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The Romance Languages of the Viking Age

This is the second part about languages of the Viking Age. The first part discusses Germanic languages, and the last part will be about Slavic languages.

Linguistic Variation to Language

Languages do not simply ‘appear’ or ‘disappear’. Have you ever wondered why that is? Here is my quick try at an explanation.

A Linguistic Variation

Humans use language to communicate. It helps us to interact efficiently with each other. On the most basic level, it is what parents teach their children so they understand each other. The form spoken by the parents, is the form spoken by those close to them; by a group of people in a certain area. We call this a linguistic variation (, or a dialect (Oxford Dictionaries). Its distinguishing features are accents and particular (meanings of) words. You might have noticed how these differ from your village or neighbourhood to the next? Or from your state, county or province to the next?

Linguistic variations stay ‘alive’ as long as parents teach their children. Or, when the larger group they are part of, continues to use it. The moment this is no longer true a linguistic variation will fade from history (learn more on Linguistic Society of America).

A Language

Important leaps are required for a linguistic variation to become a language. The first condition is that a written form should (come to) exist. Then, this written form should have significance, for example, as the language of local administration records. And if these conditions are met, there must come a point that the spoken and written form reaches a wider population. Its grammar, spelling and phonology are formalised and taught in schools. That is the point it turns into a standardised language, a form used by a large(r) population for its administration, and even literature (see Britannica).

A Language Group

And as unique as they may seem, languages do have things in common, some more than others. For example, in grammar, spelling or phonology. Linguists show us how these characteristics can be translated into a family tree of languages (see for example Glottolog). In the previous article, I discussed the branch of Germanic languages. Here, we’ll discover another group: the Romance languages.

Origin of the Romance Languages

The Romance languages evolved from the Latin spoken in the days of the Roman Empire. The most influential variation was spoken at the centre of power, Rome. As its power grew and the empire stretched beyond Italy far into Europe, so did the language.

Vulgar Latin

The spoken language of Rome’s citizens and soldiers is called Vulgar Latin (see Britannica). As they took it to the far ends of the empire, so it mixed with all kinds of local linguistic variations.

Classical Latin

Yet, an empire so huge, needed some form of administration to communicate, to keep order and track of things. To this end, the Romans used a formal, standardised writing form we now call classical Latin (see the fine introduction on Brigham Young University).

After the Roman Empire

Then the empire fell. Latin disappeared from daily life until Charlemagne revived classical Latin in the eighth century. He ruled a vast realm and realised it took a common language to communicate from one end of the empire to the other. Though, by the time he died and his empire crumbled, so did the use of Latin.

Meanwhile, the use of Vulgar Latin and its mix with the local variations continued. The variations evolved. Let me take you southwards, and then eastwards to show you how they developed into Romance languages.


French (Gallo-Romance)

The Gallo-Romance languages are the legacy of the Romans. They bring Vulgar Latin to Gallia where it mixes and mingles with Germanic and Celtic forms. There are three main groups: Langues d’oïl in the north and Langues d’oc and Arpitan to the south (see Britannica).

The Romans leave and the Merovingians from northern France take control in the fifth century. At the same time, Christianity rises and spreads across Europe. The Church’s clergy are the few literate people in those days with knowledge of (classical) Latin. The Merovingian kings rely heavily on all things Roman and when they convert to the new faith, on all things Latin. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the surviving texts from this period are all composed in classical Latin (read more in Late Merovingian France (Paul Fouracre et al (eds.), pp. 58-59).

We’ll skip Charlemagne here and move onto the Viking Age. To Paris in the tenth century. The last Carolingian king has passed and the French nobles have elected the first of the Capetian kings (see the Met Museum). Paris is their centre of power and eventually, their local Francien dialect evolves into standard French language as we know it today (see Britannica).

For a wonderful overview of how French evolved from Vulgar Latin, see the video in The Germanic Languages.

The Oldest French Text

The oldest known French text is found in the Oaths of Strassbourg and a hagiography of Saint Eulalie that both date back between 842-870s. It is called Old French and was probably spoken until the thirteenth century. Which linguistic variations they precisely represent, scholars describe as Gallo-Romance for now (see British Library blog).

Spanish and Portuguese (Ibero-Romance)

The Romans also reach the Iberian peninsula and call it the province of Hispania. As they settle down, their Vulgar Latin speech mixes with Celtic and local dialects. As happens in so many other regions.

When Rome is sacked by Germanic tribes, those tribes also move to the peninsula. They establish kingdoms here and throw their Germanic dialects into the language mix. Their influence does not last long, though. The Ummayyads arrive by Late Antiquity. Their rule has already spread across the Near and Middle East, and much of the Mediterannean. Their Arabic language influences the local variations for a while. Yet, curiously not on a phonological level (see

Old Spanish

By the ninth century, a Christian kingdom emerges in northern Spain in the region where they speak Old Castilian. When the Castilian kings gain power and riches, they embark on the Reconquista. This lasts until the fifteenth century when they will finally have ousted the Arabs. I mention the riches because the Castilian kings and queens use it to boost their culture. From the tenth century onwards many heroic literary texts are written in Castilian, such as El Cid (see Companion to Literary Myths by Pierre Brunel, chapter El Cid).

Another language is worth mentioning here. It is a mix of Old Spanish and Arabic called Mozarabic (Ajabi, see Omniglot). This goes back to the time of the Umayyads and their caliphate of Córdoba. In grammar and phonology, it sounds like a Romance language. Yet, it only survives in kharjahs or refrains, from Arabic poems from the eleventh century (see Spainthenandnow).

The Oldest Spanish Text

Two texts vie for the title ‘Oldest Spanish text’. One is an inventory of cheese (yes, really) from c. 980 called Noditia de kesos. The other is Glosas Emilianenses from the tenth century (see A Guide to Old Spanish by Steven Dworkin, pp.10-11).

Listen here to an audio of El Cid:


Italian (Gallo-Italic, Italo-Dalmatian)

And from southwards, we now go eastwards. To the heart of Latin language, Italy. The Vulgar Latin spoken here slowly changes into Old Italian. The first texts are written in the ninth century and are part of the Romance languages. Or more precisely, they belong to any of three Italian categories: Gallo-Italic (north) and Italo-Dalmatian (south), and Sardinian (evolving as a variation on its own). In Italy, most texts are written in classical Latin for a long time due to the strong influence of the Church of Rome (see Europass Italian).


The Oldest Italian Text

But at one point, Old Italian is really written down. These oldest texts we know of, are legal documents with testimonies in the vernacular. They date to 960-963 and are called Placiti Cassinesi. The language is an ‘upper southern dialect’ (see Alta Terra Di Levoro [Italian]).

Romanian (Eastern Romance)

And then we move even further East. The odd one out among the Romance languages is Romanian. The one and only Eastern Romance language. This is the only area in eastern Europe where the dominance of the Romans has led to a language and culture change. Vulgar Latin mixes with local Dacian and Slav influences and evolves into a Romance language (see Brigham Young University).

The Oldest Romanian Text

The earliest text in Romanian, is a letter by Neacșu from 1521. Listen to the sound (with English translation):


Featured Image of this Article: Romance Languages. Map by Servitje (Wikipedia).

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