Vulgar Latin

Vulgar Latin is important in modern times, as it was the "proto-language" for all the modern Romance languages spoken today. "Vulgar" has come to mean coarse or crude, but its original meaning was "of the people." "Sermo Vulgaris" (literally, "folk talk") described the Latin of the early Middle Ages as it was spoken by the uneducated populace - not the erudite tongue of the poets and politicians. Vulgaris in Latin is related to the words "Volk" and "Völker" in German, the early forms of which gave us "folk" in English.

Vulgar Latin goes back much farther than the early Middle Ages. Even at the height of the Roman Republic, Vulgar Latin lived side by side with the speech of the educated. It developed a simplified grammar and vocabulary of its own, and, unlike literary Latin, was pronounced in many different ways. Often Vulgar Latin absorbed pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar from the indigenous languages of the provinces in which it had come to be spoken by virtue of Roman conquest.

During the Middle Ages, an educated form of Latin was used by clergy, scholars and scribes, largely to preserve religious writings, and also for secular purposes. Occasionally royalty would also become fluent in it. This "Medieval Latin" was more written than spoken. Vulgar Latin was just the opposite - spoken and seldom, if ever, written down.

Where Did Vulgar Latin Come From?

Young students of ancient history are simply told that "The Roman Army invaded [fill in the country of choice]." Seldom are they told exactly how the Roman Army was able to accomplish its mission. In fact, the Army brought along with it a complex infrastructure of civilians, to handle all the combat support and rear area functions, like obtaining and preparing foodstuffs, making and distributing clothing, armor, weapons and war machines, and caring for the sick and wounded. All of these people - the soldiers themselves and the many civilian men and women who accompanied them - spoke Vulgar Latin. The Centurion - similar to a Company Commander in a modern army - might come from a social class that would speak the more formal kind of Latin, but he, too, needed to be fluent in the vulgar tongue to be understood by those whom he commanded.

Because Vulgar Latin was, almost by definition, a spoken tongue, very few written examples of it have survived to modern times. In fact, it is much like other "proto-languages" that scholars posit but cannot observe. These early forms of language are said to have existed because logic tells us so. Detail is supplied through comparisons of related modern dialects to give us a basis upon which to reconstruct what the proto-language must have been like.

"Vulgar Latin" is also an abstract concept, in that it refers to no specific instance of itself, but rather to a broad category of forms of street talk in the former Roman Empire, many centuries ago. There is no single, defined instance or form of the language.

Scholars have "filled in the blanks" of Vulgar Latin, using three methods:

1. The principal tool is comparison among Classical Latin, and early forms of modern Romance Languages, permitting a reconstruction of much detail.

2. Some grammatical texts written in standard Latin from the late empire have survived. They would scold speakers for certain common grammatical and rhetorical errors, thus providing hints about how Vulgar Latin was spoken at the time.

3. Occasionally a Late Latin text will contain words, phrases or constructs that were not part of Classical Latin. This would indicate features of the spoken language of the time, which had infiltrated the written word. Every so often a work in Classical Latin would portray the language of the street (as in a comedic play in which slaves have speaking roles or works in which the speech of a commercial class is recorded).

When Did Vulgar Latin End?

Even though Vulgar Latin was on its way to becoming modern languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, French, Italian and Romanian, it was still similar enough to Medieval Latin -- its more formal and written down colleague language -- that Medieval Latin was intelligible to the average person. This situation continued until the eighth century, more or less, when local dialects had so developed as to make the reading of Latin aloud in churches a somewhat fruitless effort. In 813 the Council of Tours declared by edict that priests should preach in Vulgar Latin or the Germanic vernacular, since by then the spoken word had wandered so far away from ecclesiastical Latin that the people no longer understood it. It was also around that time that each version of Vulgar Latin was taking on the characteristics of its local language, including new ways of writing and spelling words, grammatical changes, and new versions of old words. After about 800 CE, Vulgar Latin had given way to proto-versions of modern tongues, so that it no longer made sense to refer to the language spoken by the people as Latin at all.

What Was Vulgar Latin Like?

The following table indicates how some words in Classical Latin were disregarded by Vulgar Latin in favor of near synonyms, transformations or imported words.

Classical Latin
Vulgar Latin
bellum guerra germanic




arrange, settle








poss. germanic















totus whole








dimin. of bonus beautiful



near synonym






The modern languages also adopted some of these changes from Latin, but preserved the original Latin word as well - often for a related vocabulary term. This "equus" gave way to "caballus." This term, meaning "nag" in Latin, was used throughout Gaul for "horse." On the other hand, "yegua" and "égua" survive in Spanish and Portuguese to mean "mare" (derived from "equa"). "Carrus" meant "chariot" in formal Latin, but in the provinces the term was applied to any wheeled vehicle, even the humble four-wheeled cart. In many Romance language dialects is used as an informal term for automobile.

Another example of selective transformation from Latin to Vulgar Latin is "omnes." Italian preserved "omnes" as "ogni" even while "totus" evolved into "tout," "todo" and "tudo" in French, Spanish and Portuguese. Another interesting example of the selectivity of Vulgar Latin is the word for head ("caput" in Latin). The word is evidently quite old, as "kopf" in German is a distant Indo-European relative. In the central and northern areas of Italy, and in France, a synonym emerged - "testa," which had the original Latin meaning of "pot." In French it became "tête" and remained "testa" in Italian. In Romania, "teasta" is used together with "cap." In Italy, "capo" means "head" in the sense of "boss." In the southern part of Italy it is also used to refer to a corporal head in lieu of "testa." A derivative form of caput, "capetia," became "cabeza" in Spanish and "cabeça" in Portuguese. Portuguese retains "testa" as a word for forehead.

Other changes in Vulgar Latin included the total discard of many prepositions and other grammatical particles (like "ergo" and "quidem"). The tendency was to substitute Latin verbs with prefixed derivatives of those verbs. An example is "sufflare" for "blow" instead of the Latin "flare." Irregular nouns were provided regular noun suffixes to make their genders and plurals easier to remember. The neuter gender was absorbed into the masculine. Cases and declensions were discarded, using noun endings of "o" and "a" (probably vestigial ablatives) for all grammatical functions. The genitive (possessive) was handled by prepositional phrases, and the dative (indirect object) by position in the word order or by prepositional phrase.

Vulgar Latin also borrowed shamelessly from other languages. Greek religious words passed into Vulgar Latin like episcopus, presbyter, and martyr. The Greek word "gamba" (for the knee joint of an animal) displaced "crus," the Latin term. Modern Romance languages refer to the human liver as fígado, ficat, fegato, foie, and hígado - all derived from the word for fig. Why? Because Greeks used "ficatum" to describe a paté made from the liver of fig-fattened geese.

One of the best sources for figuring out what late Vulgar Latin was like are "The Reichenau Glosses," a set of marginal notations from the 8th century in a 4th century Vulgate Bible. The version of Vulgar Latin revealed by the glosses is that spoken in France, which became (or already was) "Gallo-Romance." The glosses pointed out word changes from Latin, like the ones in the table above, and perhaps best illustrated by "rerum" (from "res") being translated to "causarum." This word, originally meaning "cause" came to mean "thing" and passed into French as "chose," Italian and Spanish as "cosa," and Portuguese as "cousa," ultimately spelled "coisa" to reflect the pronunciation.

Other discoveries made possible by The Reichenau Glosses are Germanic loan words that had become common in Vulgar Latin but not in Classical Latin. For example, the Latin word "furvus" (meaning "brown") had been replaced by "brunus." Likewise, "cementariis" (a word for a stone mason) had become "mationibus" (from which all "mason" like words are derived). A couple of grammatical changes had taken place as well, notably the use of "melior" (better) for "optimus" (best). Though "optimo" exists in modern romance languages, "el mejor" or its equivalent means "the best."

The greatest contribution of The Reichenau Glosses comes in just explaining differences in the words themselves. For example:

caseum ("cheese") was formaticum in Vulgar Latin from the expression "to
form," becoming fromage in French and formaggio in Italian. Older forms
still remained as in cacio (Italian), queijo (Portuguese), queso (Spanish)
and cas (Romanian).
forum ("marketplace") became mercatum
lamento ("weep") was not ploro in Vulgar Latin, leading to pleurer (French),
llorar (Spanish), chorar(Portuguese), and plorar (Catalan).
mares (from nominative mas, meaning "male") became masculi (a modified
diminutive), which led to male (French), maschio (Italian), and macho(Spanish
and Portuguese).
necetur ("kill") was occidetur, which went into Italian as uccidere and
Romanian as ucide.
umo (earth, dirt or ground) became terra in Vulgar Latin, leading to terre
(French), terra in Italian and Portuguese, and tierra in Spanish.
vis (accusative vim) ("power") was rendered as fortiam in Vulgar Latin,
from which the French obtained force, the Italians forza, the Spanish fuerza,
and the Portuguese força.