The following is a thoroughly masterful and fascinating introduction to using non-elite Latin in teaching by Brandon Conley.
This is a brief introduction to non-elite Latin texts, intended for use in the classroom as a supplement to the more traditional Latin readings. For the majority of the following texts, knowledge of Latin equivalent to the first two to three semesters at the college level is advised, though several are suitable for first-year courses.
Firstly, what is non-elite Latin? Generally speaking, non-elite Latin comprises the texts produced outside of Rome’s powerful, exclusive literary circles, the arbiters of linguistic prestige—the ‘literati,’ so to speak. Other terms are often used to describe these texts, such as non-literary or non-standard. These definitions often, but not always, apply, and regularly more than one can be used to describe the same text. For example, we wouldn’t use ‘non-standard’ to describe an epitaph written for a freedwoman in Dacia that adheres to the linguistic standards of classical Latin (its adherence makes it, in fact, standard), but we could describe it as both non-elite and non-literary. The texts here can be standard or not (though most contain non-standard forms), as well as literary or not (though most aren’t). But they are all non-elite by virtue of the statuses, locations, and linguistic conventions of their authors.
Reading non-elite texts, with few exceptions, presents a set of challenges different from those of classical Latin. Linguistic features are more prone to diachronic and geographic change than the comparatively change-resistant classical standards. Spellings can be phonetic, colloquial, learned conventions, or intentionally archaic for effect. Morphology and syntax often differ widely as well, as in the increased usage of the indicative or the expanded role of the accusative (at the expense of the ablative, regularly). Vocabulary can be geographically specific, and differences in semantic value between non-elite and classical Latin are not uncommon.
Some of these features are discussed below to aid in reading. Efforts were made to add punctuation, etc., for ease of reading and approachability to students. Spellings are often left in their non-standard forms, though to aid in reading, many words are edited using brackets or parentheses; for particularly problematic spellings, a classical form of the word is added in parentheses. Texts (and translations, where available) are taken from the sources linked, with modifications (unless otherwise noted).
Exercises in non-elite Latin are often exercises in editing, critical reading, and emendation, as many of the texts are damaged or difficult to interpret. Reading these texts presents a practical opportunity to discuss textual editing as a scholarly process.
Lastly, accessibility is paramount. Students, instructors, and independent scholars often lack access to the databases and publications in which many non-elite texts are presented. All of the texts presented below are freely available online. At the end of this document, however, the recommended reading list contains mostly sources that are not open access.
Feel free to add, remove, edit, scream at, or pour coffee on the text—though should you choose to pour the coffee, print it first.
Motives for the spellings can be any number of things, from a widespread phonetic change to a local scribe’s misspelling. Often, unsurprisingly and necessarily, there is considerable debate on the causes of the spellings. Likewise, we must resist, often with great difficulty, tendencies to generalize non-standard spellings as broader linguistic features without the presence of more evidence.
These are some of the most common differences in spelling between non-elite and classical Latin.
Word-initial and Intervocalic Aspirate, h-, /h/ (habeo, hic, mihi, ): The initial and intervocalic aspirate /h/ had disappeared from most speech varieties by the imperial period, and from all eventually (with the exception of a select few prescriptive grammarians, perhaps). Hence, it is often omitted in non-elite texts, with resulting forms such as abes, mi, and ic.
Word-final -m, /m/ (dicam, amicum, etc.): -m was not pronounced (as /m/, at least) at the end of a word in spoken Latin, even before the time of Cicero; consider, for example, the impact this had in classical poetry in the process of elision. It is omitted from spelling with great frequency in non-elite texts, and can often cause confusion for first-time readers.
The v/b Shift, /w/ à /β/ (cf. the v in Spanish): this is a simplification of the process, but essentially the glide /w/ of classical pronunciation became increasingly pronounced as a bilabial fricative. This change is represented in non-standard spellings by the replacement of Latin v for b (e.g. dibi, classical divi, “gods”), as writers considered b to more closely represent the sound.
xs for x (dixsit,): there are potentially a few, if separate, factors that motivated this spelling. In short, an s was added after x due to the differing phonetic qualities of x as it was written (by itself, not representing /ks/). This is a common spelling feature, but generally not a problematic one for reading.
Assimilation and Weakening: a widespread trend in non-elite spellings is the simplification of consonant clusters, often through assimilation (i.e. one sound in the cluster ‘absorbs’ another sound) or weakening leading to loss. These can result in either a different letter being used to represent the altered sound (imveni, inveni) or the complete loss of a consonant (nuc, cf. nunc; meses, cf. menses). A notable loss, in cosul, is even reflected in standardized inscriptions in the abbr. cos. Loss is also quite common with consonants preceding the semivowel /j/, i (aiuto, cf. adiuto, “I help”).
Doubling of letters and reduction of doubled letters (faccio, facio; anis, cf. annis): multiple operations are at work, including the strengthening, weakening, and shortening of consonants, gemination and degemination, as well as the general tendency to eliminate letters that are not reflected in speech. Though not all spellings of these types can be ascribed to changes in pronunciation. For reading purposes, the doubling of letters (e.g. faccio) is usually not problematic. The absence of doubled letters can be problematic, though, as the non-standard forms frequently resemble other words with standard spellings (e.g. annis, dat/abl pl. ‘years,’ but anis, dat/abl pl. ‘rings’; or suum ‘own’, but sum ‘I am’).
Deletion: Vowels and consonants are regularly deleted in medial positions. Unstressed vowels are most commonly deleted (aspros, cf. asperos; copla, cf. copula), reducing the number of syllables in a word. This trend is not entirely unusual even in literary Latin.
Often duplicate vowels are reduced to one letter (serus, seruus; tus, cf. tuus).
Voiced and Devoiced Consonant Switching: switching in both directions is common, and the motives vary. The use of t for d and vice versa are perhaps the most common in the texts below (ed, set, at, ). Sometimes they are even used interchangeably in the same document. There is considerable doubt that these spellings reflected wider speech patterns.
Other Orthographic Consonant Substitutions: k is regularly used for c (karissimo), as is, to a lesser extent, q before u (mequm, quravit). These generally do not pose problems for readers.
e/i Representation: the writing of e for i and vice versa is one of the most commonly found spelling deviations from classical standards. Spellings of this type sometimes, though not always, reflect a widespread phonetic change in Latin speech well into the imperial period, whereby the vowels long e /e:/ and short i /i/ merged into a single vowel, /ẹ/. Both letters were used with little consistency to represent this phoneme. Another motive was the tendency for /e/ and /i/ to become a semivowel /j/ after a consonant (vinia as two syllables, rather than vinea). Occasionally, e was even used to represent ī /i:/. Some examples: sene, nese, dicet, ube, ibe, and signabet.
u/o Representation: another very common set of vowel substitutions, o is frequently used in place of u. The majority of instances occur in final syllables of the nominative and accusative singular; -us and -um become -os and -om, respectively. While another widespread vowel merger (similar to e/i) occurred very late in the imperial period, whereby ō /o:/ and u /u/ merged to a closed o /ọ/, the great majority of non-elite texts from the Roman Empire likely do not reflect this process. The use of o for u is far more likely to be an orthographic remnant (a ‘relic’, perhaps) of the old Latin spelling, which reflects the original o-stem. As mentioned above, there is also a strong stylistic tendency against writing the consecutive vowels uu, and o often replaces the second one. Examples: servos, mortuos, novom, salvom.
ei for i (tibei, ubei, etc.): the use of the vowels ei for classical i occurs regularly, and is an archaism of spelling, either for style or by learned inheritance, rather than an indication of pronunciation. It is a remnant of a popular spelling in old Latin which did reflect speech; the original diphthong /ei/ underwent a change to /i:/.
Monophthongization: ae /ae/ à e /ɛ/: other diphthongs disappear as well, but ae to e is present most frequently in the texts. Examples: que, quae; Cecilius, cf. Caecilius; and equum, cf. aequum. These can be problematic, as evidenced by the final example equum (potentially confused for the classical ‘horse’).
Morphology and Syntax
While there are numerous morphological and syntactic differences from classical Latin, they rarely impede reading to the extent of spelling differences. For example, a Latin student might recognize that the ‘incorrect’ verb tense is used in a conditional, but meaning can still be deduced. As such, only a few points will be mentioned here; see the recommended readings for further discussion.
Accusatives with Prepositions: there is plenty of evidence to support the convincing notion that the accusative became the default case for prepositional phrases. Most notably, cum, de, pro and in regularly take accusatives (even in instances in which the classical ‘ablative of place where’ would be expected). The situation is further complicated by the status of word-final -m, which made the ablative and accusative cases sound identical in speech in some instances, and the omission of which in writing can make a word appear ablative, though a writer originally had in mind an accusative. Advice for readers is to expect accusatives with prepositions which would otherwise be unexpected in classical Latin.
Analogy and Paradigm Leveling: analogy was a productive process in Latin, and in non-elite texts it occurs often in verbal and nominal morphology. Forth declension nouns in classical Latin sometimes use the more regular endings of the second declension in non-elite texts (an ongoing process that eventually saw the near-complete elimination of the fourth declension). Verbal constructions are leveled as well, for example in posso (“I can”) being given a common -o 1st singular ending in place of the standard possum.
Indicative or Infinitive: in instances where classical Latin would employ a subjunctive, such as in an indirect question, it is not uncommon in non-elite texts to see an indicative or an infinitival construction.
The conjunctions et and sed: a number of texts rely heavily on these conjunctions, including them where syntactically unnecessary or where other conjunctions would be more appropriate for clarity. One must not always take these literally or strictly when reading.
Reading any different author or genre of Latin usually requires familiarization with new vocabulary, and non-elite texts are no exception. Cicero’s surviving works, for example, do not contain inventories of materials or equipment, and in the texts that do contain these, some words will be new to readers. In some instances, however, things are more complicated. Loanwords or local words with limited attestation are common, and their meanings are uncertain; the ostraka found at Bu Njem, for example, contain several Punic words. The texts below were chosen with these considerations in mind, though it will perhaps be necessary to look up some military terms, for example.
Keep reading for some phenomenal texts….