How Language Changes: From Latin to the Romance Languages

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

The history of language tells us that, over a period of time one language can transform into several. Specific words within the language change over time as well, due to assimilation, consonant weakening, vowel weakening, and sound shift. But, how exactly does one language travel to different places, and turn into different languages in each of those places?

Five books with the titles Deutsch, Français, Español, Portugues, and English
Latin was one of many Indo-European languages that, over time, gave birth to several new languages known as the Romance languages, such as French, Spanish and Portuguese. (Image: Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock)

Predicting Transformation of Language

We’re going to look at how one language becomes several, because that is the more common process than one language turning into just another one by itself. We’ve seen the general processes, but we can only know to a certain extent what is going to happen in the specific sense.

There are certain predictions we can make, there are certain probabilities, but they are not definite. There are many choices. Let’s take the sound th, for instance, which is written t-h in English. As languages go, that sound is not extremely common and, usually if it arises, eventually it’s going to go away and turn into something else. But we can’t be sure what th will turn into. If we see it in a language, we know it’s fragile—it probably won’t be around for too long—but what it’s going to turn into, we’re not sure.

For example, in some vernacular American Englishes, like Brooklynese, it turns into something like a t sound. Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners might say, “Dem tings”, instead of things. “Norton, dem tings!” T, that’s what happened to th. On the other hand, if you were a Cockney person, often it becomes an f sound, “Dem fings,” so, “Fings ain’t what they used to be,” that kind of thing. That’s what happens to th; we know it’s fragile, but what’s going to happen to it? There are various things that probably won’t. It’s not going to turn into a b, but it might turn into a t, or a th, or an s, etc.

Multiply that by all of the sounds in a language, and we can imagine how we can get from point A to not only point B, but C, D, E, F, G, H, and I. Those will be different languages. We’ve seen that speakers of one language migrate in different groups to different places. Each place language changes, which cannot be stopped, happens but in different ways because it’s going to happen in different ways in each place.

After a certain period of time, all the people in each place no longer speak the original language, they’re speaking what are different languages. Usually by then that first language has died out for one reason or another and just these new languages remain that are akin, but are definitely not the same thing.

Learn more about how language changes-sound change.

Why Did Latin Transform into Different Languages?

The creation of many new languages became particularly common since the Neolithic period, when humans started moving around. The advent of agriculture, which created a population pressure, led to people moving away to lose contact with the original group. And this happened many times, which eventually resulted in the formation of many different languages.

That’s what is believed to have happened with Indo-European languages. People moved into Europe and they also moved eastward of that, and the result was a whole bunch of new languages where there had once existed only one, or maybe one with very different dialects.

One example of this was Latin. Latin started as just a language that was spoken in what is now Italy. Latin was one of many Indo-European languages, it was one of a little cluster of languages called Italic. None of them live today except Latin. Latin was just one of the bunch, just like today Spanish is one of the bunch of Romance languages. Latin was just one of the bunch.

Inscription in Latin on a large slab of stone from the Colosseum in Rome.
Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, and as the Roman Empire expanded, Latin spread to many parts of Europe, where it slowly transformed into new languages. (Image: Wknight94/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The people who created the Roman Empire spoke Latin. So, Latin ended up moving around a lot more than the typical language did or even does today. The Roman Empire was relatively unique in that the Romans, as they spread far beyond their original boundaries, had a mission to spread Romanness. This included, to an extent, imposing their language on other people.

That was a relatively new thing at the time. One can be an empire without having any particular concern with whether or not your subjects speak your language. Throughout human history, it has very often been the case that there was no concern with that.

As counterintuitive as it can be today, there was once a Persian Empire. What we know of now as Iran used to be a major geopolitical player in the world. The Persian Empire extended westward all the way to the shores of Greece and a considerable degree eastward of what is now Iran. Persian remains spoken in Iran. If subjects were brought to what was then Persia, then they probably learned Persian. But as far as the Persian Empire in Babylonia or the Persian Empire anywhere else, Persian was not spoken.

It was only used for very official purposes and the Persian rulers accommodated to the languages that were used in those places. The common coin language was Aramaic, which is not related to Persian. Persians had no interest in seeing everybody speak Persian.

The Romans were different in this way; they were interested in spreading Latin around. As Latin spread to various western and eastern European locations, it was imposed upon people who were speaking other languages. But, more to the point, suddenly Latin was spoken all over this vast region. Once you’ve got Latin in what was then Gaul, these are people speaking Latin completely separately from the people speaking it down in Italy. Really, never the twain shall meet in any real way.

This means that Latin is not only developing from point A to point B in Italy, but then you’ve got Latin doing that same thing in Gaul, Spain, not to mention other parts of Italy, in Romania. The point is that you start having new versions of Latin. Latin is developing in different directions in each place.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

How Latin Transformed into the Romance Languages

Once the process of development of new versions of Latin is started, if you fast-forward, what you’re going to have are Latins that are so different from each other that they are new languages. That’s exactly what happened to create what we know as the Romance languages. The big five are French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.

The five of them give great evidence of being related; if you learn one, another one is pretty easy. Spanish and Portuguese are so similar they almost feel like dialects of the same thing. They are all basically different languages.

We can think about how Latin became them just by looking at one word. For example, the word for grass in Latin was herba. It’s our English word for herb with an a at the end: herba. That same word exists in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian, but in evolved remnants where sound change has gotten its hands on the word and created a different rendition in each language. As a result we have a kind of variety.

Learn more about how language changes-many directions.

In French it’s herbe, in Spanish it’s hierba, in Italian it’s erba, in Portuguese it’s erva, and in Romanian it’s iarbă. All of these words, even when you just hear them, are clearly related but they’re different. If, for example, Latin had herba, which began with an h—but in all five of these languages the h is gone, the h drops off. French and Spanish keep it in the spelling; French spell herbe h-e-r-b-e, but the h hasn’t been pronounced for a very long time.

Spanish has hierba, in which the h is long gone. H is fragile, h has a way of disappearing in languages. There’s the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady obsession with poor Eliza dropping her h’s and saying ’orse instead of horse. She’s typical worldwide, in this. If you see h’s at the beginnings of words, chances are that h is fragile and that in some closely related language those h’s aren’t going to be there. Or, if you often deal with speakers of the language you find they often drop the h’s. H is fragile.

That happened with Latin to the Romance languages. There’s no [h] in any of them. We’re just left with the erba.

Differences Within the Big Five Romance Languages

There were changes from language to language, as well. Italian, of the five, is closest to Latin. Italian is what’s called a conservative language. It hasn’t gone as far in its changes as some of the others, such as, particularly, French and Romanian. So, Latin was herba, Italian dropped the h, like a good Romance language does, but other than that it still got herba. An Italian wouldn’t have much trouble talking to one of his/her ancestors from the Roman Empire in that sense. It would just sound like a sloppy version of herba.

Other languages, though, have gone a little bit further. In French, it’s herbe, and that means that not only did they drop the h, but they dropped the a at the end. It’s spelled with an e at the end, but that e is not really pronounced. It’s rather like our silent e, it’s just gone. Then, you have in Portuguese, instead of erva in Italian, erba. The b changed into a v.

This is another one of those alphabet things. In the alphabet, b is up near the beginning and v is way down at the end. In real life, if you think about it, b and v are kind of related in terms of how you pronounce them in the mouth. Just like a t will often become a d, so you can feel a d as kind of a version of t, just with a little bit more belly in it. A b is often going to become a v; there’s a relationship. For those of you who know Spanish, think about the fact that there’s that pronunciation of b as v in many Spanish dialects. That’s not an accident.

Herba in Portuguese is erva, from herba to erva. Spanish and Romanian do funny stuff with the vowels. In Spanish the her– has become a yer– and so you have yerba instead of the erba of Italian. Romanian, which is always charmingly bizarre, has gone even further. Instead of her– to yer-, it’s her– to iar-.

Talk about the Great Vowel Shift where the vowels just lurch and change, this is another one of those things. Instead of –a at the end, herb-a/erb-a, it’s made into a kind of schwa-y indistinct sound, so we have about. What is that a-? Is it an a, e, i, o, or u in terms of how it’s said? Really, it’s this muddy, crummy little sound. Lemon: what’s that last vowel? “uh”, it’s just that. Same thing: iarbă. That’s the word for grass in Romanian.

All of that goes back to herba. So we have herbe, yerba, erva, and iarbă all from this original herba. That kind of change happens to every word in the language. Very few words in any of these languages trace back to Latin in anything like an unbroken form. As a result you have what’s obviously a new language.

None of the people who speak these five languages could just make their way in Latin. They’d have to learn it in school. A Latin speaker who listened to any of them would find themselves baffled. If they could get any of it, they would think that something had gone terribly wrong. There couldn’t be a conversation. These are brand new languages. That’s how one word becomes five. From Latin to the Romance languages.

Learn more about language families-Indo-European.

Common Questions about Transformation of Latin to Romance Languages

Q: What are the five major Romance languages?

The big five Romance languages are French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. The five of them evolved over time from Latin and are related to each other, which is why if you learn one, learning another one is pretty easy.

Q: How did the Latin language spread?

Latin was the language of the Roman Empire. So, as the Roman Empire spread around Europe, Latin moved around a lot more than the typical language did or even does today. The Roman Empire, or rather the Roman emperors had a mission to spread Romanness, which included imposing their language on other people. This resulted in the Latin language spreading far wider than some of the other contemporaneous languages.

Q: What Romance language is closest to Latin?

The origin of Latin can be traced back to present-day Italy. Latin was one of many Indo-European languages, it was one of a little cluster of languages called Italic. So, Italian is the Romance language that’s closest to Latin.

Q: Is French or Spanish closer to Latin?

Both French and Spanish are Romance languages that evolved from Latin. So, both French and Spanish share some similarities with Latin, but they are also quite different from Latin. For example, the Latin word herba (grass) exists in French and Spanish, but in evolved remnants where sound change has gotten its hands on the word and created a different rendition in each language. In French it’s herbe, and in Spanish it’s hierba.

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