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Linguistic Society of America

Spoken and Written Latin

Author(s): Ernst Pulgram
Source: Language, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1950), pp. 458-466
Published by: Linguistic Society of America
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Accessed: 02-04-2017 05:16 UTC

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University of Michigan

The great number of definitions proposed for the term Vulgar Latin mirrors
the plurality of Vulgar Latin theories, which cannot all be correct.' They not
only do not all coincide, which is but natural, but some of them are radically op-
posed to each other. Since all of them are based on the same records, the diver-
gence of theories must spring from the interpretation and not from the nature
of the evidence.2
One may completely discard, as the majority of scholars have done, the idea
that spoken Vulgar Latin is the chronological successor (a corruption) of Classical
Latin.3 Apart from this antiquated view, there are, roughly, two types of Vulgar
Latin theories. First, there are theories which propose that there was, especially
during the Empire and the early Middle Ages, a linguistic unity of popular speech
throughout the Roman and Romanized world; according to some scholars this
unity dissolved in the 5th or 6th century of our era, according to others not be-
fore the end of the 8th or 9th century. Second, there are theories which insist on
early dialectalization of Latin, or indeed maintain that there never was, outside
of early Latium, a single unified Latin, or anything but a number of local dialects,
especially in the Romania outside of Italy.
Let us examine briefly to what extent our sources may claim to represent
spoken Latin; on our conclusions will depend our judgment of Vulgar Latin
theories,4 Our largest and most varied sources are inscriptions from the entire
Romania of all periods. Besides, we have also literary texts, sacred and profane;
political, juridical, historical, liturgical, and hagiographical documents; and,
last but not least, the testimony of the grammarians and the glosses. All writing
in Classical Latin is by its nature excluded.
Inscriptions are highly prized for determining popular speech, especially those
referring to and made by common people. Official inscriptions are mostly stuffy,
full of archaisms to enhance their solemnity. Their writers, of no matter what
period, are consistently guided by a desire to write good, that is Classical, Latin;

1 Cf. Louis Furman Sas, The noun declension in Merovingian Latin 491 (Paris, 1937),
who counts nineteen definitions. See also Einar L6fstedt, Philologischer Kommentar zur
Peregrinatio Aetheriae 8 f. (Uppsala, 1936).
'The difficulties were seen, or rather foreseen, nearly a century ago, when Hugo
Schuchardt, Der Vokalismus des Vulgiirlateins 1.ix (Leipzig, 1866-8), mentioned the
complications of the subject, '... da der Ausdruck "Vulglirlatein" strenggenommen nicht
eine einzige Sprache, sondern eine Summe von Sprachstufen und Dialecten von der Zeit
der ersten r6mischen bis zur Zeit der ersten wirklich romanischen Schriftdenkmailer be-
deutet.' See also ibid. 1.3.
3 This too had already been said by Schuchardt, Vokalismus 1.47: 'Der sermo plebe
steht zum sermo urbanus in keinem Descendenz, in keinem Ascendenz, sondern in ein
4 On the evaluation of written documents see Elise Richter, Beitriige zur Geschichte
der Romanismen, ZRP Beiheft 82.4 if. (1934).

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more often than not, they have not mastered it

or chronological remoteness from Cicero's Rome, or
tion, or for both reasons. But do not all these fac
tion of non-official personal inscriptions, though to
would actually desire a tombstone praising the
A man may have said ain't throughout his life, and
the whole town, the stonemason himself; but on
Ain't will appear in writing, apart from conscio
only after it has been socially accepted and has c
even its previous sporadic appearance will indicat
ance above the vulgar and slangy level of speech
from the socially permissible norm of good lang
written document, but their presence does not m
vulgar speech in intent or appearance: it is this only
For even in the lowest form of literary activity,
of the local brothel, the very fact of performin
the most ignorant of writers to do somehow 'better
speech. He cannot help it, because he has learned to
only, according to certain rules of spelling and gr
not always conform to those rules, but neither w
what he would SAY.
As for grammarians, their help in reconstructing an ancient popular form of
speech is invaluable. When they point out, always disapprovingly, deviations
from the standard, one may trust their judgment, because by their profession
they are a conservative if not reactionary lot. They are teachers not of speech
but of artful speech, of rhetoric; they are not recorders, but self-appointed
guardians of tradition. Unfortunately they have a habit of copying one another
over the centuries, so that it would be rash to construct a chronology of linguistic
changes on their authority.
A very valuable source of knowledge for popular speech is the literary work
of playwrights, especially of low comedy, and of novelists, at least in passages
of direct speech. In such instances Plautus, Petronius, and Apuleius give us
honest spoken Latin. These three names practically exhaust the list, except for
occasional words and phrases elsewhere, because Plautus' are the only popular
comedies we know, and we have no Latin novels besides the Satyricon and the
Golden Ass. But in the descriptive passages of Petronius and Apuleius, too, the
literary mind is at work. I realize that in matters of phonology literary works will
be less enlightening than inscriptions and scribblings by semi-illiterate writers;
but where there are deviations, they will be more trustworthy since they will
more often have been put consciously. Besides, I dare say that phonological
matters are by no means the most important characteristic whereby popular
speech diverges from the cultivated language. Grammatical and stylistic dis-
tinctions, semantic changes, and choice of words are often more relevant; and
these we do learn best from direct-speech passages. Otherwise even the language
of Petronius and Apuleius may be relaxed, colloquial, even coarse, but it surely
is not THE Vulgar Latin (there was no such thing), nor even the Vulgar Latin

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from which the Romance idioms a

all literary texts; indeed the prof
tainly not as colloquial and relaxe
production of connected passages
good ear and great facility in usin
without recourse to a phonetic tra
non-standard phonemic practice. No
school are altogether expert in th
As for political, juridical, histori
the Middle Ages, their authors we
dressing their words to the small
It must not be forgotten that aft
been inadequate in any event, had
tion and institutions, there was n
Anything written was, therefor
learning to read meant, in the ab
prestige of Roman culture, learnin
centive to use another language.
only we had texts in the original spe
we might fare better; instead we m
clerks are notoriously unfaithful co
nor classical.
For our purposes I should value much more highly a few direct statements on
the state of the spoken language in various parts of the Romania. We have state-
ments of this sort in collections of vulgarisms such as the Appendix Probi, the
Glosses of Reichenau, and similar compilations, from a variety of persons, not
only grammarians: here we have mainly to do with corrections and indications
of pronunciation, where the author consciously imitates in spelling a form he
has heard. For grammatical and syntactical matters we may cite the observations
of numerous persons, mainly grammarians, who unfavorably compare the rustici-
tas of someone's speech with the urbanitas of the educated classes of Rome, and
who make explicit reference to dialectalization in various areas, to the change of
speech in time, and to social differences--in other words to the horizontal (geo-
graphic), vertical (social), and chronological differentiation of language. What
else could Hieronymus, for example, certainly an acute observer, have meant
when he said:' 'Ipsa latinitas et regionibus quotidie mutatur et tempore.'
When finally, toward the end of the 8th century, the neglect and the ignorance
of Classical Latin had reached what seemed unbearable proportions, even within
the clergy, Charlemagne himself deemed the time ripe for reform. Mabillon6
quotes a letter of Charlemagne to Abbott Baugulfus, written in the year 787,
'pro instauratione scholarum.' The reform was put on a religious basis and usage
of good Latin was urged7 'ut, qui Deo placere appetunt recte uiuendo, ei etiam
placere non negligant recte loquendo ... Hortamur uos litterarum studia... ad
6 Ad Gal. 2.3.
6 Jean Mabillon, Annales ordinis S. Benedicti, Liber xxv (A.D. 780-9) 64.
7 Loc.cit.

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hoc certatim discere, ut facilius et rectius divin

valeatis penetrare.' The reintroduction of Classi
out of the question. As Charlemagne's concentr
linguistic reform is an act of piety as well as a p
enforce the revival, at least for formal use, of '
dead) in the new Roman Empire (which was t
new Roman Emperor (who was a German). Of c
be eradicated by a monarchic fiat. There is no be
Charlemagne's linguistic reform in its wider sco
sermo rusticus as a legitimate idiom, acceptable
It can hardly be suggested that BOTH Charlemag
acceptance of the vernacular in 813 are reaction
Latin, followed by an immediate liberal reform a
unformulated, demands. What lies behind the re

B.C. 4000 3500 3000 2500 2000 1500 1000 500 0 A.D.500 1000
1 1I I

Pri.. Eg. Old Eg. I

Egypt united: Middle Eg.IZC 4

First Dynasty ?
I Now Eg.
Collapse of ZD*
Old IKingdom IZ
Amarna P
Revolution 2' Coptic
Conquest Chris-

Fig. I (after Kurt Sethe, ZDMG 79.316 [19251, slightly revised)

that you cannot talk to people in a language they have long since ceased to under-
stand, nor thereby save their souls.
In an article on Demotic and Coptic,8 Kurt Sethe prints a sketch to illustrate
the development of Egyptian (see Fig. 1). Our knowledge of Egyptian extends
over a much longer period than that of Latin, the Romance languages included.
Its history comprises, as the sketch shows, six different written or classical lan-
guages of successive eras. The sloping line represents the continuous change of the
spoken idiom throughout the history of Egyptian, whereas the steps indicate
the succeeding classical languages. Each linguistic break that produces a step
coincides roughly with an important political event in Egyptian history, usually
a catastrophe. Now while the spoken language of the masses goes along its un-
disturbed linear development, each classical language, from its inception, is held
to a level standard, without major changes, as long as the society which employs
it remains stable. A breakdown of this society involves the breakdown of its classi-

8 Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenhindischen Gesellschaft 79.290-316 (1925). I am in-

debted to Professor George G. Cameron for this important reference.

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cal language; and the new socio-hi

guage out of the spoken language
classical tradition collapses with th
begins. Since each classical languag
it were, horizontally from its poin
speech proceeds on its accustome
In applying the same schematic p
can show no steps, because we hav
language. In the same horizontal d
Egyptian and only 1200 years of
detail which could hardly appear
strictly called the classical period of
downwards, approaching though n
spoken Latin. This change of dire

Empire Barbarian Invasions

Republic Decline of Empire Charlemagne
B.C. 300 200 100 0 A.D. 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900

OLD LATIN Classical ....

Fig. 2

even the written language. Now it is precisely from this downward-slanting

part of the line that the so-called Vulgar Latin documents stem. There, and not
on the lower line, we must place the writings of the Church Fathers, the Pere-
grinatio, the Mulomedicina, the Merovingian documents, etc. From about 800
A.D., the line of written Latin would again show an upward movement toward
classical standards, due to the Carolingian renaissance and, later on, the much
stronger forces of Humanism and the Renaissance, which revived classical studies
and the love of antiquity. Today, given some skill and good instruction, a person
can learn to write passably good Classical Latin, a goal which was not attainable
during the Middle Ages.
In all periods of linguistic development, the written language, if one exists,
differs more or less from the spoken, except perhaps during that comparatively
brief span of time when it is in the act of arising from the vernacular, when it
is just being codified. But divergences will emerge soon, because as change lies
in the nature of language, so conservatism lies in the nature of writing and spell-

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ing. The relatively,uniform language of our Lat

an administrative, learned, written language, pr
by Roman administrators, civil and military, by
merchants, by the clergy, and by the upper-c
and used it as a sort of international language
for similar ends in India. The same language wa
but this does not mean that it was any more th
Romania, or of any part of it, than English is
English that of the South Pacific area. If ther
applied to the documents available from the po
to the 9th century, it should be made clear th
Vulgar Latin, that it largely continues the trad
how numerous the inroads of popular speech w
that, in short, it does indeed merit the descrip
Latin. Whether this idiom should still be called
I think not.
What, then, do we put on the sloping line of spoken Latin, which follows an
unbroken linear development, as do the generations of speakers themselves?
I have already said that we have very little to put there: Plautus, the passages
of direct speech in Petronius and Apuleius, some inscriptions, some graffiti, and
some glosses; that is about all. The truth is that we do not know how these people
talked, except by inference and deduction.
In Old Latin times, the lines of written and spoken Latin converge. At that
time, a written classical tradition is just emerging; that is, Roman literature is
being created (excrusively on Greek models), and the linguistic evidence we have
from the earliest times, though meager and fragmentary, confirms the view
that the spoken and the written idiom have not yet diverged from one another
very much. That Old Latin is in fact a tongue more akin to contemporary popular
speech than the classical language is not a new theory.9
According to those who believe in a sudden 8th-century breakdown of a uni-
form Vulgar Latin into Romance, the break in the upper line and its continuation
on the lower level about 800 A.D. would represent this precipitous change.'0

9 Lfstedt, Kommentar 14 and passim. Elise Richter, Der innere Zusammenhang in der
Entwicklung der romanischen Sprachen, ZRP Beiheft 27.80 (1911), claims that the Prae-
nestine fibula (DUENOS MED FHEFHAKED NUMASIOI), the oldest Latin document in our
possession (of the late 7th or 6th century B.c.), is already an example of popular Romance
speech because of its word order; see also Karl v. Ettmayer's article on Vulgar Latin in
Wilhelm Streitberg, Die Erforschung der indogermanischen Sprachen 1.231-80 (Strassburg,
10 See especially Henri Frangois Muller, When did Latin cease to be a spoken language?,
RR 12.318-34 (1921); id., A chronology of Vulgar Latin, ZRP Beiheft 78 (1929); id., L'6poque
m6rovingienne: Essai de synthese de philologie et d'histoire (New York, 1945); Pauline
Taylor, The latinity of the 'Liber Historiae Francorum' (New York, 1924); Mario A. Pei,
The language of the eighth century texts in northern France (New York, 1932); id., Ac-
cusative or oblique? A synthesis of the theories concerning the origin of the oblique case of
Old French and the single-case system of the Romance languages, RR 28.241-67 (1937);
id., Reflections on the origin of the Romance languages, RR 36.235-9 (1945). Robert L.
Politzer, On the emergence of Romance from Latin, Word 5.126-30 (1949), assigns the

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According to the chart this is out o

containing the sources of most Vulg
sents speech." There is but one thing t
the Egyptian chart-that is, the end
sense, not in that of Latin literary his
to begin a new horizontal line at that
set in which did not exist for Egyp
from its proto-Romance stage on, and
flare out into several branches to in
ing in the different Romance verna
and geographical, from Rome, diffe
nization, or different linguistic substr
the sake of simplicity.) However, th
does not so flare out: although locali
slant of the line, it continues the cl
who consider only what is written ma
out the Empire through the 8th cen
tradicts all sensible expectations an
speech, whose outstanding quality i

French language a 'birthday' (126), at w

the restraining influence of classical La
to find out, from the written testimony
certained by written evidence' [130] it is
the strength of that evidence itself), exa
accomplished' (130). WHAT cleavage? See
Marouzeau, Revue des 6tudes latines 8.386
Pei, Accusative 243, writes as follows: 'A
ture in the midst of hundreds of classica
the uniformity of Vulgar Latin througho
evidence of the fact that the Romance
spoken tongue, instead of being accepte
beginning to change ...' I agree with the s
Classical Latin, they would not have writ
der altromanischen Wortgeographie, ZR
and an intellectual's ignorance in such ma
lished popular ignorance. A medieval Lat
the modern linguist who, though he say
never use it, even in speaking, and would
11 Pauline Taylor, Word 5.96 (1949): 'M
scribes wrote what they spoke and hear
Latin throughout Romania up to the nint
zation or the formation of Romance lan
does not find such things in medieval boo
moderate view; Louis F. Sas writes, Wor
sire to write as one spoke was generally
the Saints, that is to materials directed
former standards.' But in this pre-Caro
read 'as one spoke' no better than they co
1s Here Meillet errs in believing that
latin un, parl6 seulement avec des accents un peu diff6rents d'une province a
l'autre' (L'unit6 romane, Scientia 31.151 [1922]), if he means to say that this was the on

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Obviously the blank space between the lines of w

not a linguistic vacuum. First, there is a lively cros
to the other; the slant of the later part of the writ
this. The vulgar features of the post-classical writ
derived from vulgar speech; if this were not so, the w
us not even a clue as to the state of the vernacular.
in no orderly chronological fashion. In spite of seve
or 'African' Latin, it has not been possible to discov
call dialects of this written Latin. On the other ha
literary tradition certainly influenced the developm
ably as a conservative, retarding factor because of
not all writing can be located precisely on a line; th
degrees. Third and most important, there cannot h
language, because there never are just two layers o
one and the same speaker varies his speech and his s
his surroundings and his purpose.'"
But on the whole, these technical shortcomings sh
validity and the usefulness of the sketch. Like any o
one obvious weakness: it over-simplifies and schem
developments. But therein lies also its advantage an
tion which can be derived from it at a glance is cor

Latin current in the provinces. It was a KOLV, which 'la

einer schon vorhandenen regionalen Differenzierung' (Ha
der romanischen Sprachen zum Lateinischen, RF 54.181 [
franca of international society and commerce, it is the w
Vulgar Latin documents, and belongs to the upper line in
evitable dialectalization of Latin or any other long-endur
Brugmann, Zur Frage nach den Verwandtschaftsverhiil
Sprachen, Techmers Zeitschrift 1.254 (1884); Johannes Sc
dogermanischen Vokalismus 2.186 (Weimar 1871-5); Karl
heiten der lateinischen Sprache 1 (Erlangen, 1882); Herma
verhiltnisse der Indogermanen, IF 4.40 (1894); Hermann
Hauptprobleme der indogermanischen Sprachwissenschaft
Paul, Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte5 46 (Halle, 1920); Le
(New York, 1933).
13 See the remarks on hyperurbanisms (hypercorrections
of the pilgrim Aetheria, Comparative Literature 1.232 f. (
14 Ferdinand Lot, A quelle 6poque a-t-on cess6 de parler la
that '... pendant le dernier siecle d'existence de l'Empire
deux langues, celle de peuple, parl6e par l'immense majorite de 1'Empire, et celle
de l'aristocratie ...' Surely Lot is here simplifying and schematizing matters, as I am doing
in my sketch. See Albert Guerard, Ten levels of speech, The American Scholar, Spring
1947 148-58; Bloomfield, Language 52.
15 Cicero's letters exhibit a style and a choice of words quite different from his great
orations and his philosophical works. No doubt he talked differently in the senate, in the
baths, and to his barber. Such intentional differentiation is important, else a man might
not sound 'natural' or might be accused of using 'inappropriate' language. The story goes
that when the great classicist Wilamowitz-Mollendorf arrived on his first visit to Athens,
the cabby whom he engaged at the station was quite astounded to hear himself addressed
as a (Homeric) 'noble charioteer'.

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If a linguist were to look, some 150

the Romance languages now current
if he assumed that what he was read
only because it diverged from the
Except for consciously imitative passag
a piece of Romance writing of our
regional features it exhibits, does n
speechway now popularly used. Ther
differently in spoken and written Lat
In view of the multiple definitions
term Vulgar Latin, and because of its
than on speech, with an imaginary
prefer not to use this term but to em
terms can be further specified, in
regional, and social criteria.

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