The History of the Latin Language
The Latin language, a classical tongue belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages, originates from the area around Rome known as Latium. From around the sixth century BC, it became the official language of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. People widely used Latin for various purposes, including administration, scholarly writings, and literature. The significance of the language grew further during the Middle Ages as it served as the lingua franca in matters of education, religion, and administration in Western Europe.
Latin’s earliest known sample, potentially from the 7th century BCE, is a four-word notation etched in Greek letters on a fibula or cloak pin. This instance demonstrates the initial preservation of complete vowels in unstressed syllables, a notable contrast to the vowel reduction seen in later iterations of the language. In the early stages, Latin accentuated the first syllable of a word, which shifted to either the penultimate or antepenultimate syllable in the republican and imperial periods.
Originating from the regions surrounding the Tiber River, Latin spread its influence across the entire Mediterranean region of antiquity. Pre-Roman Italy was predominantly inhabited by Italic speakers, with Umbrian speakers situated to the north and Oscan speakers to the south. Many languages, including the non-Indo-European Etruscan language, also existed in the northern areas. As Rome established its foundation and extended its influence over neighboring territories, Latin-speaking Romans borrowed extensively from these neighboring languages. These early borrowings were typically simplistic, everyday words, suggesting a primitive and earthy civilization.
Classical Latin, characteristic of the Classical period, utilized six distinct cases in the declension process for nouns and adjectives. These were the nominative, vocative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative, with remnants of a locative case in certain noun declension classes.
The Classical period witnessed the usage of at least three Latin variations: the formal written Latin, the Classical oratorical Latin, and colloquial Latin, the vernacular language of the average speaker. As spoken Latin evolved, it increasingly deviated from the established Classical grammar, pronunciation, and lexicon norms.
Numerous classical and early post-classical inscriptions serve as our primary sources for spoken Latin. However, in the post-third century CE, several texts emerged in a popular style termed Vulgar Latin. Late Latin literature emerged with notable works from such writers as St. Jerome and St. Augustine during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Latin then progressed in two directions. It evolved into the modern Romance languages and dialects based on regional spoken forms.
Simultaneously, it continued in a somewhat standardized format throughout the Middle Ages as the language of religion and academia, profoundly influencing the evolution of West European languages.
As the reach of Latin extended to vaster territories, local adaptations in pronunciation and use began to proliferate. This broadening in daily and rural employments of Latin facilitated its evolution, often as a reflection of societal behaviors and prevalent customs. It gave birth to “Vulgar Latin,” which was influenced by local dialects and eventually evolved into the Romance languages.
During the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemagne, an illiterate French king, embarked on a mission to resurrect Latin in its Classical form, with special emphasis on pronunciation. Despite his initiatives, the reform was short-lived.
Latin eventually became distinct from other “daughter” once mutually intelligible languages. By the last decades of the seventh century and the first half or two-thirds of the eighth century, due to intralinguistic processes, especially certain phonetic changes in the spoken language of Frankish Gaul, and considering Charlemagne’s efforts, the illiterate or barely literate Romanized inhabitants of the country were unable to understand the oral recitation of written without assistance.
Latin then yielded to its daughter languages and was relegated as the language of science, law, and learning for the upcoming centuries. The language was gradually displaced in spoken form between 400-700.