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The Rise of the Vernacular and the Decline of Latin

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  • 0:01 The Place of Latin
  • 0:59 The Dark Ages
  • 1:39 Popular Languages
  • 2:53 The Printing Press
  • 3:41 Latin Holding On
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

This lesson explains how Latin was widespread in Europe during the Roman Empire as well as how vernacular languages slowly replaced it. It also reviews how the Romance languages developed.

The Place of Latin

The Roman Empire changed the world in some pretty significant ways. First of all, there was the whole idea that buildings could be made of concrete and that indoor plumbing was not a fantasy, but there were a few more mundane ways as well. For the first time in history, a massive empire insisted that everyone learn the same language. While the Persians had relied on older administrative languages and the Greeks were too short-lived as world conquerors to really insist on much, Rome made just about everyone learn Latin. Sure, there were some Greek-speaking holdouts in the East, but Rome definitely ensured that everyone in the West who was worth knowing could hold a conversation in Latin. It was a beautiful thing until the Roman Empire collapsed in the West. By that point, people were left with little more than their Latin grammatical training. That said, Latin would prove to be a useful, albeit temporary, tool in holding Western Europe together as a cultural entity.

The Dark Ages

During the Dark Ages, a period of European history from 476 to 1066 or so, the role of Latin started to change. More and more, common people started speaking more localized versions of the language that didn't require years of education to master. This was especially true among the nobility, who focused more on trying to protect their hold on power. However, even if the masses didn't speak the language anymore, the priests and other administrators did. In that respect Latin was still a language of influence and intelligence. Latin, it seemed, would stay on for quite some time as a common language for the intellectual set.

Popular Languages

However, that just wasn't the case for everyone else. Average people spoke Latin to varying degrees. In no small part, it was dependent on just how powerful Rome had been in its occupation of your region. For example, Gaul, Hispania, Italy, and Dacia had all seen very heavy occupations by Roman soldiers and others. As a result, the daily speech of the people who lived there was heavily influenced by Latin. That is a large reason why people who now live on those aforementioned areas speak languages that are very similar to Latin. Called Romance languages, these languages are descended from Latin and include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian.

However, all of these people were learning the language naturally, without the use of textbooks. As a result, differences began to emerge. These differences were in turn exacerbated as words from neighboring languages became commonplace. Within time, the transition from Latin to 'old' languages, like 'Old French' or 'Old Spanish' occurred, leaving people from different regions largely unable to speak to one another. In short, vernacular languages, or languages spoken by the masses, had been developed.

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