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Sermo Plebēius

A term used, in contradistinction to the classic Latinity of Cicero or Caesar, to designate the speech of the common people, at Rome and in the provinces, which later became the basis of the modern Romance languages. Its relation to literary Latin has been subject to frequent misconception: thus, the two are not separate languages, although too often erroneously so termed; nor, on the other hand, is the Sermo Plebeius in any sense either the parent or the offspring of the classic speech. They are rather two kindred dialects, which, while steadily diverging, trace their origin to a common source in the speech of early Rome, the prisca Latinitas.

The differentiation between the popular and cultured speech begins properly with the early Roman poets; for, prior to the birth of a national literature, the language lacked the stability essential to a linguistic standard. It is noteworthy that Livius Andronicus, Naevius, and Ennius were all of them natives of Magna Graecia, and that accordingly Rome owes her first impulse in literature, as in the other arts, to external sources. These literary pioneers naturally regarded their native Greek as the highest criterion of excellence, and strove successively to impart something of its ease and grace to the rather unwieldy forms and heavy quantities of archaic Latin. The process of refining and polishing the language in accordance with Greek rules was continued by the famous literary circle which centred in the younger Scipio, to an extent best realized by a comparison of the plays of Terence, whose style is all but Ciceronian, with those of Plautus, which remain the best surviving specimens of early plebeian Latin.

Classic Latin, thus carefully fostered, culminated at length in the cadenced prose of Cicero and the harmonious rhythm of the Augustan poets—a proud achievement for the grammarians, but gained at the expense of the vitality of the language. Its growth had been checked before its natural resources were developed. Its vocabulary remained deficient; its rules for accent and quantity were borrowed; its later development was so largely artificial as to be necessarily unstable. Even in Livy and Tacitus there are seen the beginnings of the decadence which was destined to blight the later literature, and which was hastened by the steady encroachment of the Sermo Plebeius.

The latter, rude and untrammelled, was free to enlarge its vocabulary and modify its constructions to meet the needs of the people's slowly broadening horizon. It was essentially the language of the shops and streets, of the soldier and camp-follower, the slave and rustic—in short, of all but the privileged literary class. In the early period, the reciprocal influence exerted by the two diverging branches of the language was slight, for the literary circle was strictly limited, while the great mass of the people lived and died untouched by the new culture. Gradually, however, as knowledge became more general, and facilities for learning increased, the influence of the cultured language filtered slowly downward through the different grades of society, until all except the remoter rural districts must have felt the leaven of its influence. Conversely, the Sermo Plebeius, with its expressive slang phrases and hardy neologisms, became a more and more convenient source to draw upon, so that with each generation a larger proportion of plebeian forms and constructions found their way upward into the cultured speech. Hence arose a compromise, in the shape of the sermo cotidianus, the free-and-easy medium of every-day life, which facilitated communication between the classes, and into which the most cultured speakers were apt to relapse when conversing with their family and friends. Below this, down to the lingua rustica, the rudest form of the country districts, the language shaded off through numerous gradations, all possessing the same essential characteristics, and differing only in degree. The furthest division of the language which, with our present knowledge, it is safe to make is threefold—into sermo urbanus, sermo cotidianus, and sermo plebeius.

I. Provincial Latin.—The history of the Sermo Plebeius in the provinces presents certain peculiar features, which are noteworthy because they go far towards explaining the origin of those dialectic differences which resulted in the separate Romance languages. It was always the policy of Rome to force her speech, as well as her customs, upon the nations that she subjugated, and to that end Latin was made the official language of the provinces. The standard of Latinity, however, was not so easily regulated, the conquered people naturally acquiring it from the Romans with whom they earliest came in immediate contact—the common soldiers, petty officials, itinerant merchants, the rank and file that followed in the track of the successful armies. Accordingly, while provincial Latin is far from being synonymous with the Sermo Plebeius, and while many of the leading families must have spoken as pure a Latin as any heard at Rome, yet the plebeian element was more marked, more universal, extending higher in the social ranks, and even giving a distinctive local colour to provincial literature. The important point, however, is that, while the different provinces were acquired at long intervals, the Sermo Plebeius, which thus formed successively the basis of African, Spanish, and Gallic Latin, was itself undergoing a slow but constant evolution, and the form which Caesar's legions introduced into Gaul was very different from the speech of the soldiers who, a century earlier, had followed the younger Scipio to Carthage. It would be absurd to claim that the language, once established in a province, became crystallized, never to change again. On the contrary, and notably in the case of the African Latin, the later development is most striking; but, owing to its comparative isolation from the influence of the classic speech, plebeian Latin in the provinces tended to preserve certain archaic features much longer than at Rome, a condition quite analogous to that observed in the French of Quebec, or the English of the New England colonies. Accordingly, the Latin of the several provinces represents a varying degree of archaism, in the order of their dates of conquest; and one may search in vain in the Gallic writer Marcellus Empiricus for many of the archaisms prevalent in the works of the Africans Tertullian, Arnobius, and Caelius Aurelianus. The dialectic differences thus established played a far larger part than did any of the rapidly supplanted native tongues, in the ultimate separation of the Romance languages. Thus, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalonian, Provençal, French, and Roumanian show, in the order given, successive stages of the Sermo Plebeius, while Italian, representing the vulgar speech in its native land, where its ultimate development was reached, is the most advanced of all, excepting in the dialectic forms spoken in the island of Sardinia, Rome's earliest external conquest, which retain to this day many characteristics, such as accented ĭ and ŭ, and the k-sound after e and i, which must have been lost from the plebeian Latin at an early date, as they are wanting in the other Romance languages.

II. Sources.—The sources for our knowledge of the Sermo Plebeius are fairly abundant, but of very diverse degrees of importance. No one deliberately wrote in vulgar Latin, but only when, through carelessness or ignorance, he failed to attain the classic standard. Even the language of Plautus's slaves, and the realistic dialogue of Trimalchio and his colliberti in the Satira of Petronius, are softened to meet the exigencies of literature. Accordingly, the characteristics of plebeian speech must be gleaned from isolated statements of Roman grammarians, errors of orthography and syntax found in inscriptions, or in writers of inferior Latinity, and lastly from the corroborative evidence of the Romance languages. The testimony of Roman writers, however, although of the first importance, is extremely meagre, dealing largely with anomalies of vocabulary and style. The only ancient work bearing directly upon the subject, of which we have knowledge, that of T. Lavinius De Verbis Sordidis, has unfortunately perished. The most important existing document of this class is the curious grammatical fragment, the Appendix Probi (contained in the Grammatici Latini, ed. Keil), but whether of general, or merely local, authority is uncertain, for although some authorities regard it as an African production, its source is still problematic.

Among inscriptions the most important are the Pompeian wall inscriptions (in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, vol. iv.), comprising the careless scribblings of schoolboys, slaves, etc., on houses and public buildings, and containing many important clues to popular Latin in Southern Italy. The inscriptions from Gaul, Spain, and Africa are also useful in tracing dialectic changes. But the chief value of inscriptions, wherever found, is for the light they throw upon plebeian pronunciation, since the ignorant stone-cutters often spelled as they pronounced, and, unlike the equally ignorant scribes, left their errors recorded in an enduring form.

Turning to literature, we find a mass of material, which needs, however, careful discrimination. The scanty remnants of the early writers are all valuable, for plebeian Latin preserved many features of the prisca Latinitas long after they had been discarded by the classic speech; and in the Augustan age archaism was to a large extent synonymous with vulgarism. Plautus and the other early comic poets are of especial value, since their works were intended for the people and are accordingly written down to their level. Even Terence contains a certain plebeian element which had probably become traditional on the comic stage. Cato , famous as the opponent of Greek culture, naturally favoured the earlier and ruder form of speech, and his De Agricultura forms our unique source for the early sermo rusticus.

For the classic and Silver Latin period, material is more abundant. The Bellum Hispaniense and other supplements to Caesar's Commentarii are probably mild specimens of the sermo militaris. Cicero, elsewhere the standard of Latinity, assumes in his letters, as he himself confesses, a more colloquial tone: Quid tibi ego in epistolis uideor? Nonne plebeio sermone agere tecum? (Ad Fam. ix. 21); and they remain our best example of the sermo cotidianus of the upper classes. Satire, from its very nature and origin, required a less elevated style than other forms of poetry, and the satires of Horace, Persius, and Juvenal all afford a fruitful source for vulgarisms. There are also numerous writers on technical subjects, skilful in their several provinces, but weak in point of grammar: thus the architect Vitruvius, who would write correctly if he could, apologizes for his ignorance and begs that si quid parum ad regulam artis grammaticae fuerit explicatum ignoscatur (i. 1, 17). The elder Pliny , whose Historia Naturalis is confessedly a literary mosaic, is a treasure-house of plebeian vocabulary. The chief source, however, in anteHadrian Latin is and must remain the Cena Trimalchionis of Petronius, the narrative of which is told in the easy colloquial language of the upper classes, while the conversation of Trimalchio's circle is fairly redolent with vulgarisms, popular proverbs, and the current slang of the streets. See Petronius.

For post-classical Latin the entire range of literature is useful: for although departures from the classic norm must not be indiscriminately stigmatized as plebeian, few writers of the decadence escaped some taint of popular Latin. Of especial interest are Fronto, Gellius, and Apuleius, whose numerous archaisms are due as much to the sermo Africus as to the retrogressive movement begun under the emperor Hadrian. The later African writers are also of great importance, notably Tertullian, Arnobius, Commodian, and Augustine; for although African Latin has left no modern representative, it was the great vitality of that idiom which imprinted upon ecclesiastical Latin its distinctive character, and thus indirectly imparted a tinge, especially in vocabulary and syntax, to the modern Romance languages.

As specimens of very late Latin, where the language is on the verge of disintegration, Anthimus, the historians Fredegarius and Gregory of Tours, and the Regula Monachorum of St. Benedict, recently edited by Wölfflin (Leipzig, 1895), are very instructive.

III. Characteristics of Plebeian Latin.—(a) Phonetics.—The main changes occur in the vowelsystem. Latin originally possessed five vowels— a, e, i, o, u—which might be long or short. Plebeian Latin, however, gives early proof of a growing qualitative difference, long vowels tending to become close, short vowels open. That all qualitative difference was eventually lost appears from the Romance languages, and is further evidenced by the growing frequency of false quantities in Christian poets after the third century (Commodian, Ausonius, Dracontius, etc.), and by the substitution of stress accent for metrical accent in late popular songs. Owing to such changes, ĭ tended early to merge in ē, and ŭ in ō soon after: see Varr. R. R. 1, 2, 14, rustici viam veham appellant, and the admonitions of App. 197, 25, columna, non “colomna”; id. 198, 23, puella, non “poella” (compare the Italian, penna, pera; pollo, torre=Latin pinna, pira, pullus, turris). Similarly the diphthongs ae, au, tended to weaken to e, o: see Varro, L. L. v. 97, in Latio rure “edus”; qui in urbe, ut in multis, a addito, aedus; Fest. 202, Fest. 13, orata, genus piscis, appellatur a colore auri quod rustici “orum” dicebant, ut auriculas “oriculas” (compare the Ital. povero, toro; Span. pobre, toro=Lat. pauper, taurus). Unaccented au, closely followed by u, weakened to a: see Caper, 108, 6, ausculta, non “asculta” (compare the Ital. Agosto, Fr. Août=Lat. Augustus). A result of the stress accent was frequent syncope of unaccented vowels, notably between liquids and mutes: see App. 198, 3, calida, non “calda,” frigida, non “frigda” (compare domnus=dominus [Plaut.], mattus=maditus [Petr. ], and Ital. caldo, freddo, Fr. chaud, froid). From the second century, a prosthetic i became frequent before st, sc, sp, etc., mainly in inscriptions, and has survived to some extent in the Romance languages (compare Fr. étude, écrire=Lat. studium, scribere).

The majority of Latin consonants have passed unaltered into the Romance language and exhibit few distinctly plebeian features. The most important changes, the assibilation of ti before a vowel and of c and g before e and i, belong to the latest period of Latinity. In post-Hadrian Latin b became confounded with v (comp. forms like Berecundus, inbicto, berbeces, from the second-century inscriptions; App. 198, 7, alveus, non “albeus”; Ital. avere, inverno; Fr. avoir, hiver=Lat. habere, hibernum). The aspirate was frequently misapplied, as to-day in Cockney English: Catullus ( Carm. 84) ridicules forms like chommoda, hinsidias as a vulgar affectation (cf. Nigid. ap. Gell. xiii.6.3, rusticus fit sermo si aspires perperam; Caper, vii. 102, 12, alica, non “halica”). Final consonants were often neglected. Thus final m, lightly sounded even in classic Latin, was disregarded in the popular speech (cf. App. 199, 14, passim, non “passi”; numquam, non “numqua”; pridem, non “pride”; olim, non “oli”). The failure of final s to make position, a usage common in early poetry, had become “subrusticum” in Cicero's day (Orator, 48, 161): its omission becomes frequent in the second-century inscriptions. In Pompeian wall inscriptions final t is sometimes wanting (comp. forms like ama, valia, peria). The Sermo Plebeius carried assimilation much further than the classic speech: nn for nd was probably due to Osco-Umbrian influence. App. 197, 24, “candela,” non “cannela,” and forms like dispennite (Plaut.), verecunnus (Inscrr. Pomp.), with Oscan upsannam=Lat. operandum. Such forms are now common in the Neapolitan dialect. tt for ct is found in the fourth century inscriptions—e. g. lattucae, ottobris (cf. App. 198, 30: auctor, non “auttor,” and Ital. notte, ottavo, pittore=Lat. noctem, octavus, pictor. tt for pt is seen in inscriptional forms, such as Settembris, scritus (cf. Ital. Settembre, scritto); ss for sp, or ps. Comp. also the vulgar form issa for ipsa in Martial (i. 1 [9]): scriserunt (Inscr.); Ital. scrissi.

(b) Word-Formation.—The contrast between the Romance languages and classic Latin is nowhere sharper than in vocabulary. Many familiar classic words have vanished, plebeian forms surviving in their place; so the vulgar bucca, caballus, have replaced os (gen. oris), equus (cf. the French bouche, cheval; Ital. bocca, cavallo). Still oftener the simple Latin word has survived only in a derivative form, a condition due to the plebeian fondness for ponderous derivatives and compounds. The popular language was burdened with substantives in -bulum, -mentum, and -monium, and adjectives in -bundus, -lentus, and -osus; frequentative, inchoative, and desiderative verbs, diminutives, and prepositional compounds all abounded. Everywhere the effort was apparent to compensate by volume of sound for native poverty of thought. Such derivatives often differed but slightly, if at all, in meaning from the simple word, as the Romance languages testify (cf. the French abeille, corbeille, from Lat. diminutives apicula, corbicula; chanter, jeter, from frequentatives cantare, iactare). Through such misuse, words tended to wear out quickly, and it became necessary to reinforce them. Hence arose double diminutives, like homullulus, lapillulus; double frequentatives, like cantitare, ductitare; verbs with reduplicated prepositions, as con-colligere, per-per-ire, etc. The same fondness for lengthened forms is seen in the numerous compound suffixes resulting from secondary derivation, such as -bili-tas, -osi-tas, -tor-ius, -ill-are, or by deliberate compounding of separate endings, as -astellus, -ul-aster, -idini-tas, -eli-tas. Furthermore, the two processes of composition and derivation are used in combination; a growing proportion of derivative verbs are compounded with prepositions, while the growing tendency to derive substantives and adjectives from compound verbs by preference gave rise to such forms as stultiloquentia, vaniloquentia (Plaut.), circumspicientia (Gell. ), disconvenientia, impraescientia, subtililoquentia (Tert. ), suffumigatorius, superinunctorius (Cass. Fel. ); and such were often further compounded, notably with in- privative. Comp. inrecogitatio (Tert. ), incoinquinabilitas ( Rusp.Fulg. ).

(c) Inflection.—The radical process by which case-forms and tense-endings were largely replaced in the Romance languages by prepositions and periphrastic conjugations belongs under the head of syntax. The following are the principal anomalies of plebeian inflection: transfers from the fourth declension to the second, and from the fifth to the first, even in Plautine Latin, thus anticipating the loss of the fourth and fifth in Romance languages. Comp. senatus, -i, tumultus, -i, ecfigia for effigies (Plaut.); transfers from the third declension to second: cf. vasum, ossum (Plaut.), pauper, a, um (Plaut., Petr. ), and Ital. vaso, osso, povero. Substitutions of nominal endings in pronominal declension: ipsus, istus; gen. sing. isti, ulli; dat. sing. fem. aliae, totae (all in Plaut.). Numerous irregular comparatives and superlatives, made from superlative forms, as postremior, extremior (Apul. ), extremissimus (Tert. ), minissimus (Arnob.), or from other words not usually compared in classic Latin, as ipsissimus, geminissimus, patruissimus (Plaut.), pathicissimus (Mart. ), caenidior (Catull.). Adverbs in -ter, formed irregularly from adjectives in -us: avariter, firmiter, largiter (Plaut.), improbiter (Petr. ). The use of active forms, in place of deponent verbs: cf. laeto, opitulo ( Andr.), ioco, nicto (Plaut.), aemulo (Apul. ), carnifico, vesco (Tert. ). Transfers from the third to the fourth conjugation (so frequent in the Romance languages): cf. aggrediri, moriri (Plaut.), Ital. morire. The formation of the fourth declension future in -ibo, by analogy with -abo, -ebo: cf. nescibo, audibis, scibimus (Plaut.). The unusual formation of certain perfects with the normal ending -ivi: cf. posivi, institivi, potivi, etc. Similarly the use of the normal imperatives face, duce, etc., for usual fac, duc.

(d) Syntax.—Neuter nouns tended to become masculine, more rarely feminine: cf. caelus, fatus, vinus, triclinia (Petr. ), and the loss of the neuter in Ital., Span., etc. From the Romance standpoint, great importance attaches to the tendency to develop syntax at the expense of inflectional forms. Thus case-constructions were gradually replaced by prepositions: the partitive genitive by de, the dative of indirect object by ad, the instrumental ablative by cum. From early times the accusative tended to assume the functions of other cases— e. g. of the ablative after utor, fruor, fungor, etc., or of the dative after verbs of pleasing, trusting, etc. Gradually a confusion arose between the cases, and we find in construed indifferently with accusative or ablative; later cum, de, ex occur with the accusative; ante, per, etc., with the ablative. Adjectives were compared with the help of adverbs, such as bene, magis, plus: cf. Fr. bien joli, Span. mas grande, Ital. più forte. There was a tendency to use the verbs esse, habere as auxiliaries to form periphrastic tenses. The uses of the subjunctive mood were gradually curtailed: from the time of Plautus the indicative occurs in indirect questions, and in later Latin purpose is often expressed by the infinitive. Conversely, the infinitive with verba sentiendi et declarandi is constantly replaced by the indicative (more rarely the subjunctive) with quod, quia, quoniam in post-classic Latin: cf. dixi quod mustella comedit (Petr. ), Fr. j'ai dit que . . . Finally, plebeian Latin is partial to double negatives: nemini nihil satis est (Petr. ); cf. Ital. non fa niente, Fr. je n'ai point.

IV. Bibliography.—Most of the literature concerning the Sermo Plebeius is embodied in monographs, dealing either with special grammatical points or with the style of the individual writers. There exists as yet no comprehensive treatise covering the subject as a whole, although the results of modern scholarship have been to some extent embodied in such recent works as Stolz and Schmalz's Lateinische Grammatik, in Müller's Handbuch der klassischen Alterthumswissenschaft, vol. ii. (2d ed. Munich, 1890); Lindsay's The Latin Language (Oxford, 1894); and the new Historische Grammatik der lateinischen Sprache, of which only the first volume, by Prof. Stolz (Einleitung, Lautlehre, Stammbildungslehre), has yet appeared (Leipzig, 1894-95). The following list includes the more important works bearing upon this subject: Wölfflin, Zum Vulgärlatein, in the Philologus, vol. xxxiv. pp. 137-165; O. Rebling, Versuch einer Charakteristik der römischen Umgangssprache (2d ed. Kiel, 1882); Rönsch, Itala und Vulgata (Marburg and Leipzig, 1869); A. von Guericke, De Linguae Vulgaris Reliquiis apud Petronium et in Inscriptionibus Parietariis Pompeianis (Gumbinnen, 1875); E. Ludwig, Bericht über die in den Jahren 1873-76 erschienenen Schriften über Vulgärlatein und spätere Latinität, in Bursian's Jahresbericht, vol. vi. pp. 238 foll., and the same author's De Petronii Sermone Plebeio (Marburg, 1869); G. Koffmane, Geschichte des Kirchenlateins, pts. i. and ii. (Breslau, 1879-81); Ott, Die neueren Forschungen im Gebiete des BibelLatein, in the Neue Jahrbuch für Philologie (1874), pp. 757-792, 833-867; Storm, Romance Languages, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (9th ed.), vol. xx. pp. 661-668; Paul Monceaux, Le Latin Vulgaire d'après les Dernières Publications, in the Revue des Deux Mondes (July 15, 1891), pp. 429-448; Budinsky, Die Ausbreitung der lateinischen Sprache (Berlin, 1881); A. Koehler, De Auctoris Belli Africani et Belli hispaniensis Latinitate (Erlangen, 1877); Kraut, Ueber das vulgäre Element in der Sprache des Salustius (Blaubeuren, 1881); Stinner, De eo quo Cicero in Epistolis Usus est Sermone (Oppeln, 1879); Cooper, Word Formation in the Roman Sermo Plebeius (Boston, 1895); and the list of authorities there cited. See also the list given by Schmalz in Müller's Handbuch, and many articles contained in the Archiv für lateinische Lexicographie, vols. i.-viii. (Leipzig, 1884-94). The following treatises are important for African Latin: Sittl, Die lokalen Verschiedenheiten der lateinischen Sprache (Erlangen, 1882); H. Kretschmann, De Latinitate L. Apulei Madaurensis (Königsberg, 1865); Wölfflin, Ueber die Latinität des Afrikaners Cassius Felix, in Sittungsber. d. k. b. Akademie der Wissenschaften z. Munchen, Philos.Histos. Cl. (1880), pp. 381-432; three important articles in the eighth volume of the Archiv f. Lat. Lex.: Kübler, Die lateinische Sprache auf afrikanischen Inschriften, pp. 161-202; and Thielmann, Die Lateinische Uebersetzung des Buches der Weisheit, and Die Lateinische Uebersetzung des Buches Sirach, pp. 235-277, 501-561; Paul Monceaux, Les Africains (Paris, 1894); and Gaston Boissier, L'Afrique Romaine (Paris, 1895).

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  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Catullus, Poems, 84
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 13.6.3
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