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African Romance: searching for traces of a lost Latin language


The Roman Empire spread Latin around, eventually
leaving – through the fall of empire and the Middle Ages – a bunch of different Romance
languages. Wait, but what about here in Roman Africa? We know they wrote Latin; we know they spoke
it. Where did it go? Let’s take a journey. Let’s dig into the rare traces of evidence
of what an African Romance language could have been like before it vanished and wonder
what kind of Romance language it might’ve been. This is a map, the kind you’ve seen before in
games, books, movies. It shows the Roman Empire at its greatest
extent. Now let me add another layer of more recent
Roman… Romance stuff. It shows Romance languages that survived into
or nearly to modern times, from português to català to le français to sicilianu to armãneashti. I could hardly fit them all. This isn’t a story about them though; it’s
a mystery about the negative space between them. These missing areas tantalize us with their
lack of a modern home-grown Romance language. Our story starts here, in the largest of these
areas: North Africa. Home to a prosperous civilization speaking
not Latin but Punic, a Semitic language. Punic was heard in cities like Karaly, Hippo,
Utica meaning “old”, and above all their famous capital “Qart Ḥadasht”, Carthage, the “New City”. But across the strait, the Roman Republic
is expanding out of Latium, down Italy’s boot, and across into Sicily. Rome and Carthage will fight it out in not one
but three Punic Wars over more than a hundred years. Carthage loses and is leveled. Punic will dwindle but survive, sometimes
even in official inscriptions, but written beneath Latin. Yes, you speak Latin now! And your name is Africa. Rome divided up the land into provinces; the
one around Carthage bore the name Africa. In the late days of the empire these provinces,
ranging from Morocco into Libya today, were combined into this whole Diocese of Africa,
one of the most prosperous parts of the empire. For all that time, the Latin here reads just
like Latin. But as the empire cracks and crumbles, we
start to encounter enticing fragments of linguistic evidence from this “Roman Africa”. The year is 430. This rich Roman diocese is facing a threat
from the north. The walls of Hippo, one of its most prosperous
cities, are surrounded by Gaisericus and his formidable force. These are Vandals, with a captial V. An Eastern Germanic people who made their
way into Spain, struggled to fight off both Romans and Visigoths, and now turn their sights
towards Africa. Inside the walls, the city of Hippo grows
hungrier by the day, including one of its most distinguished residents, Augustinus. Now in his 70s, Augustine has already left
a lofty literary legacy, yet at times he penned more mundane remarks. Like this one about the way people around
him spoke, our first hint: they can’t tell a “bone” apart from a “mouth”. See, in proper Latin one is “ōs” with a long
vowel and the other is short “ŏs”, but here they’d both be “ŏs” because their “ears can’t
discern the shortening or lengthening of vowels”. The Vandals will conquer this city, Augustine
will perish in the siege, but the un-classical vowels hinted at will live on. The Vandals set up a kingdom and for one hundred
years impose their rule but not their tongue. This is a wooden tablet found south of Tébessa,
Algeria, just one of more than 40 Albertini Tablets that contain Vandal legal documents
written down not in their Germanic Vandal language but entirely in Latin. At first glance it looks mostly like good
Latin, until you notice all the misspellings. Take time to analyze those mistakes, because
they aren’t random. The lawmakers leave off final M just about as much
as they spell it. They constantly confuse the letters B and
V, substituting the letter B for V over 50 times and only using V correctly 14 times! (A mistake that might be charmingly familiar
to any Spanish speakers out there, but we’ll come back to that.) The Vandal tablets reveal something else,
too. Augustine reminds us that good Latin had long
and short vowels using the example of ŏs vs ōs. It’s true for other vowels, like ĭ versus
ī. That short ĭ evolved in Romance languages
East and West to an ē sound, so a Vulgar Latin pear, pira, became an Italian pera. But in all the misspellings, the Vandal tablets
never do that. They consistently treat all Is the same: they
eat “pirs” not “pears”. Which reminds me of another Romance language:
Sardinian. On Sardinia to this day the way they speak
is so unique that it’s often treated separately from the rest of Romance. While other Romance languages shuffle vowels
around, Sardinian simply does not distinguish long ones from short: a pear isn’t a pera,
it’s a pira. Just as we’re told happened in the early days
of African Romance. We’ve been ignoring a big part of this story. Latin and Punic haven’t been the only tongues
in these North African provinces. Alongside, before and after them, there are
languages that look quite a bit different, written like this. To outsiders this was Moorish or Berber, but
it’s a close-knit bunch of languages spoken by millions of Amazigh people today. Look at Tamazight words long enough, and you’ll
find something curious: layers. They keep traces of words they’ve been in
contact with throughout the centuries; indeed, they integrate borrowed words remarkably well
and remarkably fast. Some words recall the Punic days before the
Romans took Carthage. Others are more recent, from Arabic, or even
very recent, from French. But among these layers are words from Latin. Tricky words. Some of them keep the shape of a proper, classical
nominative case -us. Others perhaps resemble something out of our
lost Romance language, like maybe accusative case ones without the M just like the Vandal
tablets. One author I read thinks this could explain
why Tamazight has -us and -u side by side. It’s a sliver of a fact to go on, but if true, it fits with what we see in Romance
history: a tendency to take a non-nominative and make it the basic form of a noun. If African Romance emerged, it emerged in
tumultuous times. Roman rule falls to the Vandals. Vandals to the Byzantines. Byzantines give way to the Umayyads. And throughout all of them, Amazigh people
are playing an outsized role… heh, even Augustine is one. As are many of those who set out to take Hispania
for the Umayyad Caliphate in the year 711. It’s tempting to point to this conquest as
a dividing line in history – I’ve seen that many times – but look through the eyes of this period, and you might just
see waves of takeovers. Four new powers in a couple centuries. But more than most conquests, this one brought
a new and lasting era for the region. Not always in the way you might think. So here’s a question: when the Umayyad clan
from Mecca took Spain, and people arrived from Africa, what language do you think they
spoke? Was it… Arabic? Maybe Tamazight? Considering the histories and finds, according
to this scholar it was most likely some kind of Latin! And if their African Romance had the feature
we guessed it might earlier, failing to tell B apart from V, its early arrival in Spain
could explain a mismatch. The B/V confusion wasn’t absent from Spain,
for whom the phrase goes vivere, to live, is bibere, to drink, but Isidore of Sevilla
testifies it’s more characteristic of Africa. And yet it would become so very Spanish. So then, what if some new arrivals tipped
the scales in favor of B? Or what if… it’s just a stretch to pin this
on our unknown emerging language, and other papers warn us V changed from the north instead. Oh well, what about words? Did African Romance leave a fingerprint on
the local vocabulary? Go back to Augstine, who told us how Africa
avoided that ōs/os confusion: they actually used an improper word “ossu”. And so did Spain… ah, but that word was
popular with the rest of Romance, too. Instead consider the Romance word for “face”. No, not that one. Not that one either. The one heard uniquely throughout Iberia. Rōstrum meant “beak” in Classical Latin, and
rostro still does in Italian, but guess where a “rostro” turned into “face”? Hispania and Africa. For me, it’s more guesswork with few answers. But I can’t help [but] follow this story to
the end. Whatever African Romance may have been, it
did come to an end. After it outlasted centuries of conquests,
the geographer al-ʾIdrisi writes clearly in the 1100s about a local tongue and gives
it a name not far from what I’ve been calling an “African Romance language”: al-lisān al-lātīnī
al-ʾIfrīqī. Our final piece of evidence falls close to
that late date: the grave inscriptions of Tripolitania. These epitaphs do their best to keep Latinic
words alive. They do resort to ditching final M and writing
B for V, like we’ve seen before. They also often misspell Cs as K. See, Cs
in Romance languages changed from /k/ to a soft sound in /ts/e or /ts/i. But here in stone we read “pake” and “bikeisima”
where Italian has “pace” and “vigesima”. By misspelling KE and KI, these stones insist
on preserving an old k sound that other Romance languages softened to ts, ch or s. The only other exceptions I know of are the
extinct Dalmatian and, again, the living Sardinian. Like so much of the evidence, it’s suggestive,
not definitive, but it’s our last trace of African Romance. As the language fades, a Norman conquest of
North Africa, led by the king of Sicily who bankrolled that geographer, brings contact
with new Latinic languages from Europe, and we’ll hear nothing more from this variant
of Romance, perhaps on its way to becoming its own language or languages, that maybe,
just maybe if we reach into the past we catch hints of its lost final Ms, its Bs and Is
and KEs and KIs, its distinctive vocabulary, its affinities with Sardinian. Maybe. Thanks for adventuring back into language
history and wondering with me. “Gratias ago”, thank you to patrons for keeping
me animating and supporting future linguistic tales. Stick around and subscribe for language.

100 Replies to “African Romance: searching for traces of a lost Latin language”

  • Josh, I really love your videos. Thank you very much for sharing your research and knowledge. Continue com o seu excelente trabalho! Muito obrigado e um feliz ano novo! =D

  • with great jubilance and love swelling in my breast i will command 100 angels to sound in your honor. you have only to alliw yourself to be folded in the wings of the shinning one, the morning star, to be rejuvenated. before then i shall prrsent before you the inverted 5 point star of the devil so that you may gaze upon it in wonder and awe and bow…..Rejoice!!! Rejoice!!!

  • I liked the whole video except for when you called the later Roman's "byzantines". Its a completely ahistorical name, and doesn't make sense. Everyone at the time simply called them Roman's, byzantine comes from almost a hundred years after the fall of constantinople

  • Based on the information here, and how the Romance languages are considered a dialect continuum, African Romance would have had a lot of characteristics of Sardinian and Mozarabic and perhaps Spanish. It would have been very conservative like Sardinian.

  • The V vs B interchangeability is so weird to my English speaking(hearing) mind. Many a time I have asked my Mexican friends and coworkers when do you use the V and when do you use the B? They always say it doesn't matter, and I am like…, what? why? How do you know? They always tell me, "eet's OK, no problema."

  • Hey, can you make some video about Baltic languages (Latvian & Lithuanian). After all those 2 languages are closest living languages to Proto Indoeuropean (especially Lithuanian. Latvian have some Finno-Ugric admixture because of assimilated nation of Livs). I am sure you can made very interesting video about that! Love your channel!

  • As a Moroccan Amazigh, I notice that there are some Latin-Spanish words that are similar to Tamazight and Darija:
    Darija: Tarma / Tamazight: Assod / Latin: Terminus / English: Ass

    Darija: Lkadouss / Tamazight: Aquaduss / Latin: Aquadus / English: water tube

    Darija/Tamazight: Carrusa / Latin: Carrus / ENGLISH: Carriage

    Darija/Tamazight: bḷaṣa / Spanish: plaza / English: place

    Darija/Tamazight: Cozina / Spanish: Cocina / English: Kitchen

    Darija/Tamazight: banca / Spanish: banca / English: bank

    Darija/Tamazight: sbīṭaṛ / Latin: hospitor / English: hospital

    Tamazight: fišta / Latin: festa / Spanish: fiesta / English: holiday

    Tamazight: scuela / Spanish: escuela / English: School

    Tamazight: guerra / Spanish: guerra / English: War

    Tamazight: Gana / Spanish: Gana / English: desire

    Tamazight: Simana / Spanish: Semana / English: Week

  • amazing the way you said português
    you really sounded like a native speaker
    and really loved the video
    keep doing these videos about the history of languages

  • Came for the coincidence between the subject matter and the time and place of some events described in a book I'm reading, stayed for what ended up being one of your best videos IMO (which is saying something). Thank you.

  • Saying a word as it's pronounced by a native speaker, when you yourself aren't one, makes you sound pretentious. No one expects you to not have an accent and it's obvious you're faking it. It's also jarring and weird. Like if a Japanese person were to start saying certain words with a midwest American accent.

  • Well that "mysterious void" in the British Isles is no mystery. Rome only had a couple hundred years to sink its teeth in before pulling out of that area, so the Celtic languages and culture were never completely stamped out and easily enough rekindled… and then those people were counquered by Angles and Saxons and Jutes with Germanic languages, who were then conquered by "vikings" imposing Scandinavian languages, and then again by Normans speaking some kind of weird Scandinavian Germano-French. By the time the church brings Latin back to the British Isles, it's just that funny chickenscratch that's on all the old ruins.

  • Thanks for this. I have always been fascinated by (though not very knowledgeable about), the career of Latin in N. Africa, especially after reading Tertullian, Augustine, and Apuleius. I believe that N. Africans had the reputation of speaking Latin better than the Romans. In any case, by around the 3rd century c.e. it was said to produce the best Latin orators. I would love to know more about the subject.

  • I bet it sounded like Spanish, South Italian, and Sardinian. Maybe with some Berber phonological adaptations. I wish there was more adaptations.

  • There are also some Italian loan words from the colonisation of Tunisia by Italians and the one of Morocco by the Spanish. The turkish have been there also before the French colonisation.

  • ummayads are just mythical stories of abbasids , and i dare u and everyone else to bring me an archeological evidance about them

  • I'm from North Africa and I speak 3 Latin languages. I want to say that this video has tried to answer effectively many of my linguistic wonderings about the mutual influence between the semitic and Latin languages spoken on the two banks of the Mediterranean. Much better than many videos that just repeat clichés.

  • I love your videos. Love them. But I don’t know if you’re trying to keep them short because always in the middle when you’re giving the most important information you speed up and start speaking very fast and I get lost. Just a plea to either slow down or maybe give more information. I’m watching trying to puzzle out the fascinating story and you’re far on to the next point! Please and thank you for these fantastic videos. Happy New Year!

  • What kind of Sardinian do you mean when you say Sardinian?
    Because there are a few main variations that differ greatly from one another. For example Campidanese is quite different from Nuorese or Logudorese, I excluded Sassarese as I believe it's actually a variation of Corsican.

  • "As early as 1767 a French Jesuit in India, Father Coerdoux, had observed that Sanskrit & Latin were remarkably alike. Sir William Jones (1746-1794)…. was the next to observe the relationship, & from a comparative study of the grammatical structures of Latin, Greek, & Sanskrit concluded that that all three had "sprung," as he phrased it, "from some common source, which perhaps no longer exists." Franz Bopp (1791-1867), published in 1816 a comparative study of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian, & Germanic systems of conjugation. And finally, by the middle of the century is was perfectly clear that a prodigious distribution of closely related tongues could be identified over the greater part of the civilized world: a single, broadly scattered family of languages that must have sprung from a single source, & which includes, besides Sanskrit & Pali (the language of Buddhist scriptures), most of the tongues of northern India as well as Singhalese (the language of Ceylon), Persian, Armenian, Albanian, & Bulgarian; Polish, Russian, & the other Slavic tongues; Greek, Latin & all the languages of Europe except Estonia, Finnish, Lapp, Magyar, & Basque. Thus the continuum from Ireland to India had been revealed. And not only the languages, but also the civilizations & religions, mythologies, literary forms & modes of thought of the peoples involved could be readily compared: for example, the Vedic pantheon of ancient India, the Eddic of medieval Iceland, & the Olympian of the Greeks….

    The discovery appeared to indicate that the most productive, as well as philosophically mature, constellation of peoples in the history of civilization had been associated with this prodigious ethnic diffusion; for it seemed that even in the Orient, the homeland of many darker races, it had been the lighter-skinned Indo-Aryans who had given the chief impulse to the paramount cultural trend…"

    [The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell, 1991, Prologue]

  • I'm Corsican and in my dialect of the language we say "pira", "bucca", "siccu" etc. A simple merger of long and short vowels. Old Corsican is believed to have been a sister tongue of Sardinian, and some of us believe, of African Romance. Some dialects of Corsican also lack any differentiation between b and v, and for some others soft mutation of b goes to v.

    I don't know if any evidence of this has been found in African Romance but Corsican and Sardinian I believe are the only Romance languages that use consonantic mutation similarly to Celtic languages. Maybe it would be interesting to try and look out for it in African Romance.

  • There are remnants of Latin throughout Arabic speaking countries (Tunisia probably has the most, but Algeria and oddly Egypt have many). The Latin words used in the qur'an are obviously from the Roman times, but the ones in use today are a hybrid of Latin, Italian and French. Just like English has Latin from French, Arabic has Latin from these many other influences as well. But to reconstruct a North African Latin is pointless, since this channel can't even get the basic 1st century Latin correct.

  • They probably existed but the evidence to support them still seems fairly weak. Really good job on the video though.

  • Wait, so is it a Spanish thing to not differentiate b from v when speaking? I thought it was another aspect of the language we butchered in Argentina

  • In Berber the word for angel is Angallus ( from Latin Angelus) and for the devil is Adamun ( from Latin daemonium)

  • Ladino muy parecido al Castellano es un lenguaje muy antiguo que aún se habla en el norte de Africa: Marruecos, Tunez, Egipto ; cercano Oriente :Palestina Sirya, Armenia, Turquia, Y areas puntuales de Europa mediterránea: Sicilia, Sarajevo, Albania, Salónica, es facil de entender para quienes hablan español Italiano o Portugués.

  • Amazing work you done here. I live in brazil and I have to buy from my pocket to find a latin teacher and is fucking expensive. But your job in history of languages has no price.

  • Well, I can only speak for tunisian vernacular arabic, but I can say this: the latin ending "us" is still very common. It features in words such as "Qattus" (meaning cat cat), "fallous" (chick as in chicken offspring) "barkus" (male sheep), etc. It's also used consistently an an ending in the regular deminutive case.

    Actuall, the tunisian word for cat is possibly the most fascinating, because (at least to me), it always sounded as a compromise between latin (cattus) and arabic (Qitt), resulting into Qattus.

  • I am quite surprised that no one has asked for a video about Moselle romance so far.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moselle_Romance

  • “Well, I’m from Utica and I’ve never heard the term Africa”
    “Oh, not in Utica, no. It’s a Roman expression.”

  • Sorry for just noticing this just now, but what the f is going on with Sweden & Denmark & Greece in that map??

  • North African dialects have unique takes on Arabising Latin that are very indicative – it seems to me – of how they possessed Latin. Though I can't tell if it's the ancient or medieval phase that a word comes from. Particularly with multiple influxes of expelled Jews and Muslims from Andalusia and Sicily, and prisoners of war and trade.

  • This is epic! I was looking for more information about this language and u did it just in time.. Thanks from a Moroccan follower ❤️

  • There also was Sabir (mediaterranian lingua franca) which is somehow similar. It left traces in present Algerian slang and Polari. There are traces even in geographical names, such as Cape Guardafui (that literally means "Cape Look and Escape" in Lingua Franca and ancient Italian).

  • Face, cara, rosto and visu[al] … the latter stretching a bit too much into slang, meaning someone's "looks', but the first three are perfectly interchangeable in Brazilian Portuguese.

  • I am a Berber from Morocco and the videomaker knows what he's talking about I have researched my whole life about my roots and at last Europeans start to know the truth about North-Africa

  • The Latin of Medieval English monks was regarded as superior since continentals would easily "pollute" their clerical Latin with borrowings from romance languages.

    Final M was nasalised in Classical Latin, so little wonder it dropped off completely in the provinces.

  • Have you heard of the Nura language? It is spoken by very few people who are all from the same family in Morocco. Apparently, it is the only African Romance language in existence.

  • Hey, Nativlang! I think I found something that might be an african romance language. It's called Nura and it's spoken by around 100 native speakers in the village near the Chaouen, Morocco. Here's the link to the video with spoken sample and some more information about this language in the description of the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuYHf7Lxbdw

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