Akorbi Explains: How Romance Languages Dominated the West

Statue of Marcus AureliusAkorbi Linguistic History Series: How the Romance Languages Came to Dominate the West

The Latin language and its successors, the Romance languages, are one of the Roman Empire’s most influential legacies in Western culture. Even English, considered a Germanic language, has been hugely influenced by Latin. Anytime you use the word agenda (from the Latin gerund agendum), naive (nativus), or obvious (obvious), you are borrowing from Latin.

The Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian, to name a few, are even more connected to Latin as they evolved from Vulgar Latin between the sixth and ninth centuries. In our first entry in the Akorbi Linguistic History Series, we will discuss the history of how Romance languages came to dominate Western culture.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire at its height (117 CE) was the most extensive political and social structure in the history of Western Civilization. The Empire stretched from Egypt to Great Britain and controlled the entire Mediterranean. To say the Roman Empire was expansive is an understatement.

As Rome spread, language followed, and Latin displaced many of the local dialects of conquered regions. Iberian in Spain, Gaulish in Gaul, and Punic in Northern Africa became squeezed out of use and replaced by Latin. In addition, the interconnectedness of Rome’s territory helped to standardize Latin across the entire territory. While there were small regional differences, trade and travel between regions helped to stabilize dialectic change.

Latin Evolves in Vulgar Latin After the Fall of Rome

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, Latin evolved into what linguistic historians call Vulgar Latin. The loss of trade and travel between the regions of the former Roman territories caused regional dialectic differences, previously stabilized by a central state, to diverge over time. Without any unifying state institutions, like any language, Latin changed.

By the end of the first millennium, the varieties of Romance languages had changed so much that the more distant geographical dialects were mutually unintelligible and distinct. One of the first documented branches of Vulgar Latin was an older French dialect, Gallo-Romance, in the Oaths of Strasbourg. While there is no explicit date for the development of the Romance Languages, it was during this period that linguistic historians believe that the Romance languages split from Vulgar Latin enough to be considered a different language.

The influence of Latin is extensive across western civilization because of this process. Although there are dozens of languages and thousands of dialects across Western Civilization, most can trace their roots back to Latin and the Roman Empire. Although Lain is a “dead language,” we see evidence of its influence on a daily basis thanks to the incredible reach of the ancient Roman Empire.

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