Several years back I was having dinner with a group of people. At one point during the meal, a woman at the table began to rant against Latins. The Latins this. The Latins that. All manner of shortcomings were ascribed to Latins. Clearing my throat, I noted that I was a Latin. “You’re not Latin! You’re Italian,” she snapped.
It would be an easy thing to brush this off as someone who was uninformed, but this kind of thinking seems to be relatively common. Even some Italian-Americans don’t understand that they are Latin! Generally, people seem to confuse Hispanic and Latin. While on the one hand, one may be tempted to write this off as simply how language evolves, it is more than just merely changing a definition. To redefine Latin, to separate Italians out, takes from Italians an important contribution of ours to civilization, it steals from us a significant aspect of our culture. Simply stated, it is wrong.
To understand this better, let’s have a bit of a review.
Latin began in Latium which is an area in west-central Italy. Latium initially was composed of the area around the Alban Hills, but eventually expanded south of the Tiber River to Mount Circeo. The original Latins lived in this area as far back as the first millennium BCE. As the centuries passed Etruscans occupied Latium and established Rome. As the Roman Empire’s dominance of the ancient world grew, so too did the dominance of their language, Latin.
There were basically two types of Latin; Classic and Vulgar. Classic Latin was the formal written language. It was the language of literature and official documents. Even after the collapse of Rome, it was used for this purpose throughout Europe. Dante and Petrarch, two of the fathers of Italian literature, wrote many of their works in Latin. During the middle ages, scholars would study Roman texts so that they could write official government documents. Since scholars based their writing on the same Roman texts, the formal written Latin did not evolve. It was static. They stuck to the rules that were defined by the Romans.
The Vulgar Latin, the spoken language, had a much different fate. We should make a point here about the word vulgar. Most frequently today people use the word vulgar to describe an explicit and offensive reference to sex or a bodily function. Another definition of the word is in reference to something which is common or lacking in sophistication. This second definition is the meaning of vulgar when we are speaking of Vulgar Latin; this is the language spoken by the common people, the majority of whom were illiterate. People did not follow strict rules when speaking. As a result, the pronunciation and definition of words evolved as well as grammar. We see this with every language, including English. Just consider how our own language evolves. This evolution is the very subject of this post!
After the collapse of Rome and the loss of a unifying authority, the way in which people spoke in the former areas of the empire evolved differently. Eventually, this usage developed into completely separate languages often referred to as the Romance Language. Romance referring to the Roman origin, not the kissy-pie, huggy-face, type of romance.
One side point, often you will hear people refer to what is spoken in the various regions of Italy as Italian dialects. Although this is the generally accepted terminology, it should be noted that it is not technically correct. A dialect is a particular form of a language that has evolved based on local usage. Contrast English spoken in the Southern United States with what is spoken in New York and London. Each of these languages is a dialect of English. The languages spoken in each of the regions of Italy did not evolve from a common Italian language. There was no common Italian language until the fourteenth century. What is referred to as an Italian dialect is actually a regional language. Each of these regional languages developed from the Vulgar Latin making them siblings of the various forms of Spanish and French.
Returning to our main point, the cultures whose core language is based on Latin, are Latin cultures, such as Spanish, French, and Italian. We can refer to individuals from these countries as Latin. Hispanic, however, refers to people and cultures that are derived from former parts of the Spanish Empire. They inherit their Latiness through Spain. Those Latins whose culture did not evolve from the Spanish Empire are not Hispanic. They are simply Latin. We can see therefore, all Hispanics are Latin, but not all Latins are Hispanic.
To further confuse things, you will hear the term Latino. This particular term is basically a shortened version of Latin American. Latin America is made of those parts of the Americas which were most influenced by the countries of the Iberian Peninsula. Latin America is comprised of places such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, and Peru.
Hispanics and Latin Americans would not be Latin if Italians were not the Latins first. When Romans, Italians, dominated the Iberian Peninsula their Latin culture establish a foundation from which Hispanic cultures evolved. While it is true that language evolves, as I noted above, to take Latin from Italians takes something from Italians. It robs us an essential attribute of our Italianità. At the core of our language, at the core of our literature, at the core of so many aspects of our culture is our Latin heritage. We need to recognize the Latin nature of Italian culture. We need to remember that Italians are the first Latins and continue to be Latin.
For more on Italian and Italian-American culture read Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American, available on Amazon.