Lingua latina omnia vincit: How Latin became the language of the Roman Empire

by on November 13, 2015

Introduction

For a dead language, Latin is pretty lively. Sure, people sometimes imagine Latin as an archaic language confined to stuffy university classrooms, Catholic masses, or movies like The Exorcist. But chances are that if you live anywhere in the Western world, you have already encountered some form of Latin numerous times today—probably without even realising it. The English vocabulary is largely comprised of Latin cognates (it is estimated that over 60% of English words come from Latin [1]) and the Romance languages, Latin’s daughters, owe the most of their vocabularies and grammatical structure to this linguistic alma mater (‘nourishing mother’). There are also dozens of Latin expressions that have found their way into regular English use—some of them are a little obscure, but many you’ve probably used without even thinking about it; quid pro quo, carpe diem, cum laude, exempli gratia (‘e.g.’), et cetera (‘etc.’), just to name a few. Latin is also ubiquitous in many legal, medical, and scientific terminologies throughout the world, and even countries with no historic ties to the Roman Empire have adopted Latin mottoes. Historically, Latin was the lingua franca of Western scholars and statesmen, and most European schools taught Latin from a very early age.

The point is that Latin is everywhere, as pervasive in the West as the air we breathe—surrounding us so much that most of the time, we don’t even notice its presence. This is a pretty incredible legacy for a language, especially one that has long since passed out of colloquial use, and it is this extraordinary legacy that has inspired generations of scholars to study how Latin managed to survive—and thrive—for centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet there is another question, less frequently discussed but certainly no less important: how did Latin become the language of the Roman Empire in the first place? After all, it was hardly the only language in the Apennine peninsula (modern Italy) when Rome was rising to power. There were over a dozen other languages (lack of written records make it difficult to establish exactly how many there were, but this is a conservative estimate that includes dialects), and compared to some of them, Latin was pretty insignificant. There was even a point when it looked as if Latin might disappear entirely. So how did this tribal language, once threatened with extinction by its more well-established neighbours, manage not only to survive, but to engulf its competitors?

Latin’s origins

First, we must briefly consider Latin’s humble beginnings, and in doing so address one of the very first questions that naturally arises in any discussion of Latin’s origins—why the language isn’t called “Roman.” After all, it was the language of Rome, and it was the power and influence of the Roman Empire that spread Latin throughout Europe and beyond. Furthermore, the European languages that come from Latin are known as the “Romance” languages. So it seems very strange indeed that the name for the language of the Romans isn’t “Roman,” or a similar derivative of Romanus, which was the Roman’s name for their race.

The answer to this question is a simple one; it was the Romans themselves who referred to their language as lingua Latīna—“the Latin language” (literally ‘tongue’). This is an important historical clue, as it would indicate that the language had already been established in Latium prior to the founding of Rome, or at least before the Romans had become influential in the region. Latium was a small, west-central region of the peninsula in the southern portion of modern Lazio, which was occupied by a tribe of people known as the “Latins”. Lack of a written record makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly when Latium was established, but the evidence there is suggests that it was most likely at some point between the sixth and second millennia BCE [2]. During this period a number of other language communities were being established throughout the Italian peninsula as well, and the first speakers of Latin were likely settling the land at around the same time as the forerunners of other Italic language communities.

Latin’s early contemporaries

It is a bit difficult to differentiate between all of the languages that were spoken in the Italian peninsula before they were effaced by Latin, and it is a topic on which the experts sometimes disagree. This is due to the fragmentary nature of most of the evidence (in some cases, all that remains of a language are a few small inscriptions), and to linguistic similarities that make it difficult to determine whether a “language” is actually just a local variant of another language. In many cases, lack of a written record also forces us to approximate when and where each language may have been spoken. Having taken this caveat (another Latin word!) into consideration, we’ll take a brief glance at what the linguistic landscape in Italy may have looked like before it was dominated by Latin.

The Indo-European family of languages that developed in the Italian peninsula is referred to as the “Italic” language family. Latin belongs to this group, as do many of its early neighbours. The most widespread Italic language before the spread of Latin was Oscan, which will be discussed in greater depth further along in this article. Umbrian was closely related to Oscan (the two languages are sometimes collectively referred to as “Osco-Umbrian”), with Umbrian being more popular towards the north, while Oscan speakers were prolific in the south. Other neighboring Italic languages include South Picene, which was spoken along the central Adriatic coastline, and Faliscan, which was spoken near Rome. Finally, there was Venetic, an Italic language which was spoken not in the peninsula itself, but rather at the head of the Adriatic Sea between the east valley of the Po River and Istria [3]. Latin had some non-Italic neighbors as well, including Gaulish, Rhaetic, Greek, and Etruscan. Etruscan in particular would prove a formidable linguistic foe for Latin.

Etruscan

Much of Etruscan’s allure lies in its attendant mystique, and what we do know only makes these mysteries all the more tantalising. For instance, we know that the Etruscans were the wealthiest and most powerful people in the Italian peninsula for over 300 years, and quite possibly considerably longer. They were unparalleled masters of the culinary arts, renowned as soothsayers, and appear to have been trendsetters in the fashion world of the ancient Mediterranean. Etruscan preoccupation with the afterlife left many clues about how they lived—elaborately decorated Etruscan tombs show vivid scenes from everyday life including hunts and animal sacrifice, and the relics bespeak an urbane and luxurious lifestyle. There is a mystery, though, one that has been plaguing Etruscologists for centuries and still remains unresolved: Where did they come from? It is clear that they did not come with the forerunners of the other language communities that have already been discussed, not only because the Etruscans were already firmly established when we first have evidence of the others arriving, but also because their language is vastly dissimilar from the others. Surprisingly, it is more structurally similar to Central Asian Turkish than any of the Italic languages, or even its contemporaries farther afield such as Punic, Greek, or Gaulish [4].

The Etruscan language and culture is also significant to this question because in some ways, it was both a parent and rival to Rome and to Latin. At one point Rome was under the dominion of the Etruscans, whose influence had between 740–450 BCE spread significantly beyond Etruria/the Twelve Cities to include a large portion of Italy’s western coast, the island of Aleria (off the western coast of Italy), and the valley of the Po in the north [5]. While the Romans disdained certain aspects of Etruscan culture, mostly those pertaining to their hedonistic lifestyle, they embraced others. The purple toga, for instance, which was a symbol of privilege in ancient Rome, was an Etruscan borrowing. The structure of Etruscan society was also admired and emulated by the Romans, and this would ultimately prove to be one of Rome’s greatest advantages. There are quite a few Etruscan borrowings in Latin vocabulary (many of them pertaining to food or fashion), and these provide additional insight about Etruscan culture. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Etruscans gave the Latin-speaking people the means to make Latin a written language: an adapted version of a Greek alphabet.

Oscan

Oscan was the most widely spoken Italic language before the spread of Latin, prominent in Bruttium, Lucania, Campania, Samnium, and elsewhere throughout central and southern Italy. Spread across such a vast expanse, many local variants of Oscan emerged, although it is somewhat difficult to clearly differentiate them given the fragmentary nature of surviving Oscan texts and inscriptions. There is evidence of Oscan/Latin bilingualism (the poet Ennius wrote in both languages, as well as Greek), and renowned linguistic scholar and Latinist Dr. Nicholas Ostler estimates that they were about as mutually intelligible as modern Spanish and Portuguese [6]. As a widespread and well-established language, it seems as though Oscan may have been poised, at some point, to take over where Latin was spoken, especially since it appears that Oscan was not difficult for speakers of Latin to pick up. But it would not be so.

On the coat-tails of empire

Ultimately, Latin has Rome to thank for its enduring success, although it long outlived the vehicle that sped it to greatness. Without Rome, Latin quite possibly would have died out millennia ago, and the linguistic landscape as we know it would be drastically different. Though there were a variety of factors that contributed to Latin’s success, nearly all of them stemmed from Rome’s military conquests and remarkable feats of infrastructure, although conquest alone has rarely throughout the course of history been sufficient to propagate a language with any lasting success. The relationship was by no means commensalistic, though—having this well-established central language became a tremendous asset to the Empire. It was a source of national pride, and having a single language spoken in the military promoted unity and camaraderie.

As it turns out, having a military that spoke Latin was integral to the language’s success. In his book Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, Dr. Ostler identifies three reasons why Latin succeeded where Etruscan and Oscan ultimately failed: “it was a farmers’ language, a soldiers’ language, and a city language,” he asserts [7]. The seeds of Latin were sown throughout the Italian peninsula with every Roman conquest. Rather than destroying the fields of their enemies, Rome seized fertile tracts of land on which to settle retired soldiers. Soon, well-situated farmers throughout the peninsula were speaking Latin, which increasingly came to be regarded as a language of prestige. Another Roman policy was to compel the youth of the tribes they conquered to enlist in the well-regulated Roman army, where it would become necessary for them to learn Latin, which they would then bring back to their families or wherever they retired. Finally, Latin was spoken in Rome and in the cities that the Romans were establishing in conquered territories.

Etruscan had the benefit of being spoken in a cosmopolitan and civil urban environment, among some of most the wealthy and influential individuals in the region, and it was most likely spoken in the fields as well. The Etruscans had long controlled vast swathes of north Italy and later a large portion of the western coast, and their language appeared to be firmly rooted in many of these areas. Yet for all their wealth and advantages, the Etruscans were not equipped to defend themselves against the growing power of Rome. One by one, Etruscan cities were forced to yield to the very people they had once ruled.

Oscan, on the other hand, was a language of both farmers and soldiers. Its weakness lay in the fact that most Oscan speakers were rural tribes, with no central seat of power. Rome, on the other hand, had a well-organised urban command structure that allowed it to cement its authority in Latium and the colonies beyond. The Oscan-speaking tribes, even when they formed alliances with one another, could never hope to match a power such as this. One by one, they too fell to the encroaching power of Rome.

By the first century AD, Latin—the language of farmers, cities, and soldiers—had conquered the Apennine peninsula.


 

[1] Devlin, F. (2001, June 14). U.S. Study of “Dead” Latin Is Making a Comeback. In National Geographic News.

[2] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 22). New York: Walker & Company.

[3] Italic languages. (2015). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/topic/Italic-languages

[4] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 30). New York: Walker & Company.

[5] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 31). New York: Walker & Company.

[6] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 25). New York: Walker & Company.

[7] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 56-57). New York: Walker & Company.

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