Latin: Language, Society and Some Sociolinguistics

Reading time: 10-15 minutes

A language is never monolithic!

Although brief labels are useful for conversation, to say ‘I speak English’ is a complicated thing; its meaning is dependent on person, time and place. The language you use differs according to who you are and who you learned your language from, and who you are momentarily with, and how you wish to be seen, and so on. All of the many factors that interact within human societies (such as geography, gender, age, socio-economic class, ethnicity, religion and level of education) interact with our language too — and the study of these interactions is called sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics works well with modern languages like English; we have plenty of data for it and we have a great knowledge of its speakers and the countless contexts within which it’s used — and anything we lack, we can go ask people and find out. Thanks to all this information, we can observe and come to understand all the variation within English, seeing how age might determine the vocabulary you use, how gender might affect the sounds of your speech, or how the region of your upbringing might have shaped your grammar. By studying the people behind the sound, sign or glyph, it’s sociolinguistics that brings language to life!

But can sociolinguistics study all and any languages? How about historical languages? In short, yes! Although the sources may be scarce and therefore more restrictive, and although we lack native speakers to help with our investigations, old languages often offer enough information for us a build up a good picture of how they operated in their historical societies. You have to keep an eye out though, as the information can crop up in unexpected places.

Take Latin as an example. Latin was a major language of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire, and so was once a first or second language for millions of people. The sources for Latin are therefore abundant. This means that we can ask ‘Did men and women talk differently in Ancient Rome?’ ‘Was there a distinct ‘old people’ Latin?’ ‘Or youth Latin?’ ‘Were there local dialects?’ ‘Or foreign accents?’ and expect some good answers, through which the Latin language gains a lot of colour.

To offer those answers, I’ve put together three citations from three famous texts by three famous names: Cicero, Virgil and Catullus. These men were alive and active during the first century BC, around the tumultuous time when the republic gained its first emperors. Although each one a prolific writer, we can assume that they did not intend to write about sociolinguistic issues — we all don’t realise how often we include such information in our conversations!

I’ve chosen these extracts as each offers a glimpse into one of three sociolinguistic ‘variables’ in Roman society of that time: gender, geography and multilingualism. I hope you will agree that, by analysing these extracts, the Latin-speaking world of antiquity feels more alive and a bit more like our own modern linguistic communities.

Cicero and Gender: De Oratore 3.45

Cataline (right) patiently waiting for Cicero (left) to get to the main verb so he can find out what he’s accused of. Image from here.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman and scholar, set out in 55 BC to write about what the ideal orator in the political world should be like — not just with respect to skill in rhetoric and speech-giving, but also to knowledge of philosophy and personal morality. The text (English: ‘On the Orator‘) is a fictional dialogue between two real orators, Crassus and Antonius, set in 91 BC.

In Book 3, Cicero has Crassus share his thoughts on the Latin of his day, in particular his idea of the ‘best’ Latin that people should speak, which just happened to be the Latin of Rome itself. In the Latin specific to the city, Crassus states that “there is nothing to find fault with, nothing displeasing, nothing to be censured, nothing that sounds or smells foreign — let us pursue this” (3.44). As an example of this preferred language, he then refers to his mother-in-law, Laelia.

Equidem cum audiō socrum meam Laeliam—facilius enim mulierēs incorruptam antīquitātem cōnservant, quod multōrum sermōnis expertēs ea tenent semper, quae prīma didicērunt—sed eam sīc audiō, ut Plautum mihi aut Naevium videar audīre, sōnō ipsō vōcis ita rēctō et simplicī est, ut nihil ostentātiōnis aut imitātiōnis adferre videātur; ex quō sīc locūtum esse eius patrem iūdicō, sīc maiōrēs

“Indeed, when I hear my mother-in-law Laelia — for women more easily preserve the old ways uncorrupted, because, lacking conversation with great numbers of people, they always stick to what they first learned — listening to her seems to me like listening to Plautus or Naevius. With a sound of voice so direct and simple, it seems to carry nothing of ostentation or imitation. From this, I conclude that her father spoke in this way, and her ancestors too.”
(De Oratore 3.55)

With the reference to the old playwrights Plautus and Naevius, who lived more than a century prior to the setting of De Oratore, Crassus’s (Cicero’s) point is that women are more conservative in their language. His reasoning is that Roman women, unlike men, do not tend to mix with lots of varied people in society; this claim does fit with our other sources for the lives of contemporary women, especially aristocratic women, who were expected to associate most with their household and members of their own family. Women, according to Crassus, are therefore less influenced by the “rustic roughness” and “foreign strangeness” that he believes Roman men should learn to avoid in their speech. The linguistic concerns and pedantry that we hear today really aren’t anything new.

Crassus’s words here may well be a simplification of affairs, even an idealization, but the idea that women are more linguistically conservative than men is in fact an idea with a lot of currency. Many modern sociolinguists, including the pioneering William Labov, have noted that:

“In stable sociolinguistic stratification, men use a higher frequency of nonstandard forms than women.”

Labov’s Principle I (Labov 1990)

This is to say, women stick more closely to the linguistic norms and standards of their social group than their male counterparts. However, this is not to say that women are not also innovators of language — quite the opposite! Labov’s second sociolinguistic principle acknowledges that many changes begin among women, in particular when those changes are not imposed from above by social elites.

“In change from below, women are most often the innovators.”

Labov’s Principle II (Labov 1990)

These two seemingly contradictory statements resulted in what’s known as the Gender Paradox of language change. Although the research behind these principles was drawn from modern languages, there is no reason why they cannot also be applied to Roman society. With evidence like this excerpt from Cicero, we can get a better idea of the Latin of Roman women and of gender distinctions in the first century BC; for many, the sounds and words of their Latin would have seemed ‘proper’ or ‘refined’, closer to that of illustrious ancestors, when compared to the Latin of the men of their age or social class.

Virgil and Local Dialects: The Third Eclogue

A bucolic scene by Dutch artist Pieter Mulier de Jonge, from here.

Publius Vergilius Maro, known for short as Virgil (or Vergil, but let’s not get into that), was a successful poet. He’s best remembered for the epic Aeneid, but he also penned the popular Eclogues, a collection of poems, set in the Italian countryside, that feature a cast of countryfolk. The third eclogue begins as follows:

“Menalcās: Dīc mihi, Dāmoeta, cuium pecus, an Meliboeī?
Dāmoetās: Nōn, vērum Aegōnis; nūper mihi trādidit Aegōn.

Menalcas: Tell me, Damoetas, whose flock? Meliboeus’s perhaps?
Damoetas: No, Aegon’s actually — he gave them to me recently.
(Eclogue 3)

The first time I came across this, one word in particular jumped out at me: cuium. This looked like the common word cuius ‘whose’, but with an unexpected ending. Specifically, it looked like cuius, whose ending I believed should not change in standard Latin, had indeed been changed to agree with (that is, to match the gender and number of) the following word, pecus. I had to wonder, could cuius really do this? How could have I not known this?

To my relief, I found out that this is not a regular thing for cuius; it’s been done for effect. By treating cuius as a regular, inflected adjective, Virgil is imitating the Latin of the countryside, where, presumably, this bit of grammar was permitted. We can also presume that the use of cuium here, the fourth word of the poem, was an intentional sign to the audience, which gave them a very brief summary of where and among whom the poem is set. Cuium is a rusticism, preserved in poetry.

There is even a story from the fourth-century grammarian Donatus that Virgil’s language was parodied at the time; Donatus’s Life of Virgil records a few lines of a spoof, written by the poet’s own publisher, Numitorius.

“Menalcās: Dīc mihi, Dāmoetā, ‘cuium pecus’ anne Latīnum?
Dāmoetās: Nōn, vērum Aegōnis nostrī, sīc rūre locuntur.

Menalcas: Tell me, Damoetas, ‘whom’st’s flock’ — is that even Latin?
Damoetas: No, really it’s our Aegon’s speech — they speak that way in the country

What Virgil has done here is common enough: he’s used linguistic features peculiar to the people of a specific place to allude to that place. We’ve all of us done it, when we switch to a regional accent to make a point. Often this is accompanied by some prejudice towards those people; cuium could have been not only nonstandard but stigmatised, as Numitorius’s question “is that even Latin?” may imply. Cuium offers us the smallest of glimpses into the linguistic differences between town and country.

Catullus and Language Contact: Catullus 84

Catullus reading to his friends, painted by Polish artist Stefan Bakałowicz, from here.

Unlike Virgil and his mythological epics, Gaius Valerius Catullus wrote about everyday people and events — real Romans, whom he knew personally, have been immortalised in his witty, often caustic poetry. Although he’s perhaps best known for the sarcastic and rude stuff (read Catullus 16 in your own time), he was a poet with great range, including heart-rending tragedy (read Catullus 101 too).

Catullus 84 is a treat for Latin sociolinguistics; unlike the previous two excerpts, it very clearly addresses a difference in the way some people spoke Latin, with examples to boot. It begins:

Chommoda dīcēbat, sī quandō commoda vellet / dicere, et īnsidiās Arrius hinsidiās…”

Hadvantages‘ Arrius would say, whenever ‘advantages‘ he meant, and ‘ambushes‘ were ‘hambushes‘ to him…
(Catullus 84)

This poem mocks the pronunciation of a certain Arrius, who has the habit of adding aspiration to Latin words where it doesn’t belong. Aspiration (that is, breathiness) is an important feature of many languages; some, including Ancient Greek, make a important distinction between an aspirated consonant and the same consonant but unaspirated.

Latin, however, was not such a language. While it did have (but then later lost) the consonant /h/ (as in English hat), its phonological system did not use aspirated consonants as distinct sounds. What then is Arrius doing? What’s with his breathy “chommoda” and the extra /h/ on “hīnsidiās“?

This has been explained as an influence of Ancient Greek (Clackson & Horrocks 2007: 190). By the time that Catullus was writing, Latin and Ancient Greek were two languages in contact; Greek would have been heard on the streets of Rome as one of the republic’s/empire’s linguae francae and well-connected Romans, including Cicero and Caesar, would have spoken both fluently. Arrius himself is a worldly man, the poem says, having left Rome and journeyed to Syria, after which the waters of the Ionian sea are reported:

“… iam nōn Īoniōs esse sed Hīoniōs.”

… To be no longer Ionian, but ‘Hionian‘.

By adding the aspiration, what Arrius is doing is making his Latin more Greekish — thereby, in his mind, acquiring prestige by association with sophisticated Greek culture. Catullus also notes though that this affected pronunciation was not universally appreciated; the ears of the older generation, namely of his mother, uncle, maternal grandfather and grandmother, are said to have “rested” after Arrius departed, taking himself and his pronunciation away to Syria.

Arrius and Catullus his critic have granted us a wonderful look at a subgroup of Roman society at the time: young people, aligning themselves with the Hellenic world. It shows the consequences of language contact; two languages may not be of the same status or reputation in a multilingual society, which can then lead to features of one being brought over into the other. For Arrius and his circle, Greek was trendy, and trendy things make for trendy people.

So, I hope I’ve demonstrated here how our Latin sources can offer much to our understanding of not just what Latin was in the classical era, but how it worked and lived as a language.

It had its linguistic differences, according to gender, geography, age and social environment, just like our languages do today. There were people whose language included a particular distinct feature, as well as people who would criticise them for including it. There were people who innovated, and people who conserved.

Nihil sub sōle novum!



Clackson, J., & Horrocks, G. 2007. The Blackwell History of the Latin Language. Wiley-Blackwell.

Labov, W. 1990. The intersection of sex and social class in the course of linguistic change. Language Variation and Change 2: 205 – 54. CUP.

Featured image: fresco of dice-players from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio, Pompeii, from here.

One thought on “Latin: Language, Society and Some Sociolinguistics

  1. Very nice. But surely the -m in cuium was “unexpected” rather than “expected”? (Also, Greek “would have been” heard on the streets of Rome, not “would be have”.)

    Liked by 1 person

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