Vulgar Latin (-200 to 800) was the Latin that ordinary people spoke during Roman times and for several hundred years afterwards. It died out in Britain and Roman Africa, but elsewhere it turned into the Romance languages, among them:
- 500s: Romanian
- 800s: French, Mozarabic
- 900s: Spanish, Italian, Occitan, Catalan
- 1000s: Sardinian
- 1200s: Galician, Portuguese, Ligurian
Classical Latin, the kind you see in books, is a literary dialect. It has changed little in the past 2,000 years. Vulgar Latin, meanwhile, never stopped changing: changing words, changing pronunciation, changing grammar.
In 476 Rome fell. Travel and education became the exception. Few had any reason to travel beyond the nearby market town. Few could read. That meant the Latin of each town was now changing independently of written Latin and faraway towns.
By the 600s Classical Latin was becoming a foreign language: those who could read started writing notes in the margin, like that saniore meant plus sano (healthier) or that ore meant bucca (mouth).
By the 800s Vulgar Latin was breaking apart into separate languages. Priests stopped giving sermons in Classical Latin because most could no longer understand it.
After 1066 even English was affected. English does not come from Vulgar Latin, but, mainly because of the Norman French Conquest, it has come to share some of its features:
- Soft c and g before e and i, like in the words conceive and giant.
- Silent h at the beginning of words like in hour and honour.
- Grammar: use of word order, prepositions and auxiliary verbs (especially have and be) in place of word endings.
- Words: about a fourth of English words come from Vulgar Latin, mostly by way of French during the 1200s and 1300s.
Words from Vulgar Latin, listed by when they entered English:
- by 1000s:
- beer: probably from biber, “a drink, beverage”.
- priest: *prester.
- mass: *messa, “eucharistic service,” literally “dismissal”, probably from the last word at mass.
- pear: *pera.
- plum: *pruna.
- use: *usare.
- mountain: *montanea.
- beast: *besta.
- piece: *pettia.
- destroy: *destrugere.
- merchant: *mercatantem.
- fool: probably from follis, “bellows; windbag, empty-headed person.”
- river: from *riparia, “riverbank, seashore, river”.
- arrive: from *arripare, “to touch the shore”.
- country: *(terra) contrata, “(land) lying opposite,” or “(land) spread before one”, from contra, “opposite, against”.
- age: *aetaticum.
- language: *linguaticum.
- round: *retundus, “like a wheel, circular, round”.
- piss: *pissiare.
- cherry: *ceresia.
- giant: *gagantem.
- certain: *certanus.
- beauty: bellitatem.
- sudden: *subitanus.
- tremble: *tremulare.
- outrage: from *ultraticum. “excess”, from ultra, “beyond”.
- prune: from *pruna, “plum”.
- escape: from *excappare, “get out of one’s cape, leave a pursuer with just one’s cape.”
- achieve: from *accapare, “come to a head”.
- chance: from *cadentia, “that which falls out” while playing dice.
- ancient: from *anteanus, “from before” the fall of Rome.
- disobedience: *disobedientia. Classical Latin used inobedientia.
- mock: perhaps from *muccare, “to blow the nose” (as a derisive gesture), from the word mucus.
- career: from *(via) cararia, “carriage (road), track for wheeled vehicles.”
- brilliant: perhaps from *berillare, “to shine like a beryl” stone.
(* = word reconstructed by linguists.)
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: Mainly Online Etymology Dictionary (2016); “Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin” (2007) by Nicholas Ostler; “A Natural History of Latin” (2004) by Tore Janson.