Early Latin and late Latin

Michèle FRUYT

University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4)



1. The heterogeneity of late Latin texts

The late Latin texts present us with particular difficulties, since they demonstrate wide heterogeneity on both diastratic and stylistic levels. This is partly due to the growing divergence between the spontaneous, everyday language of illiterate speakers – the majority of the population – and the other levels of language, such as the everyday language of literate speakers and, a fortiori, the elegant written language of the most literary authors. The highest degree of literariness in late Latin is illustrated by numerous poetical texts (e.g. Claudius Claudianus around 400 AD, Dracontius and Apollinaris Sidonius in the 5th century AD) as well as by artistic and sometimes even artificial prose (e.g. Tertullian 3rd century AD). While these texts are clearly far removed from the contemporary, spontaneous language of the time, the lowest level, everyday language of the illiterate people, remains beyond our field of observation.

In a given late Latin text, it is difficult to distinguish between those elements that reflect the contemporary language i.e. the common, structural linguistic features of the time that are shared by the whole linguistic community, and those that are specific to the style of the author, i.e. both his individual style and the features of his writing that derive from a given literary genre. These stylistic factors are very important in the late Latin texts, whose chronological order they often contradict. Some later features of Latin may often be attested in an earlier author, while a later author may be conservative in his vocabulary, syntax, morphology and his respect for classical grammar.

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