Early Latin and late Latin

Michèle FRUYT

University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4)


A distinction must be made between late Latin as a historical period and the evolution of the Latin language, which did not all appear at the same time and which may emerge in periods before what is usually termed late Latin.

It would appear that the first important innovations that led to changes in Latin due to linguistic evolution started in the 1st century AD. The documents written in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD give more genuine indications than many later ones for our knowledge of the usual spoken language. The interpretation of some later documents is sometimes difficult, due to their heterogeneity. In these later texts, it is necessary to make a distinction between the structural linguistic features reflecting the contemporary usual language and patterns which are used for stylistic reasons. This distinction should be made before proceeding to a rigorous scientific analysis.

While the evolution of the Latin language can be described as a progressive accumulation of evolved and emergent features that developed continuously over the centuries, there have also been some periods of acceleration in the speed of the changes and some convergence of features. Furthermore we see that there have been turning-points, as evidenced in certain texts, and that these give us a vision of what had been happening previously in the everyday language of the majority of the speech community.

When a given linguistic element is documented in both early and late Latin, but not in classical Latin, the reason is in the first place likely to be found in the limited properties of the texts, and secondly in the nature of the classical texts themselves, their literary genres and the subjects that they dealt with. But these gaps in the classical texts may also be due to other phenomena that create a certain degree of discontinuity, such as cyclic renewal and lexical coinage. These have their origins either in a literary theory or idea of the author himself or they are the result of the reproduction and adaptation of other productive word-formation patterns. Lexical innovation such as we have discussed here and which is built around a matrix or model, by definition, involves the creation of innovative elements within the continuation of an existing pattern.

Retour au §13 ou Retour au plan ou Aller à la Bibliographie