Late Latin

Since last Friday marked the anniversary of the date the Roman Empire was founded, we've been looking at the Latin language in our most recent posts. We started with Old Latin on Friday, before covering Classical Latin on Monday. Today we find ourselves looking at both Vulgar Latin and Late Latin.

Vulgar Latin

We doubt the graffiti featuring Vulgar Latin looked anything like this.
In our last post we discussed Classical Latin, which was defined by a number of writings, including those of Cicero. Of course, those writing in Classical Latin were generally the well-to-do and educated, making this form of Latin relevant to a particular time in history as well as certain socioeconomic classes of people. More is known about Classical Latin than Vulgar Latin due to the obvious reason that the former, as a written form of the language, was written down. Only a few written examples of Vulgar Latin exist, with many of these "writings" being examples of graffiti, much like that brilliant "Romans, go home!" scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Vulgar Latin, on the other hand, was the Latin of the people. It developed around the same time as Classical Latin and was more than just a single dialect of Latin. In fact, Vulgar Latin pretty much refers to all dialects of Latin (excluding Classical Latin) spoken by those inhabiting the expansive Roman Empire at the time, as well as those who wished to deal with the Romans.

Even though there were many dialects across the Roman Empire, the dialects of Vulgar Latin were fairly standardised across certain parts of Europe such as France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. This is considered to be a result of the Catholic faith, which was present in all of these countries.

Much like the speakers of the various vernaculars we see in the English language today, speakers of Vulgar Latin were known to break the rules. Just like today, there were also prescriptivists, those who believed the grammatical rules of Latin should be followed at all costs. You can bet that if they'd had Twitter at the time, they would have been complaining about Vulgar Latin.

The term Vulgar Latin tends to refer to the spoken Latin that existed during the time of both Classical Latin and Late Latin. However, Vulgar Latin changed during the time of both of these written forms of the language.

Late Latin

The exact date that Classical Latin became Late Latin is often disputed. Depending on who you ask, the shift can be said to have taken place anytime between the death of Hadrian, the 14th Emperor of Rome, in 138 AD and the 3rd century. The beginning of the 3rd century is often accepted because it allows for most writers to fit neatly into groupings of either Classical Latin or Late Latin, with little to no overlap.

There are also suggestions that Late Latin doesn't exist and that Classical Latin simply shifted into Medieval Latin around 200 AD until the 16th century, when it became New Latin. For simplicity's sake, we're just going to ignore that because while its exact dates are disputed, it is generally agreed that Late Latin exhibits its own style unique from that of both Classical Latin and Medieval Latin.

Late Latin was used as a lingua franca (itself a Latin term) across Europe and its proliferation is thought to be due in part to the spread of Christianity at the time. To make things easier, we're going to consider it as having lasted until the 6th century, when spoken Vulgar Latin first began shifting towards becoming the Romance languages we know today. This thinking allows us to consider Late Latin as the last form of written Latin to exist during a time when there was a commonly spoken form of the language before we discuss New Latin and Contemporary Latin. We'll see you then!