I'm not sure exactly when almost the entire population was exposed to Mass but until Protestantism everyone heard Latin every Sunday and Good Friday and Holy Thursday and Christmas and Epiphany and Jan 1 and Cross-Quarter Day and..

Religion was, uh, crucial. Their whole lives were about the eternity after death. Why wasn't that enough to keep everyone speaking Latin?

Okay, the more they diverge the less pull towards Mass Latin the common speech will feel but how did it manage to get away from that pull in the first place? Anyway, the comedic end point is that from the Middle Ages to the 1960s Mass was looking at the priest looking away from you, using an alien language, singing Bible verses in alien, and everyone would have to sit through that to avoid Hell.

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    All languages drift . . . why don't you speak Real Englisc like they did in the year 500? The people of Neustria thought they were speaking Latin, until Alcwine came over and told them they were doing it all wrong. Jun 12, 2015 at 19:22
  • Well, how did the priests know to keep their Latin about the same as the rest of the world's Latin? That might drift too and become different than 300s Latin but you don't hear of the Church Franco-Latin Creole and Church Italo-Latin Creole and so on like we have the French-Native language Creole in Haiti.
    – user9943
    Jun 12, 2015 at 19:40
  • Why did they stop talking like the church? They were the most learned of their day. They must've seemed to have almost god-like knowledge to the illiterate. I would've thought their speech was the correct speech if I were a peasant.
    – user9943
    Jun 12, 2015 at 19:51
  • Because their priests were speaking the same language they were. It was the clergy whose Latin Alcuin was reforming. Jun 12, 2015 at 19:54
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    The Church didn't send Alcuin to France; Charlemagne recruited him. It slowed when it became a dead language used almost entirely in very stereotyped contexts. It never stopped; Robert Graves remarks somewhere that every school he went to taught a different pronunciation of Latin, and I was taught different pronunciations in Alabama and Innsbruck. Jun 12, 2015 at 20:17

3 Answers 3


You should probably question the premise of your question. Latin did not 'fragment so much'. It went through the expected amount of historical change for a language in its geopolitical situation.

There are several reasons why the development were not halted by the Christian canon and liturgical processes.

  1. The presence of a single canon has never been enough to stop language development. As Colin Fine says - diglossia is quite a common condition. Arabic, Indic Languages, Sinitic languages. Even the many languages developing from English are all evidence of this.

  2. By the time Christianity became the official religion (and certainly by the time it became dominant and much later universal), the diversionary processes had been long under way. And, of course, Christianity was not originally identified with Latin nor did much of the early intellectual ferment around it happen in Latin. So by the time Latin came to have the sacred liturgical status in the West, it was long gone as a daily spoken language the presence of which could be bolstered by religion. The processes that kept Latin so strong for so long were political and bureaucratic and it was the association of religion with power that solidified the role of Latin in Christianity, not the other way around. It is fairly well accepted that the organization of Western Christianity is the one surviving feature of Roman imperial bureaucracy that persists (albeit in trace form) even till today.

What I think would be a more interesting question is why this happens sometimes and not other times. The two languages that underwent historical change but almost no splintering are Greek and Persian. They were both the official languages of vast empires and lingua francas long after the political unity ceased. Yet, they never gave rise to new major languages (despite having ample dialects) in the same way that Latin, Arabic, and many other 'proto' languages did and English is in the process of maybe doing. I think it would be possible to trace the cultural and political forces in play that show all the nexus points where these developments were diverted (the presence of strong canons is probably not a strong factor) but they still pose an interesting counter example.


Diglossia - the use of two different dialects by the same people for different purposes - is very common round the world - I doubt if it is an exaggeration to say it is the norm, at least where literacy is rare.

If the "high" dialect is frozen (for example, for religious reasons) and the vernacular is not, in time they are likely to diverge far enough to become clearly different languages.

This also happened in North India, where Sanskrit remained a living literary language for a thousand years after it ceased to be anybody's mother tongue, and the Middle and then New Indic languages developed around it.

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    And it happened all over the Muslim world, with the language of the Qur'an a privileged, frozen, and increasingly unspoken tongue, while the various "dialects" became very different languages. As for Latin fragmenting, low-class spoken Latin got hit by a set of sound changes about the beginning of the Empire, triggering the grammaticalization cycle for the Romance languages.
    – jlawler
    Jun 13, 2015 at 0:03
  • @jlawler: The link in your comment has gone stale. Aug 25, 2017 at 12:49

Breakdown of the Roman empire

The Roman empire was overrun by mostly Germanic tribes in the 5th century. Without a central power, the speakers of late Latin were left in separate communities with diverging languages.

New centres emerged (Paris, Florence, Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon) and the dialects of those new centres evolved to fully fledged languages (French, Italian, Castilian, Catalan, Portuguese).

Absence of Mass Media

Today, English is kept together by mass media (most notably the Hollywood film industry, but also BBC world service, Voice of America, and printed books, journals, and newspapers, and the internet). In the antique times, mass media simply did not exist.

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