Wiktionary:About Vulgar Latin

Definition from Wiktionary, the free dictionary
Jump to: navigation, search
Accessories-text-editor.svg This is a Wiktionary policy, guideline or common practices page. Specifically it is a policy think tank, working to develop a formal policy.

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 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 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 most Vulgar Latin words (barring a handful of exceptions) are reconstructed, rather than attested, entries for unattested Vulgar Latin words should not be present in the main namespace. Instead, they are placed in the Reconstruction: namespace, with all entries beginning with Reconstruction: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), lengthening the preceding vowel. 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). Since many instances of nasals before fricatives (especially f) were due to compounding with con- or in-, in many cases the nasal was analogically restored.
  • v /w/ became a fricative /β/ in the early Empire.
  • h was lost everywhere.
  • ph, th, and ch merged with p, t, and c respectively.
  • -b- between vowels became a fricative /β/ and merged with -v-, probably around the 1st or 2nd century.
  • Subsequently, a new w developed from a few Germanic loanwords. In most areas, this developed to /gw/ invalid IPA characters (g), replace g with ɡ, though it is retained in parts of northwestern France (see w:Joret line#Third isogloss).
  • Medial syllables ending in l or r were syncopated, dropping the vowel. Sometimes this triggered changes in the consonants as well (for example, tl > cl). Later languages syncopated other kinds of medial syllables as well, but in a dialect-dependent way.
  • In medial clusters of three consonants (some original, some due to syncopation), the middle consonant was typically lost.
  • oe monophthongised 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.
  • au generally remained, though a few words underwent early monophthongisation to ō. au before a velar plus u dissimilated to a.
  • y and ȳ merged with i and ī respectively.
  • e and i before a vowel merged, becoming pronounced as consonantal /j/.
  • /tj/ affricated to /t͡s/.
  • /dj/ became either /j/ (often subsequently strengthened to /d͡ʒ/) or /d͡z/ depending on dialect.
  • /z/ (common in the suffix *-izō) merged with /dj/ everywhere.

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 merged 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 generally alveolar /ts/, merging with the outcome of /tj/. A few peripheral regions (e.g. Mozarabic) had 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 syllable as Classical Latin. However, 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 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.

Some time after the loss of phonemic vowel length, stressed vowels were lengthened in open syllables. This was purely phonetic in Vulgar Latin, though later changes sometimes phonemicized this length.


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 list these dialectal forms when applicable.


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. Already at the beginning of the vernacular literary period, only Old French, Old Provençal, and Rhaeto-Romance (nominative versus oblique) as well as Eastern Romance (nominative-accusative versus genitive-dative) displayed any traces of case in nouns, and only Eastern Romance preserves noun cases up to the present day. 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. Cases were, however, generally preserved better in pronouns than elsewhere.

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. Additionally, the ablative of the gerund was often used as a present participle. 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 vocative, which had already merged with the nominative in most declensions by Classical Latin, was lost except for a few relic forms such as Spanish maese. The modern Romanian vocative is likely of Slavic origin.

The genitive and dative also merged into a single genitive-dative case, but this process probably took longer, and a few scattered uses of the genitive still remain even today (Italian family names in -i and Spanish weekday names in -es, for example). This merged case was itself in danger of disappearing, and eventually vanished almost completely, except in 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.

Finally, towards the end of the Empire, the nominative gradually began to merge with the accusative. This was done differently in each dialect (and did not occur in Old French until the 13th century or so), though typically the accusative singular displaced the nominative singular when they differed. As such, it is traditional in Romance linguistics to cite the Latin accusative (with or without final -m) for nouns and adjectives inherited from Latin. As with the vocative, a few nominative singulars were retained as relics (e.g. Old French prestre).

Adjectives were, as in Classical Latin, declined mostly identically to nouns. The Classical Latin comparative was discarded (though relics, especially from melior, are not uncommon) and replaced with plūs or magis before the adjective. The synthetic superlative was likewise discarded and replaced with the definite article plus the comparative.

The loss of final -m had a profound impact on second declension neuter nouns: they were now virtually identical to the masculine in the singular (especially with the loss of final -s in the east) and the feminine in the plural. This identity with the feminine plural was used to create new feminine singulars out of neuter plurals (a process that had existed since Indo-European times). The remainder were retained as "ambigeneric" nouns with masculine agreement in the singular and feminine in the plural, and this is the state preserved in Eastern Romance and parts of southern Italy. Elsewhere, the neuter was lost entirely and merged into the masculine except in pronouns, where it was used to refer to generic or unspecified objects.

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 *rọ́sa *rọ́se
Accusative *rọ́sas
Genitive *rọ́se *rosáru
Dative *rọ́sis

Second declension[edit]

Singular Plural
Nominative *múrusSr, E
Accusative *múru *múros
Genitive *múri *muróru
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 merger 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 their second declension counterparts. The declension probably did survive in Vulgar Latin itself while the case system was still more or less viable, although more and more nouns were gradually 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 nearly all nouns in this declension were feminine, they were generally moved into the first declension instead, as that was the larger and more productive class for feminine nouns. In Ibero-Romance, this happened to the exceptionally masculine word *dia (from diēs, which could be either masculine or feminine in Classical Latin) as well.

Singular Plural
Nominative *glácies *glácies
Accusative *glácie
Genitive *gláciei *glaciẹ́ru
Dative *glaciévusSr, E


At minimum, the nominative, accusative, and dative generally survived in personal pronouns. Forms of ille (or dialectally ipse, both originally demonstratives) were used as third-person pronouns and as definite articles.

ūnus developed into an indefinite article.

hic was lost; iste subsequently shifted to take its place. This left a gap that was typically filled by ipse. Any or all of these demonstratives could be reinforced by compounding with ecce or eccum, originally "behold!".

Special clitic pronouns developed from personal pronouns in unstressed positions.


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, with the exception of the passive participle, disappeared, and was replaced at first with reflexive constructions, which in Italo-Western Romance generally gave way to a combination of esse and the perfect participle. This was not in itself new, because such a formation had 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 passive participle, on the other hand, was widely used to form various periphrastic forms (see below). -ūtus was introduced as the regular passive participle ending for the second and third conjugations by analogy with -uī perfects.

The merger of -b- and -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). This present future survives in southern Italo-Romance and Sardinian; elsewhere, it was later reinforced or supplanted by a variety of periphrastic forms:

  • In Western Romance, a combination of the infinitive plus forms of habeō prevailed. From this, an imperfect of the future or conditional was constructed from the infinitive plus habēbam or habuī.
  • In Eastern Romance, *voleō (I want) (regularized form of velle) plus the infinitive was used. The conditional was formed from the infinitive plus habēbam, though with some irregularities.
  • Sardinian did not develop a synthetic future or conditional. In addition to the simple present as mentioned above, habeō ad (I have to) or dēbeō (I must) plus the infinitive were used to form the future.

Owing to its distinctiveness and irregularity, erō, the future of sum, was at first relatively immune to these changes, and survived into early medieval times in Western Romance. Eventually, however, it fell to analogy.

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.

A new perfect was constructed from sum plus the passive participle for certain verbs of motion or change of state and from habeō plus the passive participle for all other verbs. This new form competed with the old perfect (and, in the form habēbam + passive participle, with the pluperfect), which was frequently confined to the sense of a simple past, and occasionally ousted it even in that sense.

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 merger of these two conjugations, and often caused verbs to move from one to the other. The infinitive usually shows 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 *sapére 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 -ére to only a handful of irregular verbs.

The second and third conjugations ceased to be productive. Existing second and third conjugation verbs were often shifted to the regular, learner-friendly first conjugation through the frequentative suffixes -tō, -sō, and -icō, which subsequently lost their frequentative meaning. Third conjugation -iō verbs were generally moved to the fourth, an exception being faciō.

A new variant of the fourth conjugation was created through the merger of inchoative verbs in -ēscō with causatives in -īre. Only relics of this conjugation are found in Ibero-Romance (e.g. Portuguese florir), but nearly everywhere else, this conjugation grew until it became the only productive way to form new fourth conjugation verbs.


Word order in Vulgar Latin was considerably more rigid and fixed than in Classical Latin. A new active-stative word order developed: a group of verbs expressing motion, location, or change of state (typically the same verbs that used sum as their perfect auxiliary) could come before their subjects, which were semantically patients. In all other cases, subject-verb-object word order prevailed, and has generally gained ground at the expense of the aforementioned verb-subject order. Clitic pronouns (see above) preferentially attached to the end of the first word in a clause, creating apparent subject-object-verb order.

Subordinate clauses were invariably formed with quid or quod followed by the indicative or subjunctive; the accusative and infinitive as well as forms with ut disappeared.

Articles and numerals typically preceded their nouns, while adjectives generally followed. The use of suffixes for definite articles in Eastern Romance is due to membership in the Balkan sprachbund.

See also[edit]


  • Grandgent, Charles Hall (1907) An Introduction to Vulgar Latin (Heath's Modern Language Series), D. C. Heath & Company
  • Alkire, Ti; Rosen, Carol (2010) Romance Languages: A Historical Introduction, University of Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Vulgar Latin, József Herman, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997