i heard somewhere that in ancient rome, only the rich spoke latin. is this true? if so, what did everyone else speak?
Before the fall of Rome, there was already an existing popular “degenerated” version of latin, from which the future romance languages evolved. Perhaps you’re refering to this?
The classical Latin that students learn(ed) was generally used for rhetoric and literature. The common folk spoke “Vulgate” Latin, and I’d guess that patricians spoke something in between. But it’s all still Latin.
Latin as a living language had characteristics much like English – there were formal ways of stating things, where Cicero would write elegant periodic sentences in precise grammar much as William F. Buckley or James Kirkpatrick might today. And there was colloquial, or “Vulgate,” Latin, with different word choices and a less rigorous grammar than the classic form.
If you’re at all familiar with Modern Greek, the distinction between katharevousa and dhimotica will explain it amply. Similarly, what José and Pablo speak while harvesting lettuce is not the formal language of Cervantes or Lope de Vega, but a colloquial Spanish.
Second, “Rome” can refer to the city of that name, or to the Empire. In the West, most of the coloniae spoke a local, dialectal Latin colloquial form, while the outlying subject peoples would speak their own language, which influenced and was influenced by Latin. You can see clear examples of that in the Welsh vocabulary, which is about 20% Latin-derived words for things not common in Wales and hence without a “native Celtic” word for them. They comprise words descended from the Roman occupancy of Britain and words borrowed over the centuries via English and the Romance languages since. And the Eastern half of the Roman Empire spoke koiné Greek, not Latin, as a general rule, again with local native languages common outside metropolitan areas. For example, the New Testament was written in Greek, the lingua franca of the First Century Empire’s eastern half, but it’s made clear that Jesus taught in Aramaic, and a few words and phrases are quoted verbatim from Aramaic with a Greek gloss supplied by the writer.
None of this should be alien to a speaker of English, either. In America, we have the
correct' English taught to us in school, which we largely forget in favor of the less restrictive give-and-take of the common tongue. (For example, in common English, their’ can stand in as a neuter singular pronoun, although
correct' English has no such beast. A prime example of this is "Everyone should get their coat," which would make a sufficiently schoolmarmish English teacher cringe but has passed the lips of nearly every native English speaker born in America.) We expect newspapers, official publications, and (to a lesser extent) works of fiction to conform to the correct’ rules, but we ourselves rarely do in everyday speech. This is the de facto state of affairs in every living language, to a greater or lesser extent.
The Romance Languages is what happens when each region’s common speech is no longer modified to conform with the other regions’ common speech through trade and travel. That is, as Rome broke down, the French and the Italians and the Spaniards had less and less to do with each other, and so the common speech became less and less mutually intelligible over shorter and shorter distances. Then, of course, those peoples got armies and feudal lords and such, and the dialects magically became languages.
Some people (the Catholic Church, mainly) preserved Classical Latin, but even they gradually forgot how to pronounce it. (In fact, I think there are at least two recognized schools of thought on how to pronounce Latin, and both are equally wrong.) A language like that is mummified, a dead body kept looking presentable for religious reasons. Other mummified languages include Coptic (another branch of Christians uses it the way the Catholics used to use Latin), Old Church Slavonic, and Sanskrit. Hebrew is an interesting case, in that it was a living language which was mummified and then successfully revived, to become the national language of Israel. Yiddish, the common language of Jewish populations throughout Europe and the Americas, apparently wasn’t highfalutin enough for the job. What are ya gonna do?
When the Roman Empire covered most of western Europe and the Meditrranean region, Rome would have been a multi-cultural city like London or New York are today. It would have been very easy to find people conversing in Celtic languages (like Gaulish), Germanic languages, or in Greek; and there would have been plenty of other languages spoken, including Aramaic and Egyptian.