Language Evolution: How One Language Became Five Languages

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D, Columbia University

Recent research has shown that all languages may be able to trace their roots back to a common tongue spoken thousands of years ago. But how does the process of language creation take place? It can be clearly illustrated by taking a look at Latin and its daughters: The Romance languages.

Wooden Blocks with the text: Latin
(Image: Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock)

Latin, spoken in what is now Italy, was one of many Indo-European languages from a collective group called Italic, and is the only one to have survived. It happened that the peoples who created the Roman Empire spoke Latin. This Italic variant moved around much more than the typical language did or even does today.

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

The Roman Empire was relatively unique in that as the Romans spread and conquered beyond their original boundaries, they imposed their language on other people—a relatively new concept at the time. An empire could prosper without subjects speaking the language. That has often been the case throughout human history. Compared to the Romans, the Persian Empire, now Iran, used to be a major geopolitical player in the world. It extended westward all the way to the shores of Greece and a considerable degree eastward of present-day Iran. If subjects were brought to Persia, then they probably learned Persian. But as far as other parts of their territories, Persian was used only for very official purposes. As rulers, the Persians accommodated the languages of their subjects.

Learn more about how changes proceeded differently in each area where the Romans brought Latin

Latin Variations Become the Romance languages

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The Roman Empire at its Greatest Extent. (Image: By Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock)

The Romans, however, were interested in spreading Roman culture and Latin. As Latin spread to various Western and Eastern European locations, it was imposed upon those who spoke other languages. Suddenly Latin was all over this vast region. This means that Latin was not only developing from point A to point B in Italy, but evolving in Gaul, Spain, other parts of Italy, and in Romania. New versions of Latin were developing in different directions across the empire.

The big five Romance languages are French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.

Once that process was started, the Latin varieties evolved so differently from each other they became new languages. That’s how the languages we know as the Romance languages came to exist. The big five, as they are known, are French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Great evidence reveals their relation; if you learn one, learning one of the others is fairly easy.

Learn more about how the meaning of a word changes over time

The Fragile H

To understand how Latin transitioned to today’s Romance languages, let’s look at the evolution of one word. The word for grass in Latin was herba. It’s our English word for herb with an a at the end. That same word exists in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian, but over the centuries a sound change has created a different rendition of the word in each language. As a result, we have a variety of forms. 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 iarbã.

All of these words, even when you just hear them, are clearly related, but they’re different. For example, Latin had herba, which began with an h—but in all five of these languages the h is gone. French and Spanish kept it in the spelling; the French spell the word h-e-r-b-e, but the h hasn’t been pronounced for a long time. Spanish has the word hierba; the h sound is long gone.

H is fragile and has a way of disappearing in languages. In Pygmalion (My Fair Lady), poor Eliza Doolittle drop her h’s and says ’orse instead of horse. She’s typical in this worldwide. If you see h’s at the beginnings of words, chances are the h is fragile and 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.

The same thing happened to our word. There’s no h in any of the variations. We’re left with erba. Italian, of the five Romance languages, 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 French and Romanian.

Latin: herba
Italian: erba
French: herbe
Portuguese: erva
Spanish: hierba
Romanian: iarbã

Aside from dropping the h, the Latin herba became the Italian erba.

Learn more about how sounds evolve

Other languages, though, have gone a little further. In French, it’s herbe. Not only is the h dropped in pronunciation, but the letter a is dropped at the end. It’s spelled with an e at the end that is not pronounced, like the silent e at the end of words in English.

Then, you have in Portuguese erva. The b changed to a v.

In Portuguese you have erva. The b transformed to a v. In the Latin alphabet, b is near the beginning, and v is down at the end. If you think about it, b and v are related in terms of how they are pronounced in the mouth. Just as a t will often become a d, you can feel a d as a version of t in pronunciation, just with a little bit more belly in it. A b is often going to become a v; there’s a relationship in how the sounds are created.

For those who know Spanish, think about the pronunciation of b as v in many Spanish dialects. That’s not an accident. The Spanish hierba in Portuguese is erva. Spanish and Romanian use unusual manipulations with the vowels. In Spanish the “her-” has become a “hier-” with a silent h, so you have “hierba” instead of the “erba” of Italian.

Romanian has gone even further with iarbã, the word for grass. Instead of “her-” to “hier-,” it’s “her-” to “iar-.” Talk about the great vowel shift where the vowels just lurch and change. Instead of an –a at the end (herb-a/erb-a), it’s made into an indistinct kind of sound. What is that? Is it an a, e, i, o, or u in terms of how it’s said?

All of this goes back to herba. To review, we have erbaherbeervahierba, and iarbã all from the original herba. This type of lingual shift 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.

A Latin speaker who listened to any of them would be baffled. If they could get any of it, they would think that something had gone terribly wrong.

As a result you have what’s obviously a new language. None of the people who speak these five languages could make their way in Latin. They’d have to learn it in school. A Latin speaker who listened to any of them would be 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 became five—from Latin to the Romance languages.

Common Questions About the Evolution of Latin

Q: How did Latin become a dead language?

Latin did not die but evolved into the five Romance languages: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.

Q: What did Latin evolve from?

Latin evolved from the Etruscan, Greek, and Phoenician alphabets. It was widely spoken throughout the Roman Empire.

Q: How did Latin evolve into Italian?

Italy became a unified nation in 1861, but only a small portion of the population spoke Italian. Citizens mostly spoke local dialects. World War I and II helped to unify Italians and, by extension, the Italian language.

Q: Why should I learn Latin?

Latin is a valuable language to learn because many widely spoken languages including English, Italian, and Spanish, contain Latin words and root words. Therefore, Latin can enable you to learn a new language or expand your vocabulary.

This article was updated on August 26, 2019

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