BMCR 2001.02.20

Vulgar Latin

, , Vulgar Latin. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. xiv, 130 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 0271020008 $17.95 (pb).

This revised, updated, and expanded translation offers much more than just an English version of József Herman’s 1967 primer Le latin vulgaire. A simple translation would in itself have been welcome, since for over three decades the original book has been one of the more useful basic introductions to late and non-literary Latin. Its value for teaching purposes in the English-speaking world was, however, seriously hindered by the complex and elegant French in which it was composed, which proved an insurmountable obstacle to many of the students who stood most in need of the kind of brief elementary introduction this book offers.

Now, however, this revised translation offers not merely help for students with limited French, but a new version which even those whose French is better than their English will want to read instead of the original. This translation is not based on the published French text, but on an expanded and heavily revised version prepared by the original author. The additions comprise not only major changes to several chapters but also small corrections and clarifications added throughout the text. For the most part the additions and changes have been very well integrated and produce a seamless whole. Full account (to the extent practical in such a short work) has been taken of new developments since the original publication, but it is a pity that the author did not pay more attention to the suggestions made by reviewers of the original work, some of which could have led to real improvements.1

The bibliography (which was previously grossly inadequate even for a basic introduction) has been not only updated and expanded to a very respectable 6 pages, but also adapted for English-speaking readers. There are still, however, some regrettable omissions, such as J.B. Hofmann’s Lateinische Umgangssprache.2 A map of relevant European languages (slightly peculiar in its inclusions and omissions) and a chart of the chronology of the authors and texts mentioned have also been added. These additions, especially the new bibliography, greatly increase the book’s usefulness.

It is difficult to judge the translation qua translation, since the French version on which it is based remains unpublished, but as a work of English it is good. It is clear, natural, and easy to follow. The simple and straightfoward style is very different from that of the original work, but this stylistic shift is endorsed by the author, who comments that ‘the original French text, in its traditional formulas and syntactic complexity, followed an ancient Sorbonne tradition, from which I imagine I shall never be free, but under [Wright’s] pen it has been turned into clear English prose, easy to read, “user-friendly,” which is always desirable in a work on linguistics.’ (p. viii) The felicitous translation process was undoubtedly aided by the fact that Wright is a respected expert on Vulgar Latin in his own right.3

The book is divided into eight chapters. The first, ‘”Vulgar” Latin: Terminology and Problems,’ considers possible definitions of ‘Vulgar Latin’ and delimits the scope of the work. The second, ‘The Historical Context’, briefly explains the most relevant facts of Roman and medieval history. ‘Sources and Methods’ then introduces background on the use of inscriptions, curse tablets, letters, medical and other technical treatises, Christian religious texts, and other standard sources for Vulgar Latin. These three introductory chapters provide the basic background needed for understanding the rest of the book; they are admirably clear and concise and present the generally accepted facts rather than any controversial theories, but as a direct consequence of these virtues they gloss over most complexities, ambiguities, and difficulties. Thus they function well as an introduction to the rest of this book, but they do not enable students to understand fully the issues involved or to evaluate the way that scholars handle the evidence.

The next four chapters, ‘Phonetic Evolution,’ ‘Inflectional Morphology,’ ‘Phrases and Sentences,’ and ‘Vocabulary,’ cover the main changes between Classical Latin and early Romance, such as vowel mergers, the collapse of the case system, the development of fixed word order, and vocabulary shifts. These chapters make up the body of the work and offer a good, largely uncontroversial introduction to the basic types of changes involved, but they are rarely specific enough to allow students to understand or analyze late Latin on their own; the focus is necessarily on trends rather than on lists of specific shifts, so individual changes are presented as examples rather than as the main points of the discussion. Quotations of Latin texts are short and comparatively infrequent, but well chosen and on occasion amusing (e.g. de laredo vero . . . qualiter melius comedatur, ad hora expono‘I will now explain about the best way to eat lard.’). All examples are accompanied by translations, but these would probably be more use to students with limited background if they were more literal. Also, I think that linguistic developments are best taught with a higher ratio of concrete examples to abstract discussion than is found in this book (in other words, I wish there were more Latin quotations), but this is a point on which there is legitimate disagreement, and it is certainly true that the inclusion of more quotations would have forced Herman to cut his bare-bones discussion still further or lengthen the book and thus sacrifice the brevity which makes it so useful.4

The final chapter, ‘More General Problems,’ provides a concise summary of the development of Vulgar Latin and discusses the vexed questions of when late Latin ceased to be Latin and started to be the Romance languages, and when and how geographical diversification entered into Latin. I found this chapter to be less coherent and reliable than the others, perhaps in part because the issues it deals with are too disputed to be handled well in small space in an elementary text but also because Herman makes some unnecessarily sweeping unsupported generalizations. For example, the definition of a language as ‘a means of communication that is learned naturally and spontaneously, used from childhood by every member of a speech community in every aspect of life’ (p. 109) would be rejected by most linguists (especially those working on the many modern languages which are used in multilingual communities for only certain ‘aspects of life’). Similar generalizations also occur, but more rarely, in other chapters, as when the replacement of exercitus by hostis as the word for ‘army’ is explained (p. 101) as ‘just a lexical consequence of the dread that all people feel of all armies’ (a dread which I find it hard to ascribe to, for example, fifth-century Athenians looking at their own army).

The chief virtue of this book is its brevity and simplicity; it would not be at all unreasonable to ask an undergraduate to read the whole thing in a week. I know of no other book on the subject which rivals it in this respect. At the same time, it is no substitute for more substantial introductions to Vulgar Latin, such as that of Väänänen.5 It is also somewhat unsuitable for students with absolutely no prior training in linguistics, since technical terms like ‘voiced bilabial fricative’ (p. 39) are sometimes used without definition or explanation, as are some phonetic symbols. The linguistic background needed is minimal, however, and anyone with even a single linguistics course behind him or her should be able to cope with the terminology.

The book also has a few flaws which are not inevitable consequences of its brevity. One general difficulty concerns the question of what, exactly, the book is about. Herman makes an admirable attempt to face this problem head-on by examining the meaning of the (admittedly unfortunate but now standard) term ‘Vulgar Latin’ in the first chapter, and he settles on the following definition: ‘Vulgar Latin is used to refer to the set of all those innovations and trends that turned up in the usage, particularly but not exclusively spoken, of the Latin-speaking population who were little or not at all influenced by school education and by literary models’ (p. 7). This definition is followed by two pages of clarification, which make it clear that Vulgar Latin, as Herman conceives it, is not the same as post-classical Latin but existed as early as the Republic. Wright, in his own foreword, shares this view: ‘Classical Latin was spoken by almost nobody and written by only a few, whereas Vulgar Latin was spoken by millions of people over a period of a thousand years’ (p. ix). Yet in the four chapters on linguistic changes which form the core of this book, ‘Vulgar Latin’ seems really to mean ‘late Latin,’ as in passages like the following: ‘Vulgar Latin continued using the usual techniques of coordination and subordination, of course, but it reduced the number of conjunctions and relative words that were available to combine sentences into a single unit. Coordination essentially remained as it always had been…’ (p. 87).

The other general difficulty concerns the references. References to modern literature are very sparse, and while a text unencumbered by endless references is desirable in a basic introduction like this one, the book would be much more useful if it had periodic footnotes indicating where to go for further information on the specific points under discussion. The lack of references is particularly grating in controversial areas, when Herman makes it clear that he is presenting the views of specific individuals but does not give us their names or any of the information necessary to find a more complete exposition of those ideas (e.g. p. 117). References to ancient sources are sometimes too incomplete to enable one to find the source of a quotation (e.g. p. 116), which is frustrating given the brevity and lack of context of the extracts quoted. And it is not kind, in a book for beginners, to provide references which can only be handled by those in the know (e.g. ‘Cavenaile’s collection’ of papyrus texts (p. 22), when this collection does not appear in the bibliography).6

The book is generally well produced, with very few typographical errors, and the only misleading error I found was a confusion between phonetic symbols (p. 39). It is also admirably sturdy even in the paperback version: my copy has survived intact through six long-distance flights, among other abuse.

In general, despite the relatively minor drawbacks I have noted, this is an exceedingly useful basic introduction to the subject, and its appearance will be very welcome to anyone who teaches undergraduate or graduate courses involving Vulgar Latin.


1. See especially the reviews by A. Ernout, Revue de philologie 43 (1969) pp. 331-2; A. Stefenelli, Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 84 (1968) pp. 485-7; and M. Durry, Revue des études latines 45 (1967) pp. 501-2.

2. Heidelberg 1951, but now perhaps best consulted in the updated Italian version prepared by L. Ricottilli (Bologna 1985).

3. He is the author of, among other works, Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France (Liverpool 1982) and Latin and the Romance Languages in the Early Middle Ages (London 1991, reprinted Penn State 1996).

4. One solution to this problem is to use this book along with a collection of texts, such as that given in E. Pulgram’s Italic, Latin, Italian: 600 BC to AD 1260: Texts and commentaries (Heidelberg 1978). (This is another item that could to advantage have been included in Herman’s bibliography.)

5. V. Väänänen, Introduction au latin vulgaire (Paris 1963).

6. The reference is to Robert Cavenaile, Corpus Papyrorum Latinarum (Wiesbaden 1958).