The History of the Latin Language

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The History of the Latin Language

The original Latin was the language of Latium, a west-central region of the Italian peninsula in the southern part of modern Lazio. It spread with the growth of the Roman Empire and conquered other competing languages, such as Etruscan and Oscan. Latin was stamped with class from early on: the Latin of Cicero and highly educated Romans was not the common Latin spoken in the streets, called vernacular. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, Latin became the unifying language, especially in the West, since Greek survived in a lot of areas, particularly in the eastern half of the Empire. Dialects were spoken throughout the territory, but if you wanted to cross the empire and be understood, Latin (and sometimes Greek) was required.

The funny thing about Latin was that cultured Romans were particularly fond of Greek. It was considered the language of literature, art and philosophy, its cultural prestige surpassing that of Latin, which meant that they both shared the status of official languages of the Empire.

The Roman Empire reached its peak during the second century AD, while its collapse is usually considered to have happened in 476 AD, the year of the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor. From that moment on we enter what historians consider to be the middle ages — and with this we witness the continued development of all the dialects that have spun off from Latin. For instance, contemporary French is vulgar Latin influenced by a number of Gallic dialects. What we now call Italy was awash for centuries in a number of dialects mostly descendant from Latin (and many of these are dying as we speak). Portuguese, Galician, Castilian and Catalan are all direct descendants of “bad Latin” spoken by the uneducated and Romanian is so honest about its origins, it even includes the name of the empire that gave birth to it in its first five letters.

How did these dialects acquire the status of languages? Perhaps the linguist Max Weinreich put it best, when he stated that, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

The 19th century saw the birth of many new countries: Italy became a unified nation with Germany following suit, Hungary was granted autonomy, as well as Norway, Bulgaria and Albania. Composers from Chopin to Wagner were inspired not only by folk music but by historical myths and narratives. The bellic undertow of national pride would eventually culminate in the first half of the 20th century.

Let’s take Italy as an example. There were several languages descendant from Latin before unification in the 19th century, but once Standard Italian, a descendant of the Florentine dialect spoken in Tuscany, was chosen as the official language of the nation (at the time spoken by only around 10% of the population), it was forced upon the millions inhabiting the Italian peninsula, with the remaining languages downgraded to “dialects.” The political dimension of this act has had reverberations to this day, and something similar happened to France after the Revolution. Estimates show that in 1789 only half of the population of France could speak French. The creation of an educational system and the adoption of French as the official language of the Republic gradually standardized the situation, but even as late as 1871 only a quarter of the population of France spoke French as their native language. (Some of the other languages spoken were Occitan and Breton, which manage to survive to this day in minority groups.)

And what about Spain? Can you imagine what would’ve happened if the Basques had conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula? We would be uttering words and sentences preceding Indo-European tongues with nothing in common with the Romance languages. Instead, the Iberian Peninsula developed its own versions of vernacular Latin, the most demographically successful being Castilian, Catalan, Galician and Portuguese.