Throughout the Dark Ages, the few literate Europeans continued to write in classical Latin. Or they tried to: as their speech evolved, their writing sometimes mutated to match it. A list of commonly misspelled words, written in the third or fourth century, offers a glimpse of what was happening. For example, the list insists on calida (hot) not calda: the unstressed “i” was evidently disappearing. (Now it is calda in Italian.) Other sounds were changing, too. Use frigida not fricda, the list advises. The word for “cold” was on its way to today’s fredda.
Nor was pronunciation the only moving part. Modern students of Latin often wrestle despondently with the language’s case system, in which the role a noun plays in a sentence is signalled by alternative endings. These collapsed into fewer forms in the Dark Ages; in modern Italian they leave no trace. Meanwhile, Latin’s three genders (masculine, neuter and feminine) merged into two. Words were substituted. People stopped using Latin’s loqui, “to speak”, and started using parabolare, which originally had a narrower meaning. It became Italian’s parlare.
A millennium or so after Cicero’s moans, in other words, Europeans spoke a range of tongues that were nevertheless related to each other and to Latin. What happened next in Italy had as much to do with politics as with the dynamics of languages. The contrast with its northern neighbour is instructive. France was unified by the conquest of territory spreading out from Paris; the conquerors brought Parisian speech with them, and that became “French”. A mighty state then did its best to teach that language everywhere, and to eradicate local variants.