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region or sometimes even each town had its own form of speech.
Little by little the changes accumulated to such an extent that people
who lived a great distance apart were no longer able to understand
each other straightaway.

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A natural history of Latin

It is not possible to say much in detail about how all this took
place, as the sources we have from the period immediately following
the fall of the Roman empire are very meagre.Those who wrote at all
wrote in Latin, and in the few schools that did function people as far
as possible learnt the same written language as Cicero and Virgil
had used in the century before Jesus was born, more than half a
millennium earlier. No one wrote their spoken language down, and
so we do not know very much about how it must have sounded.
Nonetheless, we can draw some conclusions from the mistakes less
well-educated writers made when they tried to express themselves
in Classical Latin. Such mistakes occur already in antiquity and
allow us to build up a rough picture of the development.
As we might expect, spoken Latin was already changing in anti-
quity, while the written language that the schools taught remained
the same, so that by the ¬fth century the differences between writing
and speaking had become quite considerable. The situation can be
compared to English, which is still mainly spelled the way it was pro-
nounced in the seventeenth century. Similarly, for those who lived
in late antiquity the way Latin was written down was rather archaic
beside their own pronunciation.
An example is the fact that the sound [m] at the end of words
ceased to be pronounced quite early on. Since a good many Latin
words end in -m, this small change had a big effect. Another change
is that the pronunciation of vowels shifted quite markedly, so that
for instance u was pronounced as [o] and i as [e] in some contexts.
The combined effect of these changes meant that, for example,
where people wrote imperium romanum they actually said [imperio
romano]. And this pronunciation corresponds exactly to how this
expression is pronounced and spelled in modern Italian and Spanish:
imperio romano. Already in late antiquity Latin had moved a few
steps in the direction that was to lead to the modern Romance
languages.
Nonetheless, at this time there was still quite clearly only one
language.There are many Latin texts from the ¬fth and sixth centuries


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Latin and Europe

from different parts of Europe, but it is not possible to discover any
dialectal changes at all, although many have looked for them. The mis-
spellings that reveal the actual pronunciation are the same wherever
the texts are from. The few Latin texts that have survived from the
seventh and eighth centuries mainly indicate that their authors barely
had enough education to get the words onto the page. Some are so full
of strange features that we can only half understand them. In the ninth
century Charlemagne implemented a major educational reform.After
this there is a considerable resurgence in the writing of Latin through-
out the territory that had once been the Roman empire, only now the
written language reveals nothing at all about the everyday pronuncia-
tion as writers once again adhere faithfully to the ancient norms which
they have learnt in school.
But what language did people actually speak in the ninth and tenth
centuries? Was it still Latin or was it already the new languages
French, Spanish, Italian, and so on? This is not an easy question
to answer. We do not have much evidence as to how the spoken
language sounded, but that is not in fact the biggest problem. The big
question is how to determine which language people are speaking. In
principle there are two ways. Either you discover some facts about
how they speak and compare them with other known languages, or
else you ask the speakers themselves what their language is. In most
instances the result is the same either way. If you listen to the way
people speak in, say, Norfolk it sounds like English, and people in
Norfolk, if asked, will maintain that they speak English.
Things are much more dif¬cult when it comes to the people who
lived in France in the ninth century. We know enough about how
their language sounded to say that it did not sound particularly like
Latin. Indeed, it was not so different from the language that people
started calling fran§ais a couple of centuries later. From that point of
view it seems reasonable to say that they spoke French. On the other
hand, there is absolutely no evidence that the people who lived in
France at that time used this name for their language. On the contrary,
in some Latin texts from the ninth century there are expressions like


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A natural history of Latin

rustica romana lingua ˜the rustic Roman language™ or just lingua
romana ˜the Roman language™, referring to the spoken language.
In normal Latin usage lingua romana and lingua latina mean exactly
the same thing, the Latin language. On this evidence, then, it seems
as if the French of that period thought they spoke Latin, though
perhaps a somewhat rustic variety.
As far as Latin is concerned, it is not very important what people
thought they were speaking. What is quite clear is that those who
wrote did so in Latin. The situation remained like that in all the
countries where people had spoken Latin until new written lan-
guages were created. This happens for the ¬rst time in northern
France, where a number of writers in the eleventh century started
writing a language which was based on the spoken language of that
time. This was radically different from Latin, and after many
changes it has developed into modern written French. In Italy and
Spain similar things happened, but not until a couple of hundred
years later, in the thirteenth century. Gradually all the Romance
areas acquired their own written languages.
These new written languages obviously competed with Latin.
Until they were created everything was written in Latin, and so
they took over the function of Latin. But this happened only slowly
and gradually. In the beginning it was mainly writers of imaginative
literature who wrote in the new languages. Little by little people
started using them in private letters and simple documents such as
receipts and IOUs. Institutions like the courts and government
of¬ces instead clung on to Latin for hundreds of years. Even more
conservative was the Church, which kept Latin as its major language
for longer than any other institution. Higher education and all
kinds of science were also areas where Latin remained in use for
a long time.
In sum, both the written Romance languages and Latin were used
in parallel for a very long time, from the eleventh right down to the
twentieth centuries. It was close to a thousand years before the new
ways of writing de¬nitively ousted the old ways within the former
Roman empire.

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Latin and Europe


Missionaries, Latin, and foreign languages

In the year 432 a monk by the name of Patricius left the monastery
of L©rins in France to preach Christianity in Ireland. He succeeded
beyond all expectation, and is still remembered as St Patrick, the
patron saint of Ireland. He was the ¬rst in a long line of Christian
missionaries who dedicated their lives to spreading the word of
God to places where people did not speak Latin. Ireland had never
belonged to the Roman empire and the population spoke Irish, a Celtic
language. Patrick mastered the language and obviously used it in his
mission, but it seems that the men of the Church used Latin for read-
ing and writing. The Irish language certainly started being written
with Roman letters soon after Patrick™s mission had begun, but the
texts that have survived from the oldest times do not betray any
Christian content.
In Ireland the monastic system proved very successful, and in
consequence many of the Christians lived as monks. The monaster-
ies evidently became very effective schools, as pro¬ciency in Latin
was maintained there at a very high level during the following cen-
turies, when the ability to read and write became increasingly rare in
most of the rest of Europe. The Irish obviously had to learn Latin as
a completely foreign language, and they probably learnt to speak,
read, and write all at once in the monastic schools. For them it was
classical Latin from beginning to end. By contrast, on the Continent
people thought that they were speaking Latin, but their spoken lan-
guage was so different from the written language that they had great
dif¬culty learning to write in the classical way even when they did
manage to acquire some kind of schooling.
For several hundred years the Irish monks preserved pro¬ciency
in classical Latin better than anyone else, a fact which was to prove to
be of great signi¬cance. They also became eager missionaries them-
selves. At ¬rst they turned their attention to England, where there
had been Christians in the Roman period, but the Christian religion
had disappeared almost entirely after the invasions of the Angles

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A natural history of Latin

and the Saxons in the ¬fth century. However, about the year 600 the
Irish started missionary work in the north-west, almost at the same
time as a bishop sent out by the Pope from Rome started preaching
in Canterbury in the south-east.
All England became Christian within a hundred years, and so
Latin came back to the island again as an important foreign language.
Monastic life and monastic schools ¬‚ourished, and by the eighth
century no one was better at Latin than the best of the English. The
most important Latin writer of that century was Bede, who had the
honorary name of venerábilis ˜the venerable™. Bede was a monk in a
monastery close to what is now Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and dedi-
cated himself with great energy to a life of writing. Most of what he
produced was in the form of Bible commentary and other kinds of
religious literature, but he is best known for his detailed history of
England. His main goal is to describe how England was Christianized,
but he also writes at length about the history of the island more gen-
erally, starting with Caesar™s landing in 59 BCE and coming right
down to the year 731, when he himself stopped writing.
Bede wrote excellent Latin, for the most part in complete accord-
ance with classical rules, although the language was obviously not
his native tongue. He was an enthusiastic historian, whose writings
hold the reader™s interest because of their many anecdotes about all
kinds of people, often but not always with a moral to them. He made
a lasting contribution to western history by consistently dating
events from the birth of Christ. England at the time of Bede was a
multilingual society. At the beginning of his history he establishes
that there are ¬ve languages, Anglorum vid©licet, Brettonum,
Scottorum, Pictorum et Latinorum ˜namely those of the Angles, the
Britons, the Scots, the Picts and the Romans™. The language of the
Angles was of course an early form of English, that of the Britons
was what we call Welsh, the Scottish language was what we now call
Gaelic, while the language of the Picts has entirely disappeared, and
no one even knows which family of languages it belonged to. Latin is
also mentioned, but Bede says that it is a language which everyone
had in common through the study of the Scriptures. This is another

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Latin and Europe

way of saying that it was no one™s native language, and that the
Christians used it as a learned language, which is the role that Latin
had gradually acquired throughout western Europe.
Missionaries travelled from England to spread Christianity to the
East.The most famous of these is a man from Wessex named Winfrith,
but who called himself Bonifatius in Latin, a name which has in turn
been anglicized as Boniface. He was a contemporary of Bede who, at
the request of the Pope, preached among the Germans in many differ-
ent areas from Frisia on the coast of the North Sea all the way down to
Bavaria in the South.All these activities are documented in his extens-
ive correspondence which has been preserved. He was ¬nally mur-
dered by pagans in Frisia, and as a martyr was of course made a saint.
The mission in the east was connected to the fact that the empire of the
Franks spread wider and wider in the eighth century, so that by
the beginning of the ninth it included modern France, Belgium, the
Netherlands, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Germany, Austria, and a
great deal more.The man who accomplished this enormous expansion
was Charlemagne,who also made a major contribution to the develop-
ments which resulted in Latin becoming the most important lan-
guage in Europe for many centuries thereafter. This he did in two
ways. First, he engaged in a war of conquest in the east which he com-
bined with what one might benevolently call missionary zeal. This
mostly meant that his soldiers killed anyone who was not prepared to
accept Christianity. The survivors ended up belonging to a Church
which possessed great resources, and which could also rely on the
state™s intervention if it asked for it. This Church conducted all its
business in Latin. In this way, Latin gained its position as the language
of religion and administration in large swathes of central Europe.
Second, Charlemagne was an enthusiastic advocate of education.
He focused a great deal of effort on raising the level of attainment and
reforming the schools. In this he was helped by an Englishman named
Alcuin, who did much to ensure that the future priests”for these
were the people who went to school”learnt correct Latin according to
classical rules.Alcuin was also a central ¬gure among a whole circle of
learned men who were anxious to revive the knowledge of antiquity

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A natural history of Latin

and its literature.With some justice this movement is usually referred
to as the Carolingian renaissance. The authors who belonged to this
group obviously wrote in Latin, and frequently made great efforts to
write according to ancient models. A well-known example is a biogra-
phy of Charlemagne himself written by a man called Einhard. This is
set out according to exactly the same schema as the great biographies
of the Roman emperors which Suetonius had composed in the second
century ce. Einhard tells us all sorts of things about the emperor
Charlemagne, one thing being that he was eminenti statúra ˜of
extraordinary height™. That is true. His preserved remains show that
he was about six foot six inches tall. He was also in cibo et potu
t©mperans ˜moderate in the consumption of food and drink™. The
emperor knew Latin very well, and could speak it as ¬‚uently as his
mother tongue, but curiously he never really learnt to write. He was
not taught to do it as a child, and his attempts to do so as an adult were
not very successful.
As a result of Charlemagne™s efforts, by the beginning of the ninth
century almost the whole of western and central Europe had
acquired a uni¬ed Church with priests who were relatively well edu-
cated in Latin. Hardly anyone else had any education at all. This was
the beginning of a period which lasted for something like half a mil-
lennium in which Latin was completely dominant as the written lan-
guage in Europe, and furthermore was used as a spoken language
among the educated. The Carolingian empire soon fell apart again,
and Europe underwent many political changes in the centuries that
followed, but Latin continued to expand into new areas for several
hundred years. To illustrate the role that the language assumed, let
us have a look at what happened in Britain.

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