The Roman way
Latin is dead—yet, as Italian (and French, and Spanish), it lives on
Cicero, the Roman statesman whose prose is thought to represent the peak of style in Latin, was also a bit of a snob about it. Few others, he complained in a tome written in 46bc, used the language properly any more. His gripes would be worse today. At a recent mass at the Vatican attended by your columnist, some of the Latin used by Pope Francis was impeccable. But much of it was downright dismal; it would have been incomprehensible to Cicero. Strangely, the pope’s remarks were translated into several other species of terrible Latin.
That is because the pope’s dismal Latin is also known as “Italian”. Francis’s native language, Spanish, is another kind of deformed Latin. The French in which his interpreter greeted some of the faithful is yet another variety.
Family trees of languages typically show Spanish, French and Italian descending from Latin in the same way that you are descended from your mother. But this is misleading. There was no birth of Italian, nor any definitive death of Latin. Instead, there were centuries of infinitesimal changes. Those who noticed them would, like Cicero, have considered them mistakes. But most people didn’t care, which is how such tweaks took hold, and spread. As they accumulated, Latin did not create Italian and its sister languages. It became them.