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My understanding (supported by Wikipedia) is that Latin was the spoken and written language in Ancient Rome.

Therefore, I was puzzled to read the following piece of Talmud (Gitin 80a):

מאי מלכות שאינה הוגנת? מלכות הרומיים. ואמאי קרי לה מלכות שאינה הוגנת? משום דאין להם לא כתב ולא לשון

What is an "improper sovereignty"? That is the Romans. And why were they called "improper"? Because they don't have a written or spoken language.

Rashi there (sv שאין להם) writes:

שאין להם לא כתב ולא לשון. אלא משל אומה אחרת

"They don't have a written or spoken language" -- [this means that] they used that of another nation.

The context there is a discussion of the Mishna (Gitin 79a-80a) that rules that a bill of divorce (גט) that is dated by any dating system other than that of the current rulership is invalid.

Is the above information from the Talmud, together with Rashi's explanation, accurate? If the Romans didn't create Latin, where did it come from?

( all above translations are mine )

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    Just guessing, but it might refer to the fact that at the time the Talmud was composed administration in the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire was conducted mostly in Greek. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 3 '14 at 3:17
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    @fdb I'm pretty sure Rashi was commenting on the passage from the Talmud; and of course in Rashi's day what was left of the Roman Empire was officially Greek-speaking and had been since the reign of Justinian. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 3 '14 at 16:14
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    @curiousdannii Interestingly enough, people over at MY think that it would get a better answer here. – Shokhet Dec 4 '14 at 18:57
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    As @StoneyB says: as far as most people in the Eastern Roman Empire were concerned, what "the Romans" spoke was Greek. I'm sure I have read accounts whereby a word obviously meaning "Roman" in one of the languages of the area actually meant "Greek", but I'm struggling to remember where. – Colin Fine Dec 7 '14 at 11:02
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    @StoneyB The Tosafist Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel (1115-1184) understood the Talmud as referring to "an aristocratic language, a form of Greek used by the Roman kings" (Avoda Zara 10a, s.v. שאין). – Fred Dec 10 '14 at 0:04
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Your question is assuming Latin as a given size. Probably the answer is more like development over time.

Let me break down your question into two parts:

  1. Spoken language. Roughly speaking it goes like this. The language comes from where the people is coming from. And at one point their dialect has evolved so much that their dialect no longer is mutually intelligible from the other dialects. Spoken language is normally evolved over a long period of time, rather then created at a specific point in time. Latin is believed to have been evolved from the Italic branch of Indo-European.

  2. Written language. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Greek alphabet. It is believed that the earliest Latin inscription known today is a brooch from the 7th century BC. You could read more about this here.

  • There are some examples of languages created by individuals, like Esperanto and Elvish. They have of course been created at a certain point in time, and not developed from a dialect. – Flying Dec 4 '14 at 18:26
  • I'm thinking about this answer....the piece of Talmud that I'm looking at is from c. 180-220 CE, or even possibly a little earlier. From your link, it sounds like Latin was in development from 800 BCE through 500 CE, so the times are approximately correct. – Shokhet Dec 4 '14 at 19:27
  • Do you have any years for the development of spoken Latin? – Shokhet Dec 4 '14 at 19:28
  • This Wikipedia page will probably guide you in understanding the development of spoken Latin: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulgar_Latin – Flying Dec 4 '14 at 20:11
  • @Shokhet: The quotation about the Romans not having "writing or tongue" (to translate literally) is not Mishna, but Babylonian Talmud. Your link to the wikipedia article on Mishna is not relevant. – fdb Dec 4 '14 at 21:56
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The Romans did have a spoken language and a written language. They even had a very rich literature. Everybody knows this. The authors of the Talmud Bavli, living in Sasanian Iraq, probably did not know anything about Latin. The statement in Gitin 80a is simply wrong. Is that a problem?

  • I don't doubt that the Romans spoke to each other and wrote literature. I just wasn't sure if Latin can be considered to be a "Roman language," in the sense that the Romans created it, rather than some other nation. – Shokhet Dec 4 '14 at 22:04
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    @Shokhet. Nobody "created" any real language. All languages evolve from some earlier language. – fdb Dec 5 '14 at 11:05
  • I understood that....was just wondering about the origins of the language. – Shokhet Dec 6 '14 at 23:27
  • Yes, I tend to agree... the writer of this excerpt was just ignorant of Latin, its uses, and origin, it would seem. It was very much the autochthonous language of the Romans. – Noldorin Feb 26 '18 at 22:18
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I think the mistake here is to interpret the Talmud as making a statement about Latin from the perspective of historical linguistics.

I imagine that this is simply a case of establishing legitimacy both over the region (by then completely under Roman control) and the cultural heritage.

In many contexts, language can stand for people or a particular set of religious dicta. E.g. language stands in for 'word of God' or 'commandments'.

The commentary could be quite divergent from the original intent or it could be continuing with the theme of delegitimization. E.g. saying, we are the bearers of the original language with a long line of descent going directly to creation whereas the Latins speak a mongrel language composed of many influences and even had to borrow other people's writing systems.

I'm sure there's some scholarship on this in Talmud studies.

  • I started looking around the commentaries.....this isn't talked about all that much, from what I've seen thus far. – Shokhet Dec 4 '14 at 22:00
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Maybe it's referring to the fact that the Latin alphabet, as well as a variety of words in Latin (though not the language as a whole), come from the Etruscans?

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