Early Latin and late Latin

Michèle FRUYT

University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4)



3. The speed and nature of evolution in Latin

The various phenomena that characterise language change do not all evolve at the same speed. Some changes in Latin started earlier than others. Although the 1st century AD is not usually included in what is called late Latin, we can already find some evolved features in documents of this period, while other features had not yet been subjected to linguistic change and evolved only later, in different periods of late Latin.

3.1. Hierarchical upgrading

In many cases, diachronic evolution coincided with an upgrading at the diastratic level of the language: a linguistic element that belonged to a lower or a technical level of language in the archaic period would become a normal feature in the standard language of the later period.

This happened to the verb mandūcāre (> Fr. manger), attested in early Latin with the specific and depreciative meaning ‘masticate, eat in great quantity’, since it was built on mandūcus ‘figure with champing jaws in Atellan comedy’ (cf. mandūcō, -ōnis and mandō, -ōnis ‘glutton’; mandere ‘chew, bite’). But mandūcāre then lost its specific semantic features and connotation; it underwent a semantic evolution from a specific (hyponym) to a generic (hyperonym) meaning ‘eat’, becoming a parasynonym of comedere ‘eat’ (> Sp. comer). This was an early innovation since it already existed in the spoken language of Augustus’s time (see § 2.1.). Mandūcāre is also used by Petronius (46,2; 56,4) as a hyperonym meaning ‘eat’ – where it coexisted with the archaic and classical comedere ‘eat’ – in the low speech level of the freedmen. By the time of the Christian authors, even at the highest levels of language in Tertullian, Augustine and Hieronymus’s prose, mandūcāre was functioning as a generic term for ‘eat’.

3.2. Progressive accumulation of evolved and emergent features

All through its history, Latin showed a progressive, increasing accumulation of evolved features in the spoken language. But since the actual stage of evolution, defined as an increasing presence of evolved and emergent features, was only partly reflected in the texts, it is difficult for us to say exactly when these features actually became commonplace in the spoken language. The situation in which illiterate people did not understand the conservative language that the priests used when they gave their sermons and when they communicated among themselves had probably existed for a very long time before the Council of Tours, in 813 AD, requested that priests should use in their sermons the vernacular language derived from Latin or the Germanic languages spoken by the Germanic populations established in the Roman empire (E. Werminghoff, MGH, Concilia 2,1, 286-293, canon 17, p. 288: Et ut easdem omelias quisque aperte transferre studeat in rusticam Romanam linguam aut Thiotiscam, quo facilius cuncti possint intellegere quae dicuntur).

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