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What happened to the Latin language?

Last week, I had the pleasure of doing a conversational Latin camp online. While studying for the camp, I found out so much that I had forgotten or did not know about conversational Latin. Conversational Latin is different from the Latin we study in academic situations: it is the Latin the equites (middle class) and the plebeians (lower class) used when speaking to each other. As the empire extended, so did the changes to the language. Ultimately, the things people did away with made Latin indistinguishable from other languages. The dialects of Latin evolved into the five Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and Portuguese).

Things that I found concerning conversational Latin were a bit disturbing to me as a classicist and an educator. For example, people did not exactly understand the dative, so they just ignored that case when speaking and used the preposition ad and the accusative case. For example, rather than saying, “Fabulam patri narro,” they would say “Fabulam ad patrem narro” to express the sentence “I tell the story to my father.” Ad plus accusative should only be used while showing motion towards something! Instead of using the genitive case, they used de and the ablative. By doing this, they eliminated genitive and dative from the cases they used while speaking. Also, they did not use all the declensions; rather, they assimilated fourth and fifth into first and second. Most shockingly to me, people did not need to say the whole word in order to get their meanings across; e.g., viridis (green) became virdis. Essentially, whatever was hard for them to understand or articulate, they eradicated.

One man, circa A.D. 300s, wrote what we nowadays call the “Appendix Probi.” In it, he made a list of all the words people were saying incorrectly. This is a very important document for us as it shows us how conversational Latin declined and evolved into the Romance languages. (Other sources of conversational Latin include the writings of Petronius and Plautus who both had dialectic Latin within their writings.) We see that words were mispronounced abundantly and Probus took this to heart! Here are a few examples of words not said correctly (the first form is the correct form): formica non furmica, numquam non numqua, and musivum non musum. Probus did not like the fact that people were butchering his language out of ignorance and/or laziness. Just for fun, I thought I might try to make an Appendix Probi for English. My Facebook friends gave me a lot of help. They came up with things such as “supposedly” not “supposebly” and “asked” not “axed.”

Learning about the demise of conversational Latin makes me thank God even more for Classical Conversations and classical Christian education. Our students are learning to discern written words and to write and speak properly. We strive for excellence and emphasize both the written and the spoken word. The education of our students gives me hope that what happened to Latin will not happen to our English language.

If you are interested in conversational Latin, here are some resources:

Appendix Probi:

Grandgent, Charles Hall. An introduction to vulgar Latin. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath & Co, 1907.

N.B. Vulgar means “of the common people” and is related to the word “Vulgate.” This book can be accessed on Google Books. This site has great free software related to the book, Nunc Loquamur.

Enjoyed this article? Read Kathy’s previous articles:

How To Get Unstuck With Latin

Top 5 Reasons to Study Latin

Why should my student take more than 2 years of Latin 



TIERS: challenge
CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education, Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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