Open main menu

African Romance or African Latin is an extinct Romance language that is assumed to have been spoken in the Roman province of Africa by the Roman Africans during the later Roman and early Byzantine Empires and several centuries after the annexation of the region by the Umayyad Caliphate in 696.

African Romance
EthnicityRoman Africans
EraClassical Antiquity, Middle Ages
(c. 1st century BC – 14th century)
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)

African Roman is poorly attested as it was mainly a spoken, vernacular language, a sermo rusticus;[1] texts and inscriptions in Roman Africa were written exclusively in Classical Latin. It was, along with other languages spoken in the region such as Berber languages, subsequently suppressed and supplanted by Arabic after the Muslim conquest of the area.

Later Romance languages to arrive in the continent (notably French and Portuguese) are not covered by this article.


Map showing in black the coast of Maghreb where there existed a now-extinct neo-Latin language

The Roman province of Africa was organized in 146 BC following the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War. Carthage, destroyed following the war, was rebuilt in the dictatorship of Julius Caesar as a Roman colony. In the time of the Roman Empire, the province had become populous and prosperous, and Carthage was the second-largest Latin-speaking city in the Empire. Latin was, however, largely an urban and coastal speech; Carthaginian Punic continued to be spoken in inland and rural areas as late as the mid-5th century. It is probable that Berber languages were spoken in some areas as well.

Africa was occupied by the Germanic Vandal tribe for over a century, between 429 and 534, when the province was reconquered by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The changes that occurred in spoken Latin during that time are unknown; literary Latin, however, was maintained at a high standard, as seen in the Latin poetry of the African writer Corippus.


Romanization of Africa in the 4th century CE

What happened to African Romance following the Arab conquest in 696 is difficult to trace, though it was soon replaced by Arabic as the primary administrative language. At the time of the conquest a Romance language was probably spoken in the cities and Berber languages were also spoken in the region.[2] Loanwords from Northwest African Romance to Berber are attested and are usually in the accusative form: examples include atmun ("plough-beam") from temonem.[2] It is unclear for how long Romance continued to be spoken, but its influence on Northwest African Arabic (particularly in the language of northwestern Morocco) indicates it must have had a significant presence in the early years after the Arab conquest.[2]

Spoken Latin or Romance is attested in Gabès by Ibn Khordadbeh (died 912), in Béja, Biskra, Tlemcen and Niffis by al-Bakri (died 1094) and in Gafsa and Monastir by al-Idrisi (died 1165).[1] The latter said of Gafsa that "its inhabitants are Berberised, and most of them speak the African Latin tongue."[a][1][3]

The Normans, when they were acquiring their African kingdom in the 12th century, received help from the remaining Christian populations of Tunisia, and some historians such as Vermondo Brugnatelli argue that those Christians still spoke a Romance language. The language existed until the arrival of the Banu Hilal Arabs in the 11th century and probably until the beginning of the fourteenth century according to scholar Andrew H. Merrills and others.[4] According to Alan Rushworth, "Christian communities, generally labelled Afariqa or Ajam in the Arab sources and speaking a Latin dialect ... are known to have survived until the fourteenth century."[4]

Related languagesEdit

Some linguists, like the philologist Heinrich Lausberg, proposed to classify Sardinian as the sole living representative of a Southern group of the Romance languages, that once also comprised the African Latin dialects, as well as the Corsican dialects spoken prior to the island's Tuscanization.

Muhammad al-Idrisi gives us a single but very important datum: writing on the island of Sardinia in his work (Recreation of the desirer in the account of cities, regions, countries, islands, towns, and distant lands) defines its inhabitants: "The Sardinians are ethnically Roman Africans, live like the Berbers, shun any other nation of Rûm; these people are courageous and valiant, that never part with their weapons."[b][5][6]

Augustine of Hippo states: "African ears have no quick perception of the shortness or length of [Latin] vowels."[c][7] That describes the evolution of vowels in the Sardinian language, which has only five vowels (and no diphthongs): unlike some other surviving Romance languages, the five long and short vowel pairs of classical Latin (a/ā, e/ē, i/ī, o/ō, u/ū) have merged into five single vowels with no length distinction (a, e, i, o, u).[8] Italian and Romanian have seven, while Portuguese and Catalan have eight.

Other Romance languages spoken in Northwest Africa before the European colonization were the Mediterranean Lingua Franca, a pidgin with Arabic and Romance influences, and Judaeo-Spanish, a dialect of Spanish brought by Sephardi Jews.


The Italian linguist Vermondo Brugnatelli pinpoints some Berber words, relating to religious topics, as being originally words from Latin: for example, in Ghadames the word "äng'alus" (ⴰⵏⵖⴰⵍⵓⵙ, أنغلس) refers to a spiritual entity, clearly using a word from the Latin angelus "angel".

The Polish Arabist T. Lewicki (1958) tried to reconstruct some sections of this language based on 85 lemmas mainly derived from Northwest African toponyms and anthroponyms found in medieval sources. According to him, several other authors adventured themselves to discover be it some parts of this extinct language.

Due to the historical presence in Northwest Africa of Classical Latin, modern Romance languages, as well as the influence of the Mediterranean Lingua Franca (that has Romance vocabulary) makes it very difficult to differentiate the precise origin of words in Berber languages and in the varieties of Maghrebi Arabic.

Generally speaking, words originally from African Romance are:

  • The words ending with -u (for example, the Berber abekkadu "sin", from peccatum) and not -us (as in the Berber asnus "(young) donkey");
  • The words having a phonological or morphological aspect different from that of Italian, French or Spanish (for instance the Berber word agursel "mushroom", supposing the base *AGARICELLUS).[clarification needed]

The studies concerning the African Romance are difficult and often highly conjectural. Another difficulty comes from that, considering the immensity of the North-African territory, it is highly probable that not one but several varieties of African Romance existed, much like the wide variety of Romance languages in Europe.[9]

Because there are doublets of Northwest African Romance words, in many cases one can assume that they come from different Romance languages or that they originate from different periods. See for example:

  • The Berber of central Morocco ayugu "labor ox", Kabylia tayuga "a pair of oxen" (from Latin iugum, meaning 'a yoke, a team of oxen')
    • But also: Kabyle azaglu "yoke" (from Latin iugulum, meaning 'collarbone')
  • Kabyle aguglu "fresh curd"

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Arabic: وأهلها متبربرون وأكثرهم يتكلّم باللسان اللطيني الإفريقي
    wa-ahluhum mutabarbirūn wa-aktharuhum yatakallam bil-lisān al-laṭīnī al-ifrīqī
  2. ^ Arabic: وأهل جزيرة سردانية في أصل روم أفارقة متبربرون متوحشون من أجناس الروم وهم أهل نجدة وهزم لا يفرقون السلاح
    Wa ahl Ğazīrat Sardāniya fī aṣl Rūm Afāriqa mutabarbirūn mutawaḥḥišūn min ağnās ar-Rūm wa hum ahl nağida wa hazm lā yufariqūn as-silāḥ.
  3. ^ Latin: Afrae aures de correptione vocalium vel productione non iudicant


  1. ^ a b c Peter C. Scales, The Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba: Berbers and Andalusis in Conflict (Brill, 1994), pp. 146–47.
  2. ^ a b c Martin Haspelmath; Uri Tadmor (22 December 2009). Loanwords in the World's Languages: A Comparative Handbook. Walter de Gruyter. p. 195. ISBN 978-3-11-021844-2.
  3. ^ سواق, Lameen Souag الأمين (2007-07-06). "Jabal al-Lughat: Berberised Afro-Latin speakers in Gafsa". Jabal al-Lughat. Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  4. ^ a b Merrills, Andrew H., ed. (2004). Vandals, Romans and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa. Ashgate. ISBN 9780754641452.
  5. ^ Contu Giuseppe, Sardinia in Arabic sources, Annali della Facoltà di Lingue e Letterature Straniere dell'Università di Sassari, Vol. 3 (2003 pubbl. 2005), p. 287-297. ISSN 1828-5384. ,
  6. ^ Mastino, Attilio (2005). Storia della Sardegna antica, Edizioni Il Maestrale, pp.83
  7. ^ De doctrina christiana, Lib.IV, C.10
  8. ^ "Es wäre auch möglich, daß die Sarden die lat. Quantitäten von vornherein nicht recht unterschieden." ("It is likely that the Sardinians had never differentiated well from the beginning the Latin quantities."). Heinrich, Lausberg (1956). Romanische Sprachwissenschaft, V. I-II, W. de Gruyter, p. 146
  9. ^ Franco Fanciullo, Un capitolo della Romania submersa: il latino africano, pp. 162-187.


  • Vermondo Brugnatelli, "I prestiti latini in berbero: un bilancio", in: M. Lamberti, L. Tonelli (eds.), Afroasiatica Tergestina. Papers from the 9th Italian Meeting of Afro-Asiatic (Hamito-Semitic) Linguistics, Trieste, April 23–24, 1998, Padova, Unipress, 1999, pp. 325–332
  • Franco Fanciullo, "Un capitolo della Romania submersa: il latino africano", in: D. Kremer (ed.), Actes du XVIIIe Congrès International de Linguistique et de Philologie Romane - Universitè de Trèves (Trier) 1986, tome I, Tübingen, Niemeyer, 1992,162-187 pp.
  • Tadeusz Lewicki, "Une langue romane oubliée de l'Afrique du Nord. Observations d'un arabisant", Rocznik Orient. XVII (1958), pp. 415–480
  • Hugo Schuchardt, Die romanischen Lehnwörter im Berberischen, Wien 1918 (82 pp.)