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When the Roman republic/empire took over the Mediterranean between 40 BC and 20 AD, Vulgar Latin replaced the local languages almost completely. Basque seems to be the only remaining pre-Roman language.

But when the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century and was taken over by Germanic tribes, the languages spoken in the territory of the former Western Roman Empire mostly remained Romance, i.e. descended from Vulgar Latin.

What was the difference between the Roman conquests and the fall of the Western Roman Empire that led to the different language aftermaths?

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    Err... English, German, Greek, the languages of the former Yugoslavia, all spoken in parts of the former Western Empire. Not to mention Arabic in most of the North African parts, though I'm not sure whether those would be counted as the Western Empire. – jamesqf May 28 '17 at 18:44
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    In many parts of Roman empire the lagunage changed to a "barbarian one". Britain is a prime example, Austria is another. – Alex May 28 '17 at 18:51
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    I'm no Roman scholar, but I think the misconception about the fall of the Roman Empire is that Germanic tribes suddenly swept in and took over. Instead, many were already part of the Empire and already romanized. When the imperial infrastructure weakened and fell apart over the many invasions and incursions, local governments took over. For example, the Gauls were Germanic Franks living under the Romans for centuries. When the central government in Rome fell, they kept their language and government. I believe the key difference is Rome didn't just conquer you, they made you Roman. – Schwern May 28 '17 at 18:58
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    French, though a romance language, has very strong Germanic influence. This is why it is so different from Italian/Spanish/Portuguese. – Steven Burnap May 28 '17 at 19:49
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    @Schwern Gauls were Germanic Franks? That doesn't make much sense. Gauls are celtic; Franks are germanic. Besides that, the Franks arrived in Roman lands only in the 3rd century AD. – Firebug May 28 '17 at 22:16
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The short version is "it's complicated!", but I'll try to give a slightly more detailed explanation here.


Rome established a single empire with a single language, currency and laws. This doesn't mean that other languages didn't survive - and even thrive - alongside the official Latin of the Romans. In the Eastern Empire particularly, we know that Greek and (albeit to a lesser degree) the Egyptian and Aramaic languages continued to be in use.

The pre-Roman languages of the Western Empire weren't written languages (neither were the languages of the 'barbarian invaders' that replaced Rome in the West), so we have less evidence of how well they survived alongside vulgar Latin. That they did continue in use through the Roman period, however, is shown by the survival of Welsh and Cornish for example.

The pattern of 'barbarian' incursions that caused the fall of the Western Roman empire, and created the new 'Barbarian kingdoms' of the West is complicated (to put it mildly!). Broadly, however, many of these 'barbarian' invaders weren't looking to create a new empire. They actually wanted to be more Roman. They occupied an area within the Western empire and proceeded to adopt its language and customs. In return, these 'barbarians' provided the stability and defence that the government in Rome (or Constantinople) no longer could. Over time, the languages of these 'Barbarian kingdoms' diverged, giving rise to the variety we see in modern Romance languages.

In addition to this, of course, Latin continued as the language of the Roman Catholic church. This also helped preserve the language in the West. In the absence of any alternative written language, Latin remained the main vehicle of communication for the learned classes. The influence of the Roman Catholic church is a large part of the reason for the influence of Latin on modern English.

Vulgar Latin also survived in the 'Barbarian kingdoms' which replaced the former Roman provinces of North Africa, right up to the Arab conquests of the late 7th century. After the conquests the policy of education in Arabic, and the restrictions imposed on non-Muslims meant that the usage of Vulgar Latin declined.

Britain, of course, is the big exception in the western empire. The fact that the Romano-British infrastructure and language declined so rapidly here suggests that the Romanisation of Britain was far from complete by the time that Honorius issued his famous rescript to the Civitates of Britain in 410AD.

The evidence for Dalmatia and Pannonia suggests that these areas suffered significant depopulation, probably due to Slavic invasions, from the 7th to 10th centuries. The invaders brought new languages which largely replaced the original Romance languages, although Dalmatian survived right up to the 19th century. Something broadly similar seems to have happened in other parts of modern Austria.

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    @semipaiscuba Presumably it should be "Dalmatian", not "Dalmation"? – njuffa May 30 '17 at 17:03
  • As you say "Britain, of course, is the big exception in the western empire", which I suppose is why we are discussing this in the Germanic language called English. When I studied Anglo-Saxon England at University in around 1985 the (near) complete replacement of Romano-Celtic speech in England was so little understood one academic just said "The English have never been good at learning foreign languages". I have since heard it argued that Britain was 'last in, first out' of the Western Roman Empire, conquered later than Gaul and abandoned earlier, so less time to become Romanised. – Timothy May 30 '17 at 18:13
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Another factor:

When Rome moved in on the Eastern Mediterranean it found a lot of pre-existing civilisation: Hellenistic Greek-speakers, Aramaic speakers, etc.. The Romans worked through these existing civilised elites because it was less work than setting up everything themselves. As a result, these places mostly retained the languages of the pre-Roman elites. (At least until Islam arrived, with religious reasons for making everyone learn Arabic.)

But in Western Europe there wasn't a lot of local civilisation to work through. Tunisia, Libya and parts of Spain were civilised by the Carthaginians but Rome got along so badly with Carthage that it ended up trashing all that. Maybe that's what happened to Etruscan as well (the rest of Italy south of the Po was mostly speaking languages related to Latin anyway). There were some Greek colonies and parts of Gaul were a high-end barbarian culture knocking on the door of civilisation. But mostly the Romans had to build civilisation from scratch, so they set up Roman elites who created Latin-speaking civilisations.

When the Germans moved in on Western Europe they found Roman elites and worked through them. And so Latin survived long enough to diversify. An exception was Britain, where the war with the Romano-British went on long enough that the Romano-British decivilised from the stress and when the Anglo-Saxons got interested in civilisation a few centuries later they had to build a new civilisation with only limited assistance from the British.

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    This would be improved with some source references to back up the assertions. – Steve Bird May 29 '17 at 8:08
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    Why do you think that pre-Roman Western Europe wasn't civilized? I think there's good evidence to the contrary, even though that civilization didn't look like Rome's version. – jamesqf May 29 '17 at 17:33
  • Perhaps my using the word "civilised" was a mistake. Personally I don't think Gauls qualify (oppida were on the path to cities, but not very big). But even if they do meet some other definition of civilised, and even given Gauls were good at some things like metallurgy, I think it's reasonably safe to say that the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean were on the whole more sophisticated than those of Western Europe, and their elites and institutions more useful to the incoming Roman administration than those of the West. The rest of the argument then follows. – David Bofinger May 30 '17 at 12:50
  • I think part of it comes down to the utility of a common language. Rome's expansion resulted in Latin as a common language in the West, which had utility for inhabitants wishing to talk neighbors. In the East, Greek had already largely taken that role, so there was simply less utility for Latin beyond it being the language of the conquerors. – Steven Burnap May 30 '17 at 19:42
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The main difference is that the Romans settled and "colonized" conquered territories, and the barbarians often did not.

For instance, after Caesar's victory at Alesia against Vercingetorix, the Romans sent administrators and garrison troops to integrate Gaul into the Roman empire, even though Caesar himself was otherwise occupied playing Roman politics. The same was true with Spain after Scipio Africanus' victories two centuries earlier.

Then there was the Roman policy of "all roads lead to Rome." Although this technically referred to geography, the Romans followed similar policies with language and culture. Leading men of conquered territories were encouraged to become Roman citizens, further contributing to the diffusion of Roman language and culture. Basically, Latin was the means by which members of one part of the empire communicated with members of other parts of the empire speaking a different "native" language, for trade or other purposes.

On the other hand, the barbarians made few such contributions. Many of them were out for plunder, and backed away after they got what they wanted from western Europe. Attilla the Hun was one such example. Others came to stay, but were assimilated by the local (read, Roman or quasi Roman) language and culture, e.g. the "Franks".

protected by T.E.D. Sep 22 '17 at 19:07

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