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 started as a language that was spoken in what is now Italy. Latin was one of many Indo-European languages, a little cluster of languages called Italic. None of them live today except Latin. It happened that the peoples who ended up creating the Roman Empire spoke Latin. So Latin ended up moving around a lot 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 the Romans, as they spread far beyond their original boundaries, had a mission to spread Romanness, which included imposing their language on other people—a relatively new concept at the time. An empire could prosper without subjects speaking the language. Throughout human history, that has very often been the case. What we now know 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 used only for very official purposes, and the Persian rulers accommodated the languages that were used in those places. The common coin language was Aramaic, which is not related to Persian.

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 Latin. As Latin spread to various Western and Eastern European locations, it was imposed upon people who were speaking other languages. Suddenly Latin was spoken all over this vast region. This means that Latin is not only developing from point A to point B in Italy, but you’ve got Latin doing that same thing in Gaul, Spain, not to mention other parts of Italy, and in Romania. The point is that you start having new Latins. Latin is developing in different directions in each place.

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

Once that process 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.

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

The Fragile H

We can think about how Latin transitioned to Romance languages just by looking at one word. 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 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. 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. 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 the word herbe h-e-r-b-e, but the h hasn’t been pronounced for a very long time. Spanish has the word hierba; the h sound is long gone.

H is fragile and 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 in this worldwide. 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.

That happened with Latin to the Romance languages. There’s no h in any of them. We’re just left with the 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: yerba
Romanian: iarbã

So, Latin was herba, Italian dropped the h, but other than that it still got erba. An Italian wouldn’t have much trouble talking to one of his or her ancestors from the Roman Empire in that sense. It would just sound like a sloppy version of herba.

Learn more about how sounds evolve

Other languages, though, have gone a little bit further. In French, it’s herbe, and that means 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 erva. The b changed to a v.

Then, you have in Portuguese erva. The b changed to 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, too, you can feel a d as kind of a version of t, just with a little bit more belly in it, as I sometimes put it. A b is often going to become a v; there’s a relationship.

For those of you 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 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 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. Instead of an –a at the end (herb-a/erb-a), it’s made into a kind of schwa-y indistinct sound. What is that? 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: iarbã. That’s the word for grass in Romanian. All of that goes back to herba. So we have erba, herbe, erva, yerba, and iarbã 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.

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 really die but rather it 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 7/7/2019

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