What is the most appropriate translation for 'folk music' in Latin?

I have encountered the following possibilities:

  • pleb musicorum
  • musica pagana
  • musica vulgaris
  • musica plebis
  • musica popularis
  • 2
    Sorry for again commenting on this site although I don't speak Latin: The literal translation of "folk music" to German would end up in "Volksmusik" which is a different type of music. For this reason both terms ("folk music" and "Volksmusik") remain untranslated when translating from English to German and vice versa. When translating to Latin (and you don't leave the expression untranslated), you'll get an ambiguous translation because it will not be clear which of the two types of music is meant. Apr 14, 2021 at 18:15
  • 1
    It's a difficult translation — how do you explain the difference between "folk music" and "pop music" without 20th century context, and how do you maintain that distinction in Latin? Any phrase that means "the music of the common people" (as the existing answers provide) will be ambiguous. Perhaps (and this is a comment because my Latin isn't good enough for an answer) we could try to tack on something meaning "traditional". It's not quite right, but it would get the point across.
    – hobbs
    Apr 15, 2021 at 2:36

3 Answers 3


"Folk music" as a category is a very recent concept, so we're not going to find an attested term in the Classical corpus and will have to come up with our own.

We can dismiss pleb musicorum out of hand: pleb isn't a Latin word, and even if it were the phrase would mean "[pleb] of musicians".

Paganus means "rural" or "rustic", which is not really the right semantic sphere to look in; plebs has fairly overt class connotations, which also aren't necessarily appropriate; populus, to my mind, refers more to a specific group of people than to the concept of the people, if that makes sense. So I'd go with vulgaris; the antecedent of Vulgar Latin as sermo vulgaris seems to me to be in the same ballpark.

I'm not sure about musica, actually—to me, that's a learned word (borrowed from Greek) that evokes a connection with the Muses (μουσική could refer to any of the arts associated with the Muses, not just music) and therefore high art. I'd be more inclined towards carmina, though it comes with baggage of its own. It's obviously a plural count noun rather than a mass noun, but I don't think that's really a problem.

My suggestion is carmina vulgaria.

(I should note that the Latin-language Wikipedia called its article musica vulgaris.)

  • Gratias maximas!
    – aitía
    Apr 15, 2021 at 14:14

My preference would be 'cantus', "singing/playing," so "music," rather than 'carmina' ("songs"). I can't help feeling a somewhat negative connotation with 'vulgaris', so my preference is with 'cantus popularis', though 'vulgaris' is obviously fine.


The problem with carmina is that it specifically refers to sung verse - first Saturnian verse and then hexameters - with connotations of ritual and mystery about it. It can also refer to popular verse like English limericks and Russian часту́шки. It does not, however, refer to instrumental music - that is referred to with modī or mūsica or modī mūsicī. Cantus can refer to any melodic performance, but it designates a process. Symphōnia (mūsica) stands for instrumental, especially band music, but I'm not sure how popular the word was. Being Greek doesn't automatically exclude it from being wide-spread, because the bulk of music terminology was at least calqued from Greek - any way, the native Latin equivalent is concentus, and it seems to signify an organised performance. Finally, cantilēna is what best describes East European folk music :-), especially female group singing - it can refer to an instance of musical harmony, a melody or a music piece.

Now to the problem of the adjective, foreign-language Wikipedia page names are instructive. As the user hobbs notes, most modern languages are forced to borrow "folk" directly, because the literal translation of "folk music" refers to a traditional phenomenon that has basically been eradicated from English-speaking countries; what we're trying to describe is a modern commodification of what 19th century peasants did when they got bored herding their pigs. In the US the commodification has been so complete that even the term itself has been commodified; in other countries they are for the most part kept distinct. Of the European ones, I see that in Serbo-Croatian and in Icelandic they use direct translations, and I think this is because the phenomenon I'm describing hasn't properly reached them and I doubt it will in a hurry, likely because in these countries traditional music is being incorporated into the general culture in a more immediate way, and American folk music isn't very popular.

With that in mind, if the necessity came up to describe that phenomenon in Latin in a conversation, and somebody said folcu/imūsica (like Alcu/imēna), I wouldn't at all think this out of place. If they said mūsica trālāticia, I would expect them to mean authentic traditional music; mūsica volgāris I would understand as "pop music", because that's what it literally means: "popular, common, mundane". mūsica populāris is "of the people", so in the direction of vernācula, "home-grown". Rūstica is specifically non-urban, with the connotation of dialectal, pāgāna is probably "small-town, provincial", and gentīlis is closest to "local-people", as in Italic tribes - its Greek equivalent is ethnica. All three of the latter have strong cultural connotations (see their Christian use), and could be used to mean "ethnic, world, tribal-like music". Cantus populāris, Batavulus' proposal, seems to me very fitting to describe a traditional type, technique of singing, but could hardly express the phenomenon in question.

So I will dare suggesting that you use folcumūsica and point any gasping mouths either towards this reply, or to mouse over all the "Language" links in the Wikipedia article (also Wiktionary).

Here's Lexicon mūsicum Latīnum mediī aevī if anyone wants to give it a try :3

  • 1
    Well, good luck with ‘folcumusica’! To me, and speaking strictly for myself, this seems an excellent example of creating a neologism where there is not the slightest need for it, a practice, I think, most Latinists prefer to avoid. As for the various musical genres, the problem is that's they are hard enough to define in any language and the borders are far from strict. (Someone has suggested that “folk music” and “Volksmusik” are very distinct genres; this strikes me as an extreme statement, but it all depends on your definition.)
    – Batavulus
    Apr 17, 2021 at 18:28
  • 1
    I designed my answer specifically as a demonstration of the fact that no suitable translation exists, and the same holds true for a very wide number of languages. Where it doesn't, I suggest that this is because the very phenomenon isn't known there well enough. I see you're Dutch and know German, Italian and French. As such you must also know that in all these languages, folk music is referred to with the English borrowing; in fact, some like French, have two subsequent borrowings of that word, the former as folklorique. So you must realise that the need for a borrowing was felt universally Apr 17, 2021 at 19:19
  • @Batavulus In addition to the general demonstration of the need to distinguish that meaning, I made sure to demonstrate that there exists no Latin expression that would appropriately express it - including your own translation attempt, which cannot refer to a genre. Therefore, I would kindly ask you to explain which parts of my reasoning undermine my conclusion, because as it stands - and this isn't helped by your "speaking strictly for myself", it seems to me that you're dismissing logic and evidence out of hand and subscribing to an ideological position of "alle Neologismen Verboten". Apr 17, 2021 at 19:24
  • In addition, if you believe that some Latin expression I've overlooked is fit to express it, presenting it would instantly remove the need for a borrowing-translation. Apr 17, 2021 at 19:28
  • The ideology you cite is not mine; I do believe that Latinists tend to steer clear from neologisms and that in this case it did and does strike me as unnecessary to coin one. I'm not convinced by your reasoning, perhaps mostly because ‘folk music’ covers a very broad area of musics (many of which bien étonnées de se trouver ensemble, if you'll excuse my French). I don't see a reason why ‘cantus’ couldn't possibly refer to a genre; ‘cantus Gregorianus’ comes to mind, but of course, you can quibble about anything. Once again, good luck with ‘folkumusica’.
    – Batavulus
    Apr 17, 2021 at 19:49

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