Western Romance (Vulgar Latin)

General Overview

Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Western Romance (or Vulgar Latin) was a variety of the Proto-Romance language, spoken in Northern Italy, Gaul, the Iberian peninsula and Northern Africa. The number of its speakers by the time of the fall of the Roman empire in the West may be estimated at some 15-20 millions people.


As the Roman Empire disintegrated and the Christian Church became the chief unifying force in southern and western Europe, communication and education declined and regional variation in pronunciation and grammar increased until gradually, after about 600, local forms of Western Romance were no longer mutually intelligible and were thereafter to be considered separate Romance languages.

Problem with the Name

As the ancestor of the modern Western Romance languages, Vulgar Latin is also sometimes called Proto-Romance, although Proto-Romance most often refers to hypothetical reconstructions of the language ancestral to the modern Romance languages rather than to the Vulgar Latin that is known from documents.


Written materials in Latin almost always make use of Classical Latin forms; hence, written documentation of Vulgar Latin is uncommon. Modern knowledge of the language is based on statements of Roman grammarians concerning "improper" usages, and on a certain number of inscriptions and early manuscripts, "lapses" in the writings of educated authors, some lists of "incorrect" forms and glossaries of Classical forms, and occasional texts written by or for persons of little education. Beyond this, early texts in the Romance languages (beginning in the 9th century) often throw light on earlier usages. All of these sources, used with some caution, have made it possible to piece together the structure and vocabulary of Vulgar Latin with some exactness.

Among the most useful texts in or containing Vulgar Latin are the Peregrinatio Etheriae Pilgrimage of Etheria, apparently written in the 4th century by an uneducated Spanish nun, and the Appendix Probi Appendix of Probus, a list of correct and incorrect word forms dating perhaps from as early as the 3rd century.


The classical opposition between short and long vowels was replaced by the opposition between opened and closed vowels. The classical diphthongs almost disemerged; new diphthong appeared from the stressed short (i.e. opened) vowels (the so called pan-Romance diphthongization). The process of palatalization brought about the existense of sounds like [ts], [t] and [d]. Final consonants dropped practically everywhere.


Such phonetic revolution led to grammar changes. The loss of the final -m and -s blurred the difference between the nominative, accusative and ablative; genitive and dative were replaced by prepositional constructions with de of and a(d) to.

The definite (from demonstrative pronoun ille this) and indefinite (from numeral unus one) articles appeared, as well as the 3rd person personal pronouns which Latin lacked. They also were formed from demonstrative pronouns.

The verb system also developed analytical features. The passive voice was constructed by the auxiliary esse (=> essere) to be with the past passive participle. The perfect, pluperfect and perfect anterior were formed with the auxiiliary habere to have and the past passive participle. A new future was formed with the infinitive followed by the auxiliary habere to have.

The infected verbal endings of the simple tenses were, howeer, preserved.


Stylistically, the spoken language had an extremely slang bias. For instance, the classical word caput head was replaced by testa which originally had the meaning of earthenware jar.

A lot of foreign words, from the local languages, but mainly from Greek and Germanic, penetrated the everyday speech.

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© Zdravko Batzarov