Wiktionary:About Vulgar Latin

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Vulgar Latin was the everyday form of Latin that was spoken by the common people (the vulgus) of the Roman Empire. It was the language of the soldiers, merchants, farmers, workers, rather than the language of scribes, poets, historians and politicians. As such, it differed somewhat from classical (literary) Latin in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. Vulgar Latin is also the early vernacular language from which the Romance languages (like Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian) descended, and even in those early times it resembles them somewhat more than classical Latin does. However, it was primarily a spoken language, while classical Latin continued to be written, so that we do not have immediate evidence of these differences. Nevertheless, certain errors or corrections that begin to appear in texts show a glimpse of what was happening to the language in normal use. By the time the first texts were written in the vernacular language around the 9th century, they were no longer recognisably Latin, but had already evolved to become the individual Romance languages in their early forms. Vulgar Latin can, however, be reconstructed through linguistic methods.

The form of Vulgar Latin that is considered in Wiktionary's entries is primarily the latest common ancestor of the Romance languages, spoken during the later days of the Roman Empire, the 2nd to 4th centuries. This time is more or less concomitant with the Late Latin period of classical Latin. During this time, some minor dialectal differentiation was already beginning to take place, but the language was still more or less unified, and remained so by the presence of the classical standard and the continuing existence of the Roman Empire. When the Empire split and the Western half began to fall apart, there was no longer a unifying force and Vulgar Latin fell apart along with the Empire that had helped spread it.

Only attested words are allowed in the main namespace in Wiktionary. Because Vulgar Latin is reconstructed, rather than attested, entries for Vulgar Latin words should not be present in the main namespace. Instead, they are placed in the Appendix: namespace, with all entries beginning with Appendix:Vulgar Latin/ .

Sound changes from classical Latin[edit]

Certain changes were already well underway even in classical times, but rarely made it into writing. Although spelling was not strictly standardised, the written form was still fairly rigid and subject to specific rules, which did not always reflect the reality of the day. Some examples:

  • Final -m was lost, except in single-syllable words like rem (thing), cum (with). This started first with nasalisation of the vowel, sometime during the last years of the Roman Republic.
  • Nasal consonants were lost before a fricative (f, s). Perhaps there was nasalisation at first in this case, too, but it seems to have been common since Republican times (judging from certain spelling conventions).
  • v /w/ became a fricative /β/, in the early Empire.
  • h was lost.
  • -b- between vowels became a fricative /β/ and merged with -v-, probably around the 1st or 2nd century.
  • Medial syllables ending in l or r were syncopated, dropping the vowel. Sometimes this triggered changes in the consonants as well. Later languages syncopated other kinds of medial syllables as well, but in a dialect-dependent way.
  • oe monophthongised already around the 1st century. It became long high-mid /eː/ and therefore merged with long ē.
  • ae also monophthongised a century or two later. It became long low-mid /ɛː/, which did not occur elsewhere and therefore did not merge with anything. However, when long vowels were shortened (below), it merged with short e.
  • e and i before a vowel merged, becoming pronounced as consonantal /j/.

Important are also the changes in vowels. The original pronunciation of Latin included differences in both vowel quality and length. In Vulgar Latin, the differences in length began to disappear. All Romance languages underwent the merging of short a and long ā. However, not all Romance languages show the same outcomes for the remaining four vowel pairs, which gives early evidence for dialectal differentiation:

  • The first languages to split off from the Vulgar Latin continuum were the "Southern Romance" languages, including Sardinian, around the 3rd century. The remaining four short vowels developed uniquely in these languages: they all merged with their long counterparts. They still preserve some other notable archaisms even today. Importantly, they have not undergone the palatalisation of the velars (c and g) that is found in all the other Romance languages.
  • A century later, Eastern Romance, consisting today of primarily Romanian, also began to evolve distinctly from the rest. Romanian did undergo palatalization, but shows a different development of vowels from the remaining languages: short i was lowered and merged with long ē /e/, while short e remained distinct as /ɛ/. The other three pairs simply lost their length distinctions and merged.
  • The Vulgar Latin dialects that remained after the previous two dialects split off, are called the Italo-Western Romance languages. They lowered both short i and u, merging them into long ē /e/ and ō /o/, while keeping short e /ɛ/ and o /ɔ/ distinct. A split then occurred in these dialects, resulting in two groups: Italo-Romance (including Italian) on one side, and Western Romance (French, Occitan/Catalan, Romansh, Spanish and Portuguese) on the other.
  • The Italo-Romance group still shared some affinities with Eastern Romance, and can be said to be in the middle of two extremes. Both share the palatalisation of c before front vowels to postalveolar /tʃ/.
  • In the Western group, the result of palatalisation was alveolar /ts/ instead. A more notable characteristic of this group is the lenition of consonants between vowels, which changed voiceless consonants into voiced ones, and turned doubled (geminated) consonants into single ones. This change seems to have first begun in the 5th century, becoming more frequent in the following two centuries.

Unstressed vowels developed, initially, in much the same way as the stressed ones. However, soon after, the low-mid and high-mid vowels merged, giving the simple five-vowel system that is found in many modern Romance languages like Spanish and Italian. There is evidence, however, that final -um developed uniquely into -u, rather than the expected -o. It was lowered to -o independently in later dialects, but not in all, and processes like metaphony show the presence of an earlier high vowel.

Stress remained on the same position in the word as in classical Latin. However, the syncope and changes in vowel length had an important effect on the rules of stress placement. While stress was originally determined by rules based on syllable weight, several of the changes acted to obscure this. Thus, position of the stress was no longer predictable from the phonetics of a word, but became an independent phonemic property of the word and of its inflectional class.


The name of the entry should reflect, generally, the spelling of classical Latin (but not the pronunciation). In terms of vowels, this means that it represents the Sardinian vowel system, or alternatively the classical vowels without length marks (just like regular Latin entries). So, the 1st conjugation has -are, 2nd declension -us, and so on, as usual. If different dialects had different vowels, the headword line should reflect this. So, while the 2nd declension would be -us in the entry's name, this would have actually been /os/ in Southern and Western Romance, but /us/ in Sardinian and Eastern Romance. Inflection tables should also list these dialectal forms.

It is not entirely clear how to represent the vowels and other unique sounds that did not occur in classical Latin. As length distinctions disappeared, macrons do not seem appropriate for representing these vowels. Acute accents may be better suited, but they may be confused with stress marks, and stress was also phonemic in Vulgar Latin.


Vulgar Latin differed from literary Latin not just in pronunciation, but also in grammar. Certain grammatical forms fell out of use, while new ones were formed as well. Overall, there was a general tendency towards regularisation, by converting less frequent to more frequent forms.


The most striking difference between literary Latin and the later Romance languages is the loss of the case system. Out of the modern Romance languages, only Aromanian, Istro-Romanian, Megleno-Romanian and Romanian preserve any traces of case in nouns, all others have lost them completely. The loss must have been quite gradual, however. It may have been helped by some of the sound changes noted above, but there was already a tendency towards the use of prepositions rather than cases in certain instances long before these changes took place.

The ablative was already well on its way out during Imperial times, and was probably confined to set phrases in Vulgar Latin, much as the locative had been in literary Latin. One of these phrases was an innovated formation, where an adjective (in the ablative) was used with ménte to create adverbs of manner. Otherwise, the ablative mostly merged with the accusative, as it had become homophonous with it in the singular through sound change in four of the five declensions.

The genitive and dative also merged into a single dative-genitive case, but this process probably took longer, and a few scattered uses of the genitive still remain even today (Italian family names in -i for example). This merged case was itself in danger of disappearing, and eventually vanished almost completely, except in the pronouns and determiners (which would later become articles). Romanian still retains this situation, having articles with two cases, nominative-accusative and genitive-dative. Interestingly, it is the (pronomial) form of the old dative that survives in the singular, but the genitive in the plural. It is quite likely that the situation was similar in Vulgar Latin as well, as there are no traces of the old dative plural anywhere in Romance, while the genitive plural survives, outside Romanian, in pronouns like French leur, Italian loro.

First declension[edit]

Loss of final -m and loss of length distinctions caused the nominative, ablative and accusative singular to fall together. The genitive and dative were already identical. In the plural, the cases remained distinct, except for the dative and ablative, which were already identical in classical Latin.

Singular Plural
Nominative *rósa *róse
Accusative *rósas
Genitive *róse *rosáru
Dative *rósis

Second declension[edit]

Singular Plural
Nominative *múrusSr, E
Accusative *múru *múros
Genitive *múri *murọ́ru
Dative *múro *múris

Third declension[edit]

As in the first declension, the ablative and accusative singular merged through sound changes.

Singular Plural
Nominative *ínfas *infántes
Accusative *infánte
Genitive *infántisSr
*infántesE, It-W
Dative *infánti *infántivusSr

Fourth declension[edit]

The fourth declension was almost entirely lost in most Romance languages, merging with the second declension. However, this merging was probably triggered primarily by the loss of the case system in most dialects, which left the remaining case forms (nominative and accusative) generally identical to the second declension counterparts. The declension probably did survive in Vulgar Latin itself, when the case system was still more or less viable, although more and more nouns were being moved to the second declension. manus probably survived relatively long, and it still keeps its irregular gender (feminine, but masculine-looking) in many languages.

Singular Plural
Nominative *mánusSr, E
Accusative *mánu
Genitive *mánus *mánvu
Dative *mánui *mánivusSr

Fifth declension[edit]

The fifth declension was also mostly lost, already having been a rather small class in classical Latin. By sound change alone, once the remaining cases had been eliminated, it merged into the third declension. However, because all nouns in this declension were, were moved into the first declension instead, as that was the larger and more productive class for feminine nouns.

Singular Plural
Nominative *glácies *glácies
Accusative *glácie
Genitive *gláciei *glaciéru
Dative *glaciẹ́vusSr, E


The system of conjugation was much less eroded than declension was. Most verbal categories remained intact, and a few new ones were even created.

The passive voice disappeared, and replaced with a combination of esse and the past participle. This was not in itself new, because such a formation already existed for the perfect passive, but it was now extended into the present as well. Deponent verbs lost their passive inflection and became conjugated as active, often in the fourth conjugation (by adding -re to the passive infinitive).

The change of -b- to -v- had important consequences for conjugation: it made the perfect almost indistinguishable from the future. As a result the future fell out of use, and was replaced at first with the present (with implied future meaning) and later reinforced with a variety of periphrastic forms.

The -v- that was present in many perfect forms was often extended to the remainder. However, at the same time, an opposing trend started to occur where -v- was dropped between vowels (found in the Appendix Probi). This contracted form survives into the later languages, rather than the original. This contraction also occurred in the subjunctive, causing the imperfect and perfect subjunctive to fall together. A consequence was that there were now many forms with -r- in the endings that were not clearly distinguished from one another, and most of these gradually fell out of use due to this confusion. This process was slow, and many forms still survived in the early Romance languages. They probably did still exist in Vulgar Latin. The pluperfect subjunctive survived intact, owing to its distinctive -ss-, and often came to be used as a simple past subjunctive.

Another effect of sound change affected the second and third conjugations. With ē and i merging in almost all of Vulgar Latin, these two conjugations were now almost identical in the present tense. This helped to set in motion the gradual merging of these two conjugations, and often caused verbs to move from one to the other. The infinitive usually shows the evidence of this process, as the infinitives of the two conjugations were distinct in stress as well as pronunciation. For example, sápere, a third conjugation verb, was converted into *sapẹ́re of the second conjugation. This process was very much dialect-specific and different dialects tended to move verbs in different directions. Portuguese and Spanish, for example, tended to draw the infinitives into the second conjugation, eventually eliminating the unstressed -ere ending altogether. Catalan meanwhile went in the opposite direction, extending unstressed -ere and reducing -ẹ́re to only a handful of irregular verbs.

See also[edit]


  • Vulgar Latin, József Herman, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997