Vulgar Latin Grammar: the basics

The following guide picks out a few key features of Vulgar Latin grammar. The Vulgar Latin examples here are reconstructed from common features of the Romance languages, so they represent general historical trends rather than documented speech. The guide simplifies features, explores no feature in depth and provides no comparisons to the modern Romance lanugages. Such details are offered in the rest of this comparative Romance grammar.

Nouns

Every noun in Classical Latin belonged to the masculine, feminine or neuter gender. Vulgar Latin combined the masculine and neuter genders. It distinguished masculine nouns and feminine nouns.

gender Romance translation
feminine *casa house
feminine *veritate truth
masculine *pop(u)lu people
masculine *omine man

Unlike speakers of Classical Latin, Vulgar Latin speakers used definite and indefinite articles with the noun.

*una casa a house
*illa veritate the truth

Vulgar Latin formed a basic noun from the Classical Latin accusative case.

Latin Romance
veritas *illa veritate
veritatem *illa veritate

Vulgar Latin formed plural nouns from the classical accusative plural in the West but the nominative plural in the East.

case Latin Romance translation notes
nominative populi *illi populi the peoples (Corsica, Italy, Dalmatia, Romania)
accusative populos *illos pop(u)los the peoples (Iberia, France, Switzerland, Sardinia)

Speakers employed prepositional phrases where Classical Latin had accusative, dative, genitive and ablative noun cases.

*in illa casa in the house
*de illa veritate of the truth

The use of cases versus analytic phrases varied between eras, regions, speakers and situations. As a rule of thumb, more popular registers erased the distinction between cases, while more refined registers continued to use noun cases.

Vulgar Latin *illa porta de illa casa the door of the house
Late Latin porta casae [the] house's door

Adjectives

Adjectives normally followed the modified noun.

*illa porta magna the big door

Adjectives matched the gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural) of the described noun.

*illu omine magnu the big man
*illos omines magnos the big men
*illa casa magna the big house
*illas casas magnas the big houses

Vulgar Latin speakers formed the comparative and superlative with words for more instead of the traditional adjective endings.

*plus magnu bigger
*mais magnu bigger

Pronouns

Vulgar Latin had nominative (subject), accusative (direct object) and dative (indirect object) forms of six personal pronouns.

*ego I
*me me
*mi to me

Vulgar Latin also had personal possessives, which worked like adjectives or articles.

*mea casa my house
*meu poplu my people

Vulgar Latin employed a variety of interrogative, demonstrative and relative pronouns.

*istu this demonstrative; works like pronoun or article
*quale which interrogative; works like article
*qui who interrogative; works like subject pronoun
*illu quale / *illu quid that which relative
*quod that / because relative

Verbs

Like Classical Latin verbs before them, Vulgar Latin verbs had finite forms that took one of six personal endings.

*ego scribo I write
*tu scribes you write
*ille scribet he writes
*nos scribemus we write
*vos scribetis you all write
*illi scribent they write

The verb endings clearly indicated the subject of the verb. As in Classical Latin, Vulgar Latin regularly dropped the subject pronoun.

*scribo I write
*scribes you write
*scribent they write
*amo I love
*amas you love
*amant they love

Verb endings changed between tenses, such as the present or the past.

*amo I love
*amai I loved
*amas you love
*amasti you loved

Verb endings changed between moods, such as the indicative (factual) or the subjunctive (contrary to fact).

*dicet quod scribes he says that you are writing
*dicet quod scribas he says that you should write (he tells you to write)

Vulgar Latin verbs also took nonfinite endings that did not inherently refer to a subject.

infinitive *scribere to write
past participle *scriptu written
gerund *scribendu writing

Speakers reduced the four vowel classes of Latin verbs to three or even two thematic vowels.

*am-are to love (thematic a)
*am-as you love
*scrib-ere to write (thematic e)
*scrib-es you write
*fin-ire to finish (thematic i)
*fin-is you finish

Some verbs, including modal verbs, were followed by an infinitive.

*potes you can
*potes scribere you can write

Sentences

Vulgar Latin placed subjects before the verb and objects after the verb, but also allowed flexibility in this word order.

*Anna scribet illa littera. Anna writes the letter.
*Anna abet (una) casa. Anna has a house.
*Anna casa abet. Anna has a house.
*casa abet Anna. Anna has a house.

Eventually, Vulgar Latin speakers relied on basic (historically accusative) forms for both subject and object nouns.

*illu omine dicet illa veritate the man tells the truth Vulgar: accusative subject, accusative object
*ille omo dicet illa veritate the man tells the truth Vulgar: nominative subject, accusative object
homo dicit veritatem [the] man tells [the] truth Classical: nominative subject, accusative object
*hominem dicit veritatem [the] man tells [the] truth Classical: accusative subject, accusative object (avoided)

With object pronouns, the pronoun preceded the verb.

*tu amas Anna you love Anna
*Anna amat Paulu Anna loves Paul
*Anna te amat Anna loves you

Speakers initially distinguished indirect object (dative case) pronouns from direct object (accusative case) pronouns.

*mi dices illa veritate you tell the truth to me
*me vides you see me

Vulgar Latin passivized verbs with a reflexive pronoun or with *essere be. These constructions allowed speakers to avoid the passive endings of Classical Latin.

Latin translation literally
*se scribet illa littera the letter is written the letter writes itself
*illa littera est scripta the letter is written
*littera scribitur the letter write-PASSIVE

Examples of negations and questions.

*Illu amas? Do you love him?
*Illa casa est magna? Is the house big?
*Non illu amas. You do not love him.
*Illa casa non est magna. The house is not big.

Examples of combining multiple verbs with conjunctions and relatives.

*Scribet et cantat. She writes and she sings.
*Scio quod scribes illa littera. I know that you are writing the letter.
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