African Romance or African Latin is an extinct Romance language that was spoken in the Roman province of Africa by the Roman Africans during the later Roman and early Byzantine Empires, and several centuries after the annexation of the region by the Umayyad Caliphate in 696 AD. African Romance is poorly attested as it was mainly a spoken, vernacular language, a sermo rusticus. There is little doubt, however, that by the early 3rd century AD, some native provincial variety of Latin was fully established in Africa.
|Region||Diocese of Africa / Ifriqiya|
|Era||Classical Antiquity, Middle Ages|
(c. 1st century BC – 14th century)
|ISO 639-3||None (|
This language, which developed under Byzantine rule, continued through to the 12th century in various places along the North African coast and the immediate littoral, with evidence that it may have persisted up to the 14th century, and possibly even the 15th century, or later in certain areas of the interior.
The Roman province of Africa was organized in 146 BC following the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War. The city of Carthage, destroyed following the war, was rebuilt during the dictatorship of Julius Caesar as a Roman colony, and by the 1st century, it had grown to be the fourth largest city of the empire, with a population in excess of 100,000 people. The Fossa regia was an important boundary in North Africa, originally separating the Roman occupied Carthaginian territory from Numidia, and may have served as a cultural boundary indicating Romanization.
In the time of the Roman Empire, the province had become populous and prosperous, and Carthage was the second-largest Latin-speaking city in the Empire. Latin was, however, largely an urban and coastal speech. Carthaginian Punic continued to be spoken in inland and rural areas as late as the mid-5th century, but also in the cities. It is probable that Berber languages were spoken in some areas as well.
Funerary stelae chronicle the Romanization of art and religion in North Africa. Notable differences, however, existed in the penetration and survival of the Latin, Punic and Berber languages. These indicated regional differences: Neo-Punic had a revival in Tripolitania, around Hippo Regius there is a cluster of Libyan inscriptions[clarification needed], while in the mountainous regions of Kabylie and Aures, Latin was scarcer, though not absent.
Africa was occupied by the Germanic Vandal tribe for over a century, between 429 and 534 AD, when the province was reconquered by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The changes that occurred in spoken Latin during that time are unknown. Literary Latin, however, was maintained at a high standard, as seen in the Latin poetry of the African writer Corippus. The area around Carthage remained fully Latin-speaking until the arrival of the Arabs.
Origins and development
Like all Romance languages, African Romance descended from Vulgar Latin, the non-standard (in contrast to Classical Latin) form of the Latin language, which was spoken by soldiers and merchants throughout the Roman Empire. With the expansion of the empire, Vulgar Latin came to be spoken by inhabitants of the various Roman-controlled territories in North Africa. Latin and its descendants were spoken in the Province of Africa following the Punic Wars, when the Romans conquered the territory. Spoken Latin, and Latin inscriptions developed while Punic was still being used. Bilingual inscriptions were engraved, some of which reflect the introduction of Roman institutions into Africa, using new Punic expressions.
Latin, and then some Romance variant of it, was spoken by generations of speakers, for about fifteen centuries. This was demonstrated by African-born speakers of African Romance who continued to create Latin inscriptions until the first half of the 11th century. Evidence for a spoken Romance variety which developed locally out of Latin persisted in rural areas of Tunisia - possibly as late as the last two decades of the 15th century in some sources.
By the late 19th century and early 20th century, the possible existence of African Latin was controversial, with debates on the existence of Africitas as a putative African dialect of Latin. In 1882, the German scholar Karl Sittl used unconvincing material to adduce features particular to Latin in Africa. This unconvincing evidence was attacked by Wilhelm Kroll in 1897, and again by Madeline D. Brock in 1911. Brock went so far as to assert that "African Latin was free from provincialism", and that African Latin was "the Latin of an epoch rather than that of a country". This view shifted in recent decades, with modern philologists going so far as to say that African Latin "was not free from provincialism" and that, given the remoteness of parts of Africa, there were "probably a plurality of varieties of Latin, rather than a single African Latin". Other researchers believe that features peculiar to African Latin existed, but are "not to be found where Sittl looked for it".
While as a language African Romance is extinct, there is some evidence of regional varieties in African Latin that helps reconstruct some of its features. Some historical evidence on the phonetic and lexical features of the Afri were already observed in ancient times. Pliny observes how walls in Africa and Spain are called formacei, or "framed walls, because they are made by packing in a frame enclosed between two boards, one on each side". Nonius Marcellus, a Roman grammarian, provides further, if uncertain, evidence regarding vocabulary and possible "Africanisms". In the Historia Augusta, the North African Roman Emperor Septimius Severus is said to have retained an African accent until old age. More recent analysis focuses on a body of literary texts, being literary pieces written by African and non-African writers. These show the existence of an African pronunciation of Latin, then moving on to a further study of lexical material drawn from sub-literary sources, such as practical texts and ostraca, from multiple African communities, that is military writers, landholders and doctors.
Adams lists a number of possible Africanisms found in this wider Latin literary corpus. Only two refer to constructions found in Sittl, with the other examples deriving from medical texts, various ostraca and other non-traditional sources. Two sorts of regional features can be observed. The first are loanwords from a substrate language, such is the case with Britain. In African Latin, this substrate was Punic. African Romance included words such as ginga for "henbane", boba for "mallow," girba for "mortar" and gelela for the inner flesh of a gourd. The second refers to use of Latin words with particular meanings not found elsewhere, or in limited contexts. Of particular note is the African Romance use of the word rostrum for "mouth" instead of the original meaning in Latin, which is "beak", and baiae for "baths" being a late Latin and particularly African generalisation from the place-name Baiae. Pullus meaning "cock" or "rooster", was probably borrowed by Berber dialects from African Romance, for use instead of the Latin gallus. The originally abstract word dulcor is seen applied as a probable medical African specialisation relating to sweet wine instead of the Latin passum or mustum. The Latin for grape, traditionally indeterminate (acinis), male (acinus) or neuter (acinum), in various African Latin sources changes to the feminine acina. Other examples include the use of pala as a metaphor for the shoulder blade; centenarium, which only occurs in the Albertini Tablets and may have meant "granary"; and infantilisms such as dida.
Both Africans, such as Augustine of Hippo and the grammarian Pompeius, as well as non-Africans, such as Consentius and Jerome, wrote on African features, some in very specific terms. Indeed in his De Ordine, dated to late 386, Augustine remarks how he was still "criticised by the Italians" for his pronunciation, while he himself often found fault with theirs. While modern scholars may express doubts on the interpretation or accuracy of some of these writings, they contend that African Latin must have been distinctive enough to inspire so much discussion.
Extinction as a vernacular
Prior to the Arab conquest in 696–705 AD, a Romance language was probably spoken alongside Berber languages in the region. Loanwords from Northwest African Romance to Berber are attested, usually in the accusative form: examples include atmun ("plough-beam") from temonem.
Following the conquest, it becomes difficult to trace the fate of African Romance. Although it was soon replaced by Arabic as the primary administrative language, African Latin existed at least until the arrival of the Banu Hilal Arabs in the 11th century and probably until the beginning of the 14th century. It likely continued to be widely spoken in various parts of the littoral of Africa into the 12th century, exerting a significant influence on Northwest African Arabic, particularly the language of northwestern Morocco.
Amongst the Berbers of Afrikiya, African Romance was linked to Christianity, which survived in North Africa until the 14th century. Spoken Latin or Romance is attested in Gabès by Ibn Khordadbeh; in Béja, Biskra, Tlemcen, and Niffis by al-Bakri; and in Gafsa and Monastir by al-Idrisi, who observes that the people in Gafsa "are Berberised, and most of them speak the African Latin tongue." In their quest to conquer the Kingdom of Africa in the 12th century, the Normans were aided by the remaining Christian population of Tunisia, who some linguists, among them Vermondo Brugnatelli, argue had been speaking a Romance language for centuries. According to Mawlâ Aḥmad, a Romance dialect probably survived in Tozeur until the early 18th century.
The spoken variety of African Romance, as recorded by Paolo Pompilio, was perceived to be similar to Sardinian – confirming hypotheses that there were parallelisms between developments of Latin in Africa and Sardinia.
Augustine of Hippo writes that "African ears have no quick perception of the shortness or length of [Latin] vowels". This also describes the evolution of vowels in the Sardinian language. Sardinian has only five vowels, and no diphthongs: unlike some other surviving Romance languages, the five long and short vowel pairs of classical Latin (a/ā, e/ē, i/ī, o/ō, u/ū) merged into five single vowels with no length distinction (a, e, i, o, u). Italian has seven, while Portuguese and Catalan have eight.
Adams theorises that similarities in some vocabulary, such as pala and acina across Sardinian and African Romance, or spanu in Sardinian and spanus in African Romance ("light red"), may be evidence that some vocabulary was shared between Sardinia and Africa. A further theory suggests that the Sardinian word for "Friday", cenàpura or chenàpura, may have been brought to Sardinia by North African Jews.
Muhammad al-Idrisi also says of the island's native people that "the Sardinians are ethnically Roman Africans, live like the Berbers, shun any other nation of Rûm; these people are courageous and valiant, that never part with their weapons."
Some impacts of African Romance on Arabic spoken in the Maghreb are also theorised. For example, in calendar month names, the word furar "February" is only found in the Maghreb and in the Maltese language - proving the word's ancient origins. The region also has a form of another Latin named month in awi/ussu < augustus. This word does not appear to be a loan word through Arabic, and may have been taken over directly from Late Latin or African Romance. Scholars theorise that a Latin-based system provided forms such as awi/ussu and furar, with the system then mediating Latin/Romance names through Arabic for some month names during the Islamic period. The same situation exists for Maltese which mediated words from Italian, and retains both non-Italian forms such as awissu/awwissu and frar, and Italian forms such as april.
Some scholars theorise that many of the North African invaders of Hispania in the Early Middle Ages spoke some form of African Romance, with "phonetic, morphosyntactic, lexical and semantic data" from African Romance appearing to have contributed in the development of Ibero-Romance.
Brugnatelli pinpoints some Berber words, relating to religious topics, as being originally words from Latin: for example, in Ghadames the word "äng'alus" (ⴰⵏⵖⴰⵍⵓⵙ, أنغلس) refers to a spiritual entity, clearly using a word from the Latin angelus "angel".
Starting from African Romance's similarity with Sardinian, scholars theorise that the similarity may be pinned down to specific phonological properties. Sardinian lacks palatization of velar stops before front vowels, and features the pairwise merger of short and long non-low vowels. Evidence is found that both isoglosses were present in African Latin:
- Velar stops remain unaffected in Latin loanwords in Berber. For example, tkilsit "mulberry tree" < (morus) celsa in Latin, and i-kīkər "chickpea" < cicer in Latin, or ig(e)r ,"field" ager in Latin.
- Inscriptions from Tripolitania, written as late as the 10th or 11th century are written with a ⟨k⟩, diverging from contemporary European Latin uses. Thus, there are forms such as dikite and iaket, with ⟨k⟩ such as dilektus "beloved" and karus "dear", found in an inscriptional corpus.
- Some evidence that Latin words with a <v> are often written with a <b> in African Romance, as reported by Isidore of Seville: birtus "virtue" < virtus in Latin, boluntas "will" < voluntas, and bita "life" < vita.
- The Albertini Tablets suggest high levels of phonetic errors and an uncertainty in the use of Latin cases.
- In ostraca from Bu Njem, there is evidence of significant number of errors and deviations from Classical Latin, such as the omission of the final -m in numerous endings after -a (being often misspelled accusatives). There is evidence of the e-spelling for <æ>, which is unaccompanied by evidence of merging <ē> and <ǐ> or <ō> and <ŭ>, the elimination by various strategies of vowels in hiatus, as well as to a lesser extent the change of the short Latin <û> to a close <ọ>, and the retention of the -u spelling is kept in second declension words.
There also is evidence that the vowel system of African Latin was similar to Sardinian. Augustine of Hippo's testimony on how ōs "mouth" in Latin was to African ears indistinguishable from ŏs "bone" indicates the merger of vowels and the loss of the original allophonic quality distinction in vowels.
Moreover, in a study of errors on stressed vowels in a corpus of 279 inscriptions, scholars noted how African inscriptions confused between over-stressed and under-stressed vowels between the 1st and 4th century AD, with Rome reaching comparable error rates only by the late 4th to 6th centuries.
The Polish Arabist Tadeusz Lewicki tried to reconstruct some sections of this language based on 85 lemmas mainly derived from Northwest African toponyms and anthroponyms found in medieval sources. Due to the historical presence in the region of Classical Latin, modern Romance languages, as well as the influence of the Mediterranean Lingua Franca (that has Romance vocabulary) it is difficult to differentiate the precise origin of words in Berber languages and in the varieties of Maghrebi Arabic. The studies are also difficult and often highly conjectural. Due to the large size of the North African territory, it is highly probable that not one but several varieties of African Romance existed, much like the wide variety of Romance languages in Europe. Moroever, other Romance languages spoken in Northwest Africa before the European colonization were the Mediterranean Lingua Franca, a pidgin with Arabic and Romance influences, and Judaeo-Spanish, a dialect of Spanish brought by Sephardi Jews.
Scholars believe that there is a great number of Berber words, existing in various dialects, which are theorised to derive from late Latin or African Romance, such as:
|sin||abekkadu||peccatum||peccato||pecadu / pecau|
|oven||afarnu||furnus||forno||furnu / forru/ furru||forn|
|oak||akarruš / akerruš||cerrus, quercus||quercia||chercu|
|oleander||alili / ilili / talilit||lilium ("lily")||oleandro / giglio ("lily")||oliandru|
|helm||atmun||temo||timone||timona / timone||tmun|
|August||awussu||augustus||agosto||agústu / austu||Awwissu|
|young boy||bušil||pusillus ("small")||fanciullo / pusillo|
|large wooden bowl||dusku||discus|
|locality in Tripolitania||Fassaṭo||fossatum (?)|
|February||furar||februārius||febbraio||freàrgiu / fiàrzu/ frearzu||Frar|
|castle / village||ġasru||castrum||castello / borgo / villaggio||casteddu||qasar / kastell|
|bean||ibaw||faba||fava||faa / faba / fae / fava|
|cultivated field||iger / ižer||ager||agro|
|cat||qaṭṭus||cattus||gatto||gatu/ batu/ giatu/ gattu||qattus|
|Rif (locality in Morocco)||Rif||ripa (?)|
- British Latin, another extinct dialect of Latin.
- Moselle Romance, another extinct dialect of Latin.
- Pannonian Romance, another extinct dialect of Latin.
- Likely the fourth city in terms of population during the imperial period, following Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, in the 4th century also surpassed by Constantinople; also of comparable size were Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum.
- Most of the Africanisms mentioned by Nonius, as listed in Contini (1987) do not bear up to more modern analysis.
- Latin: "...canorus voce, sed Afrum quiddam usque ad senectutem sonans."
- Arabic: "وأهلها متبربرون وأكثرهم يتكلّم باللسان اللطيني الإفريقي"
wa-ahluhā mutabarbirūn wa-aktharuhum yatakallam bil-lisān al-laṭīnī al-ifrīqī
- French: "les gens de Touzeur sont un reste des chrétiens qui étaient autrefois en Afrik’ïa, avant que les musulmans en fissent la conquête" ("the people of Touzeur are a vestige of the Christians who were in Afrik’ïa before the Muslim conquest")
- Latin: «ubi pagani integra pene latinitate loquuntur et, ubi uoces latinae franguntur, tum in sonum tractusque transeunt sardinensis sermonis, qui, ut ipse noui, etiam ex latino est» ("where villagers speak an almost intact Latin and, when Latin words are corrupted, then they pass to the sound and habits of the Sardinian language, which, as I myself know, also comes from Latin")
- Latin: «Afrae aures de correptione vocalium vel productione non iudicant» ("African ears show no judgement in the matter of the shortening of vowels or their lengthening")
- German: "Es wäre auch möglich, daß die Sarden die lat. Quantitäten von vornherein nicht recht unterschieden." ("It is likely that the Sardinians had never differentiated well from the beginning the Latin quantities.")
- Arabic: وأهل جزيرة سردانية في أصل روم أفارقة متبربرون متوحشون من أجناس الروم وهم أهل نجدة وهزم لا يفرقون السلاح
(Wa-ahl Jazīrat Sardānīyah fī aṣl Rūm Afāriqah mutabarbirūn mutawaḥḥishūn min ajnās ar-Rūm wa-hum ahl najidah wa-hazm lā yufariqūn as-silāḥ)
- Latin: "Birtus, boluntas, bita vel his similia, quæ Afri scribendo vitiant..."
- Latin: "cur pietatis doctorem pigeat imperitis loquentem ossum potius quam os dicere, ne ista syllaba non ab eo, quod sunt ossa, sed ab eo, quod sunt ora, intellegatur, ubi Afrae aures de correptione uocalium uel productione non iudicant?" ("Why should a teacher of piety when speaking to the uneducated have regrets about saying ossum ("bone") rather than os in order to prevent that monosyllable (i.e. ŏs "bone") from being interpreted as the word whose plural is ora (i.e. ōs "mouth") rather than the word whose plural is ossa (i.e. ŏs), given that African ears show no judgement in the matter of the shortening of vowels or their lengthening?")
- Scales 1993, pp. 146 - 147.
- Loporcaro 2015, p. 47.
- Prevost 2007, pp. 461 - 483.
- Brunn, Hays-Mitchell & Zeigler 2012, p. 27.
- Ferchiou 1998, p. 2.
- Guédon 2018, p. 37.
- Adams 2003, p. 213.
- Varner 1990, p. 16.
- Whittaker 2009, pp. 193-194.
- Chatonnet & Hawley 2020, pp. 305-306.
- Loporcaro 2015, p. 48.
- Adams 2007, p. 516.
- Kroll 1897, pp. 569 - 590.
- Brock 1911, pp. 161–261.
- Brock 1911, p. 257.
- Brock 1911, p. 261.
- Matiacci 2014, p. 92.
- Galdi 2011, pp. 571–573.
- Pliny the Elder, p. XLVIII.
- Adams 2007, pp. 546–549.
- Adams 2007, p. 546.
- Anonymous, p. 19.9.
- Matiacci 2014, pp. 87–93.
- Adams 2007, pp. 519 - 549.
- Adams 2007, pp. 519–520.
- Adams 2007, pp. 528 - 542.
- Galdi 2011, p. 572.
- Adams 2007, p. 543.
- Adams 2007, p. 534.
- Adams 2007, p. 544.
- Adams 2007, p. 535.
- Adams 2007, p. 536.
- Adams 2007, p. 553.
- Adams 2007, p. 541.
- Adams 2007, p. 269.
- Adams 2007, pp. 192-193.
- Adams 2007, p. 270.
- Haspelmath & Tadmor 2009, p. 195.
- Rushworth 2004, p. 94.
- al-Idrisi 1154, pp. 104-105.
- Brugnatelli 1999, pp. 325 - 332.
- Prevost 2007, p. 477.
- Cano 2002, p. 3.
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- Augustine of Hippo, p. 4.10.24.
- Lausberg 1956, p. 146.
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- Translation provided by Michele Amari: «I sardi sono di schiatta RUM AFARIQAH (latina d'Africa), berberizzanti. Rifuggono (dal consorzio) di ogni altra nazione di RUM: sono gente di proposito e valorosa, che non lascia mai l'arme.» Note to the passage by Mohamed Mustafa Bazama: «Questo passo, nel testo arabo, è un poco differente, traduco qui testualmente: "gli abitanti della Sardegna, in origine sono dei Rum Afariqah, berberizzanti, indomabili. Sono una (razza a sé) delle razze dei Rum. [...] Sono pronti al richiamo d'aiuto, combattenti, decisivi e mai si separano dalle loro armi (intende guerrieri nati).» Mohamed Mustafa Bazama (1988). Arabi e sardi nel Medioevo. Cagliari: Editrice democratica sarda. pp. 17, 162.
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- Paradisi 1964, p. 415.
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