By Andee S. Davis
You may by now have heard a version of the old schoolboy’s lament, “Latin is a dead language, as you can plainly see. It killed off all the Romans, and now it’s killing me!”
As a Latin student in high school, I fully understood their point of view. Latin was anything but an easy A and it took time, effort, and brain power to stay alive ourselves, in that class. But there was always something curiously satisfying about making it to the end of a tough Latin translation. Like figuring out a secret code.
A “dead language,” it is so often called. But though it is no longer taught by mothers to their babies in any culture, calling Latin a dead language is a misnomer. Rather, I would say, Latin lives on is so many forms that it will not die in the foreseeable future.
It is said that 75% or more of our English language comes from Latin, yet English is considered Germanic in origin. Languages like French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian descend directly from Latin and are therefore called Romance Languages. Romance, meaning: one that descends from the ancient Roman tongue. Why is it, then, that Latin derivatives dominate our English vocabulary?
While English owes most of it words pertaining to home, family, and farm to Germanic languages, the words we use which refer to knowledge, education, science, religion or the arts come directly from Latin. The written records of Old Latin don’t go as far back as those of Greek, which was also widespread as a language of the educated. But despite their similarities, Latin did not evolve from the Greek. The origins of Latin and Greek are likely an earlier language known as Indo-European.
What contributed to the widespread use of Latin over Greek was the conquering of many nations by the Roman army and the rise of the Roman Empire. A map will illustrate the vast lands that the leaders of Rome dominated for the greater portion of the thousand or so years of its existence, in a wide ring around the Mediterranean Sea and northwest to Britain.
By the age of Classical Latin, basically from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D., enough literature survived to provide a small but impressive library of this highly stylized form of the language. At the same time the ordinary citizens of Rome spoke a common version called the Vulgate. As the centuries passed Latin evolved somewhat into Medieval, Renaissance, New Latin and Recent Latin. There are even now those who promote the speaking of Latin in everyday situations, but their numbers are few and likely limited to professors and students: enthusiasts of the Latin language.
There arose, in the centuries after Julius Caesar and his contemporaries, an institution so enduring that it survived the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. and continues to this day. The Roman Catholic Church, established by Emperor Constantine in the year 312, has contributed greatly to the continued life of the Latin language. Not until the middle of the twentieth century did the Catholic Church abandon its strict adherence to Latin, but it has left the world with countless examples of Latin writing in ecclesiastical documents. As well, Latin was the language of science and learning throughout Europe and east to the Byzantine nations.
As Rome declined, the conquered peoples retained Latin as their written and spoken language. However, without Rome as their unifying force, the provinces of Gaul (France), Hispania (Spain), Dacia (Romania), and Italia (Italy) developed their own dialects of Latin and combined it with their native tongues. That is why, today, these languages are called Romance Languages.
Things were different in Britain, though. As far back as the days of Julius Caesar, the Romans made their presence known in the land they called Britannia. They were able to conquer the island as far north as the area of modern Scotland. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic invasions into Britain influenced the language, thus English is considered Germanic. However, many centuries later, the Normans attacked Britain from the east and finally conquered that land, bringing into the English language the influence of French, which is Romantic, or Latin, in origin.
It is fortunate that Latin, a highly inflected and well-structured language, continues to be studied…and tolerated…by students of every sort even today. It is still pervasive in science, medicine, and music, worldwide. A language that survived the rise and fall of so many cultures, Latin’s influence permeates practically every modern culture across the globe today. A dead language? Viva lingua Latina!
Return to Companion Guide