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Until relatively recently, knowledge of the history of Romance languages was based on written sources. Writing traditions are usually conservative and rarely reflect more informal and sociolinguistically lower registers. Nonetheless, one must acknowledge the important function of written documentation in the understanding of a complex, multi-faceted, but partly inaccessible linguistic reality: a careful and circumspect use of written sources remains the main path for a critical interpretation of the linguistic facts of the past, together with historical-comparative reconstructions. From the first century BCE, there was an increasing diaphasic differentiation in the Latin-speaking world between a formal register and an informal one, so called ‘vulgar (or Late) Latin’. Deviations from norm often expose the linguistic structures of the emerging Romance languages, the earliest attestations of which date back to the ninth–tenth centuries and show a clear awareness of the difference between Latin and Romance. From the twelfth–thirteenth centuries, some areas began to codify certain scriptae which, despite their importance, present several linguistic problems. In the second half of the nineteenth century, dialectological studies acquired an important role, leading to dialectometry and scriptology, the latter at the crossroad of geolinguistics and corpus-linguistics.
Romance languages are in immediate contact with a number of other language varieties. As for Indo-European languages, the Celtic language Breton, spoken in Brittany, is the result of medieval colonization from the British Isles, and there are numerous German-speaking outcrops in Italy, due to medieval or modern colonization in the valleys. The Romance languages continue in situ the Latin spoken in the western part of the Roman Empire. The dialectal variety within Italy is unparalleled in Romance or in any other linguistic domain in Europe. The modern sociolinguistic situation of the Romance varieties may be efficiently described in terms of bilingualism and diglossia. Romance-speaking Europe played the major part in nineteenth- and twentieth-century migrations. North American and British sociolinguistics, which mainly studied urban language, appeared both a dangerous competitor and a potentially fertile model for traditional linguistic geography to follow, perhaps the answer to the crisis.