THE ROMANIC LANGUAGES from LATIN


We have been speaking in the section about Indo-European of what preceded Latin linguistically, but we should also consider the European languages which developed out of Latin. When Latin in the 8th century A.D. finally ceased to be a native, "first" language, its dialects or vernacular forms separated themselves according to area, resulting in early forms of what we know as French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, both of them in Europe and as developed in South America, Romanian (in ancient Dacia) and a variety of minor tongues which died out (Langue d"Oc) or persisted only in the Alpine regions (Ladin, Romansh) We classify these together as the Romanic Languages. In general development these languages stands in their relation to their mother tongue Latin, much as Latin stood in relation to its ancestor, Indo-European. Latin can be seen poised, like the god Janus, looking both backward and forward in time.

The Latin which we have in our Classical texts is a formal, literary dialect, used by authors from the Augustan period on, and codified by the Roman school-system in its teaching under the Empire. Another popular level of language existed throughout the Republic and into the Empire, about which we know far less, which we (unreproachfully) call Vulgar Latin. A certain amount of popular speech is to be found in the comedies of Plautus, although his writing has a highly derivative Greek flavor from Menandran Greek New Comedy. Inscriptions from all periods are a major source of information about Vulgar Latin,, but the Satyricon of Petronius is the sole literary work which utilizes this language of the people.

In the 5th c. the popular speech surfaces in such disparate documents as the grammatical Appendix Probi, a list of right and wrong words and pronunciations, and the Perigrinatio ad Loca Sancta of a nun Silvia. By the 8th c. Vulgar Latin had split into early forms of the various Romanic tongues, as is evidenced by the Strassburg Oaths, swearing allegiance to Charlemagne, in what is recognizable as clearly distinct proto-languages.

Romanic Linguistics, either general and comparative, or from the point of view of a single language, is well established as a serious study, with libraries of grammars, specialized grammatical studies, and etymological dictionaries. A knowledge of Latin is indispensable for such work on the graduate level, coupled with knowledge of two or more of the Latin-based tongues. Curiously, German is a serious requirement for Romanic Studies, because of the large amount of detailed, scholarly investigations which German scholars over the last two centuries have done in this area.

And don't think the Romanic=Romance languages are just French, Spanish and Italian. Rumanian although overlaid with Slavic materials, is at core historically a Latin derivative. And what about Romansh, or even Ladin lying hidden in the valleys of the Swiss Alps as the Latinate dialect of Yiddish speaking Jews?

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris