How to learn languages – Vulgar Latin

What are referred to as “Romance” languages are all derived from Latin. That much most people know.

There is a tendency, therefore, to compare them (the relevant national Western European languages are Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian) to Latin when it was at its most prestigious – which, literary academics ancient and modern would generally agree, was the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar in the century before Christ.

However, Latin remained a coherent, single spoken language for many centuries afterwards. For hundreds of years even after the fall of Rome, people could travel from modern Portugal to modern Romania and still be understood in their native tongue. However, the Latin language in the centuries after the fall of Rome was as distant from Cicero as Modern English is from Chaucer. Not only was there the time difference during which the language changed, but also even in their own day the formal language of Cicero and Caesar was already markedly different from the colloquial language actually spoken in the streets (leaving aside that the prestige language of government and high culture in contemporary Ancient Rome was not Latin at all, but Greek).

Therefore, it is not hugely helpful to compare modern Romance languages with Classical Latin, when there is a later version of Latin which was still in use many centuries later and which is of more practical use for comparison. Around half the changes which took place between Classical Latin and modern Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian had already happened before those languages split. Therefore, this later version, referred to as “Late Latin” or “Vulgar Latin” (linguists dispute the exact distinction between these terms), is the one to focus on.


So what was “Late Latin” like?


Phonologically, final post-vocalic <m>  (and also often <s>) was already lost in all but the most careful speech in Classical times, and the distinction between long and short vowels was soon lost too. This meant that the distinction between, for example, mensa (subject), mensam (object) and mensā (ablative, ‘by’) was already not generally maintained in the speech of citizens of the Roman Republic.

There was significant “palatisation” of consonants (in effect, the subtle pronunciation of a sound written in English as <y> after the consonant) in some positions, particularly before high vowels (usually written <i> or <e>). The most notable instances were /k/ (usually written <c>) and /g/; it also affected /t/, giving it a sound more like /ts/ before high vowels (cf. Classical Latin gratiae, modern Italian grazie ‘thanks’). The exact outcome of this palatisation in different dialects varied (and some insular dialects of Late Latin avoided the change altogether.)

The letter <v> moved from Classical /w/ to more modern-sounding /v/; the letter /h/ was dropped altogether.

Stress became more marked than in Classical Latin, which may have been more pitch-based. Along with the distinction between long and short vowels ceasing to be contrastive, numerous unstressed syllables were lost and various consonant clusters simplified. This meant Late Latin had a considerably more vocalic sound than Classical Latin (although still not as markedly as modern Italian).


Most Late Latin speakers remained illiterate, although a sizeable minority could read and write. What they read and wrote, however, was Classical Latin (at least until around the seventh and eighth century). Speakers would have been aware that there was a marked distinction between the way they spoke and the way they wrote, but that the agreed (Classical) written form was essential to understanding in education and the church. From the eighth century on (although the exact time varied from location to location) there was an understanding that Classical Latin was a long way from the spoken language, and that was when the ‘daughter languages’ (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and others) began to develop as recognisably distinct tongues.


Vocabulary remained overwhelmingly from Classical Latin. However, over time, some words were lost as others expanded their meaning. For example, fabulo ‘I tell stories’ came to be expended to mean simply ‘I speak’; meaning loquor ‘I speak’ was lost; Classical Latin caballus was specifically ‘nag’, but Late Latin caballu meant ‘horse’, meaning equus was lost (or narrowed in meaning to merely ‘mare’).

Key numbers:

  • I unu, II duu, III tres, IV quattor; V cinque; VI ses; VII septe; VIII octu; IX nove; X dece;
  • XI undeci; XVI sedeci; XVII septedeci; XX veinti; XI veinti unu; C centu; M mil.


In theory, nouns retained their “declension” system (the five groupings of Latin nouns, determined primarily by their stem vowel at the end of the word before the ending). However, because of the aforementioned phonological changes (plus, perhaps, some Germanic influence), distinctions between the five core noun cases of Classical Latin were lost, regardless of declension. Initially these were reduced and then, in some dialects, extinguished altogether; for example (using ‘table’) mensa-mensam-mensae-mensae-mensā became simply mensa-mensa-mense-mense-mensa – thus distinguished only between a “general” case mensa on one hand and a combined “possession/indirect object” mense on the other; similarly (though initially not quite identically) Classical fundus-fundum-fundi-fundo-fundo became just fundu-fundi. Ultimately this was reduced to one in most (though not all) dialects, based usually on the accusative (the singular object form which, in Classical Latin, had generally ended in -m). Plural forms varied along a broad West/East split – typically Western dialects adopted the accusative (object) plural form for all cases (mensas, fundos); Eastern dialects effectively maintained the nominative (subject) plural form for all cases (mense, fundi); and there were some exceptions (some northern dialects maintained -s endings in the singular for masculine nouns; some eastern dialects maintained a separate genitive/possessive plural form).

Verbs remained marked primarily for tense; also for voice and mood:

  • the present tense remained a single tense marked almost exactly as in Classical Latin;
  • the past tense retained a distinction between “imperfect” and “perfect” action (repeated action or single action), but endings were shortened;
  • the pluperfect tense (past in the past) was generally lost and came to be expressed in other ways (usually using the past “perfect”, see next point);
  • the present “perfect”, consisting of the verb abere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ followed by a participle form (e.g. cantatu ‘sung’, amatu ‘loved) originally marked a past action affecting the present, but came to be used in general in some dialects to refer to a single action in the past (and, with the past form of abere or essere, it took over entirely as the pluperfect);
  • the future tense was retained but the Classical form was replaced entirely by a form using the “infinitive” form of the verb (ending -re; e.g. cantare ‘to sing’) with the verb ‘to have’ (cf. modern Italian cantare ‘to sing’ plus ho ‘I have’ gives cantaró ‘I will sing’; Spanish cantar plus he gives cantaré the exact same way);
  • an additional near future tense was formed from ire ‘to go’ with the “infinitive” (vas cantare ‘you are going to sing’);
  • the conditional tense was retained by all dialects in varying forms (usually again involving ‘to have’);
  • the imperative (ordering) and subjunctive (counter-factual) mood were retained, and in all tenses (although the past subjunctive became unstable and was replaced in some cases by old pluperfect forms); and
  • passive verb forms were lost, replaced by a construction with essere and the past participle (es cantatu ‘it is sung’) or even a simple reflexive (se cantat).

Verbs did not require subject pronouns – canto on its own meant ‘I sing’, cantas ‘you sing’, and so on, as in Classical.

Verb endings in present tense (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • canto, cantas, cantat; cantamus, cantatis, cantant

Note also “infinitive” cantare; “past participle” cantatu; “present participle” cantante; “gerund” candandu.

Adjectives continued to agree with nouns in all ways and all cases, tending to be placed after the noun (but this was not compulsory). Contary to Classical Latin, however, adverbs were formed by the feminine singular form of the adjective plus the word mente ‘of mind’; thus lentu ‘slow, tedious’, feminine lenta, adverb lentamente ‘slowly, tediously’. The irregular adverbs bonu ‘well’ and meliore ‘better’ were retained.

However, the most obvious difference with Classical was perhaps the explosion in prepositions, and the introduction of articles. Because nouns were no longer so clearly marked for case, prepositions were required to establish meanings – so words such as de, ad and cum came into much wider use (although not always as prepositions; with pronouns, for example, cum was often a postposition – tecu(m) ‘with you’ [lit. ‘you with’]). For the same reason, the determiner ille/illa/illu ‘this’ expanded its meaning to appear in front of nouns widely, thus generally translated as the definite article ‘the’ (these were also adopted as third person pronouns in most dialects); and the numeral un(us)/una/unu ‘one’ expanded its meaning to become the indefinite article ‘a/an’.

Word order shifted in Late Latin from the SOV of Classical Latin to SVO, but only where the object was a noun (SOV was retained where the object was a pronoun). This generally remained the case for questions, although VSO was also possible. Negation was formed simply, as in Classical Latin, by way of the particle non.

Classical Latin subordinating conjunction quod became que (eventually pronounced without the /w/) during the Late Latin period.


Late Latin was of Latin-Faliscan origin, but unlike Older Latin was spoken at a time that all other Romance languages had been lost.

Late Latin was markedly more vocalic and verbal than Classical Latin. Many of Classical Latin’s complex constructions around nouns were replaced by clauses centring on verbs.

Late Latin remained a solely spoken language (all the forms given here are reconstructed rather than actually attested). Literate people still wrote and preached Classical Latin, albeit with some influences (e.g. more prepositions than in ancient times). Every speaker would have been aware of the different registers. Historical records suggest it was not until into the eighth century that this became a real problem, with Late Latin speakers only then having genuine difficulty understanding sermons (precipitating a growth by the year 800 of the use of the vernacular even in formal contexts).

As noted above, it was at this stage that the commonality of Latin broke down into local dialects, which were then in subsequent centuries rebuilt into the national languages of modern-day Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Romania (with official use in neighbouring countries also).

What now?

Let us have a look at where Germanic languages came from on the same basis next week; then on to the modern day!

Patre nostru, qui es in illi caeli, santificetu es tuu nome. Adveniat tuu regnu. Es tua volunta, sic quomo in ille caelu et in illa terra. Nostru pane quotidianu danos hoie, et nos dimitte nostra debita sic quomo nos dimittimus illi debitori nostri. Et non nos induce in illa tentatione, mae nos libere de ille malu.


9 thoughts on “How to learn languages – Vulgar Latin

  1. Deirdre Devlin says:

    Am I weird?? I love this stuff!

    Hope you’re well. It’s certainly been a busy time back home. I’ve ordered a postal vote so will be voting for Paula again.

    Best wishes


  2. E McCamley says:

    I found this most interesting and I look forward to the next instalment.

  3. […] It offers the best comparison, therefore, between Germanic of the time that Classical Latin became Late Latin (and thus of the ancestor of languages like German and English at the same time as the […]

  4. […] how Germanic had developed in the centuries after Christ; and notably we also looked at Vulgar or Late Latin, which itself already demonstrated half the changes from Classical Latin to modern Latinate […]

  5. […] assuming your intent is to learn them all. This is because its vocabulary is closest to Vulgar Latin, its grammar reflects both French and Spanish (so is something of an intermediary between them), […]

  6. […] Latinate (or “Romance”) languages, all deriving from Latin, and specifically from the Vulgar Latin of the eighth century. The importance of Late/Vulgar Latin has become apparent; it bears repeating […]

  7. […] thus they are not only derived from the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar but in fact from the Late Latin still in some use at the time of Charlemagne – having some comprehension of that late version […]

  8. […] not, however, ‘dialects of Italian’ – they followed a distinct progression from Latin and therefore do not derive from the same origin as Standard Italian (although they are […]

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