Early Latin and late Latin

Michèle FRUYT

University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4)


Latin is documented over a very long period of time, from the very first inscriptions in the 8th or 7th centuries BC through until the 8th century AD with the Merovingian Latin in northern Gaul (e.g. Gregory of Tours in the 6th century AD, Fredegar in the 7th century AD, etc.). During that period, the Latin language shows several instances of linguistic change. We must therefore divide this chronological chain into meaningful time periods. Unfortunately, however, a historical periodization does not coincide with the linguistic one, since the periods commonly used are determined by historical and political events and by the centuries in which the texts are attested. This may be useful for lexical studies, where the primary criterion is the first attestation of a given lexeme (cf. Perrot’s 1961 periodization), but it is inadequate for other linguistic aspects since languages develop over time along a continuum and, by definition, one cannot set precise borderlines within a continuum.

The two extremities of this continuum – the beginning of early Latin and the end of late Latin – do not form clear-cut boundaries. When does late Latin end and when do the Romance languages start? When does late Latin end and when does medieval Latin start? From a linguistic perspective, Merovingian Latin is to be situated at the end of antique late Latin, whereas, from a historical perspective, the Merovingian texts are considered by historians as belonging to medieval Latin, since this period already shows some of the characteristics of the medieval period.

Moreover, due to the diatopic variations of Latin that became stronger after the classical period (Adams 2007), the end of antique Latin depends on the geographical area in which it was spoken. In northern France, the first document written in Old-French (the Oaths of Strasburg in 842 AD) is older than the first Italian and Spanish texts.

At the other extremity of the continuum, dating the beginning of early Latin depends on random factors such as the discovery of new archaic inscriptions. We should also take into account the prehistory of Latin, since Latin was already spoken before the earliest inscriptions that have been discovered. And even within the Latin period itself, setting a precise starting point for late Latin presents serious difficulties.

Traditionally, the linguistic features of early and late Latin have been compared with the standardised forms and uses found in the classical texts and the resulting differences analysed in terms of their diastratic and diachronic variations. Indeed, among the several phenomena that brought about linguistic change, Latin was subject to diastratic variations that can be seen in its wide range of oral and written variants. And synchronic and diachronic diastratic variations interact with one another in the evolution1) of language.

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1) We use the word evolution voluntarily here, since evolution implies the process of development from a previous state, as opposed to change, which is a more general term, since it may also refer to a process due to external influences.