British Vulgar Latin

British Latin
Region Roman Britain, Anglo-Saxon England
Extinct Early Middle Ages
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist List

British Latin or British Vulgar Latin was the Vulgar Latin spoken in Great Britain in the Roman and sub-Roman periods. While Britain formed part of the Roman Empire Latin became the principal language of the elite and in the Romanized southern and eastern parts of the island. However, it never fully replaced the Brittonic language of the indigenous Britons, especially in the less Romanized north and west. In recent years, scholars have debated the extent to which British Latin was distinguishable from its continental counterparts, which developed into the Romance languages.

With the end of Roman rule, Latin was displaced as a spoken language by Old English in most of what became England during the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the fifth and sixth centuries. It survived in the remaining Celtic regions of western Britain until about 700 when it was replaced by the local Brittonic languages.


At the inception of Roman rule in AD 43, Great Britain was inhabited by the indigenous Britons, who spoke the Celtic language known as Brittonic.[1] Britannia became a province of the Roman Empire and remained part of the empire for nearly four hundred years until 409, spanning at its height in 160 the southern three-quarters of the island of Britain.[2][3]

Historians often refer to Roman Britain as comprising a "highland zone" to the north and west of the country and a "lowland zone" in the south and east,[4] with the latter being more thoroughly Romanized[5] and having a Romano-British culture. Particularly in the lowland zone, Latin became the language of most of the towns-people, of administration and the ruling class, the army, and, following the introduction of Christianity, the church; Brittonic remained the language of the peasantry, which was the bulk of the population; and the rural elite were probably bilingual.[6] In the highland zone, there was only limited attempts at Romanization, and Brittonic always remained the dominant language.[7]

Throughout much of western Europe, from Late Antiquity, the Vulgar Latin of everyday speech developed into locally distinctive varieties which ultimately became the Romance languages.[8] But in Britain, following the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century, Vulgar Latin died out as an everyday spoken language.[9] The time by which Vulgar Latin died out as a vernacular in Britain, and the nature and distinctiveness of British Latin before it did so, have been points of scholarly debate in recent years.

Sources of evidence

An inherent difficulty in evidencing Vulgar Latin is that, as an extinct spoken language form, no source can give a direct account of it.[10] There is, therefore, reliance on indirect sources of evidence such as "errors" in written texts and regional inscriptions.[11] These are held to be reflective of the everyday spoken language. Of particular linguistic value in this regard are private inscriptions made by ordinary people, such as epitaphs and votive offerings, and "curse tablets" (small metal sheets used in popular magic to curse people).[12]

In relation to Vulgar Latin specifically as it was spoken in Britain, Kenneth H. Jackson put forward in the 1950s what became the established view, which has only relatively recently been challenged.[13] Jackson drew conclusions about the nature of British Latin from examining Latin loan-words which had passed into the British Celtic languages.[14] From the 1970s John Mann, Eric P. Hamp and others used what Mann called "the sub-literary tradition" in inscriptions to identify spoken British Latin usage.[15] In the 1980s Colin Smith used stone inscriptions in particular in this way, although much of what Smith has written has become out of date as a result of the large amount of Latin inscriptions found in Britain in recent years.[16] The best known of these are the Vindolanda tablets, the last two volumes of which were published in 1994 and 2003, but also include the Bath curse tablets, published in 1988, and other curse tablets found at a number of other sites throughout southern England from the 1990s onwards.[17]

Evidence of a distinctive language variety

Kenneth Jackson argued for a form of British Vulgar Latin, distinctive from continental Vulgar Latin.[18] In fact, he identified two forms of British Latin: a lower-class variety of the language not significantly different from continental Vulgar Latin and a distinctive upper class Vulgar Latin.[14] This latter variety, Jackson believed, could be distinguished from continental Vulgar Latin by 12 distinct criteria.[18] In particular, he characterised it as a conservative, hypercorrect "school" Latin with a "sound-system [which] was very archaic by ordinary Continental standards".[19]

In recent years, research on British Latin has led to modification of Jackson's fundamental assumptions.[14] In particular, his identification of 12 distinctive criteria for upper class British Latin has been severely criticised.[20] Nevertheless, although British Vulgar Latin was probably not substantially different from the Vulgar Latin of Gaul, it is likely that over a period of 400 years of Roman rule, British Latin would almost certainly have developed distinctive traits.[21] This and the likely impact of the Brittonic substrate means that a specific British Vulgar Latin variety most probably did develop.[21]

However, if it did exist as a distinct dialect group, it has not survived extensively enough for diagnostic features to be detected, despite much new sub-literary Latin being discovered in England in the 20th century.[22]

Extinction as a vernacular

It is not known when Vulgar Latin ceased to be spoken in Britain,[23] but it is likely that it continued to be widely spoken in various parts of Britain into the fifth century.[24] In the lowland zone, Vulgar Latin was replaced by Old English during the course of the fifth and sixth centuries, whereas in the highland zone, it gave way to Brittonic languages such as Primitive Welsh and Cornish.[9] But there have been a variety of views amongst scholars as to when exactly it died out as a vernacular, a question that has been described as "one of the most vexing problems of the languages of early Britain."[25]

Lowland zone

In most of what was to become England, the Anglo-Saxon settlement and the consequent introduction of Old English appears to have caused the extinction of Vulgar Latin as a vernacular.[26] The Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic people, spread westward across Britain in the fifth to seventh centuries leaving under British rule only Cornwall and Wales in the southern part of the country,[27] and Hen Ogledd in the north.[28] The demise of Vulgar Latin in the face of Anglo-Saxon settlement is very different to the fate of the language in other areas of western Europe subject to Germanic migration, for example France, Italy and Spain where Latin and the Romance languages continued.[29] The likely reason is that in Britain there was a greater collapse in Roman institutions and infrastructure, leading to a much greater reduction in the status and prestige of the indigenous romanized culture: this meant that the indigenous population was more likely to abandon their languages in favour of the higher status language of the Anglo-Saxons.[30]

There are, however, sporadic indications of its survival amongst the Celtic population.[24] Pockets of spoken Latin may have survived as isolates amongst the Anglo-Saxons. As late as the 8th century the Saxon inhabitants of St Albans near the Roman city of Verulamium were aware of their ancient neighbour, which they knew alternatively as Verulamacæstir (or, under what H. R. Loyn terms "their own hybrid", Vaeclingscæstir, "the fortress of the followers of Wæcla") interpretable as a pocket of Romano-Britons that remained within the Anglo-Saxon countryside, probably speaking their own local neo-Latin.[31]

Highland zone

Prior to the end of Roman rule, Brittonic had remained the dominant language in the highland zone.[7] However, the numbers of speakers of Vulgar Latin were significantly, but temporarily, boosted in the fifth century by the influx of Romano-Britons from the lowland zone fleeing the Anglo-Saxons.[34] These refugees are traditionally characterised as being "upper class" and "upper middle class".[35] Certainly, Vulgar Latin maintained a higher social status than Brittonic in the highland zone into the sixth century.[36]

Although Latin therefore continued to be spoken by many of the British elite in western Britain,[37] by about 700 it had died out.[38] The incoming Latin-speakers from the lowland zone seem to have rapidly assimilated with the existing population, and adopted Brittonic.[34] The continued viability of British Latin may have been negatively affected by the loss to Old English of the areas where it had been strongest: the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the lowland zone may have indirectly ensured that Vulgar Latin would not survive in the highland zone either.[39]

See also



  • Adams, J. M., The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC - AD 600, (Cambridge, 2007)
  • Jackson, Kenneth H., Language and History in Early Britain: A Chronological Survey of the Brittonic Languages, First to Twelfth Century A. D., (Edinburgh, 1953)
  • Wollmann, Alfred, "Early Latin loan-words in Old English", in Anglo-Saxon England 22 (2007), pp. 1–26

Further reading

  • Charles-Edwards, Thomas, "Language and Society among the Insular Celts, AD 400–1000", in M. J. Green (ed.), The Celtic World, ed. (London, 1995), pp. 703–36
  • Gratwick, A. S., "Latinitas Britannica: Was British Latin Archaic?", in N. Brooks (ed.) Latin and the Vernacular Languages in Early Medieval Britain, (Leicester 1982), pp. 1–79
  • MacManus, D., "Linguarum Diversitas: Latin and the Vernaculars in Early Medieval Britain", Perita 3 (1987), pp. 151–88
  • Mann, J. C., "Spoken Latin in Britain as evidenced by the Inscriptions", in Britannia 2 (1971), pp. 218–24
  • Shiel, N., "The Coinage of Carausius as a Source of Vulgar Latin", in Britannia 6 (1975), pp. 146–8
  • Smith, C., "Vulgar Latin in Roman Britain: Epigraphic and other Evidence", in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.29.2 (1983), pp. 893–948
  • Snyder, Christopher A. 1996. "Sub-Roman Britain (AD 400-600): A Gazetteer of Sites". British Archaeological Reports (BAR) British Series No. 247. Oxford: Tempvs Reparatvm.
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