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In my last post, I explored some ways in which a new language is born.

This post examines one of the best-known historical examples (at least for anyone in the West): the way that Latin became modern Italian. As Luca Guala explains on Quora, the road taken was neither simple nor straightforward.

19th century map of Italy | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

High Latin vs. Vulgar Latin

What we call today Latin is the language in which the classical works of Cicero, Caesar, Catullus, and Virgil were written. The language in which European erudites engaged in conversation from Rotterdam to Palermo in the middle ages. The language in which the Catholic mass was celebrated until 1965. One of the two current official languages of the Vatican.

However, this Latin was never really spoken by people, save for a few thousand people in Rome, at the very start of Roman civilization.

Instead, people spoke its contemporary, Vulgar Latin.

The History of Vulgar Latin

Vulgar Latin was not one single language, except perhaps at the beginning of Roman civilization, when Latin and Vulgar Latin had not differentiated significantly. Instead, Vulgar Latin was rather an array of dialects.

By the time Rome had conquered or more or less pacifically annexed most of the people that lived in the Italian peninsula, the language of Rome – let’s call it Latin for simplicity’s sake – had been adopted by people who spoke other similar languages, like the Sabines and the Oscans, and completely different languages, like the Etruscans. More often than not, Latin was at least initially spoken alongside the local language. It was a language of exchange and communication between people who spoke mutually non-intelligible languages.

Very soon, the Latin spoken in a certain place of Italy differentiated from the original Latin spoken in Rome, because of the influence of the local language but also because it just happens. Someone starts pronouncing “she” instead of “ske”, this thing became popular and before you know what happened, a whole community is speaking differently from the one just across the Consular road.

So, there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of “Vulgar Latins” spoken in Italy by the time the Romans began to prod their feet along the shores of the Mediterranean and to start the explosive expansion that would lead to the greatest Empire that Europe had ever seen.

Unifying Latin

Did anyone try to unify, codify, and set some rules to stop this proliferation of dialects? Actually, no. There wasn’t much interest by the authorities to have a single, codified language spoken by all the people. It sufficed that the chain of command worked, and that required that only a small number of bilingual people were able to act as intermediaries between the higher and lower levels. Moreover, there was very little control over the way people spoke: commoners did not go to school so a single National language was impossible to teach and enforce.

What about “Latin”, the erudite one? Well, this was the only language used for writing so it was obviously used by those who were accultured enough to be able to write and read. These were a small minority of the Romans, but they were those who left the greatest traces. A language that is only spoken leaves very few traces – usually some word or grammatical feature in a later language. A written language instead, leaves plenty of traces for the scholars of the times to come to study, especially if the people who wrote it liked to use lasting materials such as marble and stone to write on.

This accultured “High Latin” was unified and codified, since all the learned people who used it wanted their work to be accessible to other learned persons, no matter where they lived and what language they spoke at home. So the process of unification of High Latin happened as spontaneously as the opposite process of diversification of Vulgar Latin.

So in a certain way, we can imagine High Latin as the dialect of the learned, as opposed to Vulgar Latin which collects the various dialects of the commoners. High Latin was a language whose features: pronunciation, lexicon, grammar, were gradually set on stone (literally) and remained almost unaltered while all around it the Vulgar Latin spoken by the people changed at the whim of the new populations that influenced it with their own languages, or just for fashion.

The Middle Ages

At one point in the history of Italy, long after the Roman Empire had fallen to pieces, Italians (meant as the people who lived on the Italian peninsula, since Italy as a Nation was still far to come) spoke lots of local languages and dialects, all of them derived from the local versions of Vulgar Latin.

Interestingly enough, none of the languages spoken in Italy derived from High Latin. The noble language that was “set in stone” left no heirs, while its lowly cousins proliferated considerably.

Why do we call these languages “Vulgar Latin” up to a certain point in time, and “Italian dialects” after a certain point? Well, first of all, names are given for the sake of convenience in speaking and writing. They do not necessarily reflect what happened in reality. Secondly, it makes perfect sense to call the language of the people “Vulgar Latin” when it was spoken in a time when High Latin was the dominant language of the ruling class and all literature was written in this language, but call it a different name once High Latin had lost its predominance.

So the transition from “Vulgar Latin” to “Italian dialects” and then to “Romance languages” was neither abrupt nor synchronized. It took place over a long time and with different timing and speed in different places. During the Middle Ages, High Latin gradually lost its predominance in Italy and elsewhere, not being the language of the rulers anymore, and the local governments started to use the local versions of Vulgar Latin for official and literary uses as well as for speaking.

The 15th Century

Let’s go now to the end of the 15th Century, in a situation in which Italy is divided into many states: some are large, like the Kingdom of Naples, others are tiny, like the Marquisate of Mantua. Each state has its own more or less official language, which often was not even one of the languages of Italy: for example, at the Court of the Kingdom of Naples, the official language was Castilian, while at the court of the Duchy of Savoy it was French. But the people spoke dialects and languages which were the direct evolution of the dialects of Vulgar Latin spoken several centuries before.

Just as before, no ruler really cared to impose an “official” language over the population, and no ruler had the power to do so anyway, since it would have implied teaching the official language to as many people as possible, which required compulsory schooling, which was not available. As long as someone in the chain of command was able to tell the people what they could and could not do and what taxes they had to pay, all was perfectly fine.

The Italian Rennaisance

The Annunciation | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

But something had changed since the times of the Roman Empire, or even since the middle ages: during the Italian renaissance there was a vast urban middle class that was wealthier and more educated than most people. More people could read and enjoy poetry and songs, and they could afford to buy poetry and go to concerts. A market for written documents of literature, poetry, and songs had arisen, in addition to ballad singers who had been traveling for centuries across the various kingdoms and marquisates that made up Italy, singing popular ballads in various languages, among which the most widespread were Provençal, Sicilian, and Tuscan.

The Tuscan language, and specifically the dialect of Florence, became very popular for literature in Italy. Many know about Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet that worked between the 13th and 14th Century AD. Dante was a strong supporter of the use of Florentine as a common language of Italians (no wonder: it was his own native language!) and indeed literature written in Florentine was already being read even far from Florence in Dante’s times.

The dialect of Florence was but one of the many dialects spoken in Italy that had evolved from Vulgar Latin. They could be called “languages” were it not that they were not strictly codified and they were divided into many local dialects, which could differ greatly in pronunciation but also in the lexicon and (less) in their grammar.

Florence, Italy | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Florence, Italy

For several reasons, mainly linked to its popularity as a literary language, but also to the mercantile and financial activity of Tuscans (who invented the modern banking system), Florentine dialect quickly became widespread as a ”Lingua Franca” all over Italy. It did not replace the local languages, but it was spoken alongside them. People from one city would speak in Florentine to people from another city for business, diplomacy, and other matters.

Obviously, Florentine changed when it was employed this way and by so many different people, so that the “Florentine” spoken by a Milanese to communicate with someone in Venice was quite different from the Florentine spoken by a native of Florence to communicate with another native of Florence. A new language was arising, which was soon to be called “Italian”. This language was basically Florentine with a different pronunciation, a slightly different lexicon, and a virtually identical grammar.

What about Rome? Well, Rome in many ways was not different from other towns and cities in Italy: it had its own native dialect which again derived from the Vulgar Latin dialect spoken in the region, and people spoke that.

But Rome was also a big and lively city. Even in its lowest days, it was a center of political and religious power and commerce. It drew people from all over the surrounding Regions and beyond, which included merchants, courtiers, troubadours, soldiers, prostitutes, smugglers, and crooks. Rome was well connected with Naples and with Florence.

Many people brought their languages to Rome and Florentine was eventually adopted as a common speech among such diverse people also in this city. Florentine after all was not so much different from Roman and it was relatively easy to learn. Of course, it was altered significantly and this can be heard also today in the way modern Romans speak.

Italy Unified

In 1861 Italy became a single Country by the hand of the Piedmontese who, with military power and diplomacy, and by stimulating popular revolts among the people, convinced all the little kingdoms of Italy to join in a Nation one after the other. Only the ancient Republic of San Marino remained independent, along with the Vatican, formerly the Papal State, which lost all of its territory bar a tiny piece of land within the City of Rome.

By the time Italy got unified, although most people still only spoke their local languages, Italian was already the common language spoken and understood by many from one end of the peninsula to the other. It was only natural that it would be chosen as the official language of this new Nation.

Once a language is official, everything becomes easier, and at the same time more difficult. Instead of allowing everyone to use their own native tongue, the new Italian State imposed that only Italian had to be used in all offices of the State: tribunals, census, the military, public offices, schools… in all of them, Italian was the only language allowed. And the war on local languages was started as soon as the idea of an official language of Italy was conceived.

Schooling became more widespread than ever before, and soon after, compulsory. Italian was the only language taught and teachers and pupils were not allowed to use anything but Italian in school. Any other language, that from now on would be called “dialect” in a derogatory way, would be banned. A person not speaking Italian, which meant virtually anyone from the lower social classes, who wanted to defend themselves in court had to hire a lawyer who could speak Italian, understand the laws, and speak to the judge in that language since Italian was the only language allowed in court and in which laws were written.

Being taught at school, grammar was written, vocabulary compiled, and inviolable rules were set. Many words in Italian were still written and pronounced in different ways. Scholars discussed the endings of verbs or the use of prepositions.

The Italian language was born.