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Latin (lingua Latina) is an Indo-European language of the Italic subfamily. It is highly inflectional and synthetic, and has a relatively free word order. With an attested life of almost three thousand years and widespread influence in all areas of culture, it constitutes the most universal and enduring language our civilisation has known.

  • Roman Kingdom (-753 to -510)
    Roman Republic (-510 to -27), brown
    Roman Empire (-27 to 395), purple
    Western Roman Empire (395 to 480), blue
    Eastern Roman Empire (395 to 1503), yellow.

Latin derives its name from its historical cradle on the plain of Latium, a region in central Italy which was inhabited by the Latini, presumably descendants of prehistoric indigenous peoples and various Bronze and Iron age newcomers. The settlements the Latini started to establish on the Palatine, Esquiline, and Quirinal hills near the river Tiber as early as the -9th century had coalesced three centuries later into the thenceforth renowned city of Rome, whose date of foundation is traditionally given as the 21st of April -753. A few centuries after that, a flourishing Roman republic would begin its expansion all over the Mediterranean basin, spreading its native language, Latin, to the rest of the world.

Latin reached its maturity as a language in what is consequently referred to as the classical period, around the lives of Cicero (-106 to -43) and Virgil (-70 to -19), profoundly enriched by the fine sap of ancient Greek culture. Throughout the centuries, the unparalleled drive of the Romans bestowed on the Latin language a vigour that enabled it to survive the demise of Rome itself and remain alive in the different kingdoms which became heirs to the Roman Empire in the West. The Latin language continued to spread throughout Europe during the long Middle Ages, as the language of jurisprudence, philosophy and theology. It bounced back with renewed strength in the Renaissance as the ever ideal vehicle of international communication for the now flourishing arts and sciences. Only the turbulent events and ideologies of the mere last couple of centuries have come close to dispossessing even the better educated of the riches of our heritage, promoting the impression that the Latin language died with the last of the ancient Romans.

  • Map of the most widespread Romance languages: Spanish (green), French (blue), Portuguese (orange), Italian (yellow) and Romanian (red). Colours are dark where official and light where not official but commonly spoken

Latin, the native language

The language one learns as a child is open to many random influences and natural alterations during one's lifetime, and the version passed on is always different, however slightly. Thus the language we call Latin was also in constant change in the usage of its native speakers of ancient times, particularly as a majority of them would have had little access to formal education, the usual check of unconscious language change. If we take the Latin of the time of Caesar and of Augustus as the indisputable linguistic standard, the rare examples we have of the language as it was used only two or three generations before present us with a primitive and noticeably different Latin. Similarly the linguistic data we can gather about how the language was actually spoken a couple of generations after that benchmark period yield something that wouldn't necessarily have been readily identified by us as Latin, in terms both of its sounds and its grammar. The Latin spontaneously spoken by the people had evolved from a more ancient idiom and continued to change and diversify in the different geographical areas where it took root. With no clear break it is impossible to point to a specific time before which it was still Latin and after which it was Latin no more.

Latin, the learned language

  • The poet Virgil on a 5th century manuscript known as Vergilius Romanus

Once a native language becomes the object of specific attention and enquiry, even more so if it is the subject of normative teaching, there arises a tension between the language spontaneously spoken by the uneducated and that cultivated by the educated. The latter tends to be both more conservative of a previous linguistic tradition soon abandoned by the rest and more sophisticated than spontaneous economy of language would favour. Within a culture where rhetorical training is the main concern of formal education, the divide between the native tongue and the learned idiom becomes even more marked. The diffusion of writing and the development of a literary tradition contribute to reinforcing these tendencies. In ancient Rome, at the peak of what, precisely on account of such accomplishments, we have come to call the classical period, the learned language rose to its defining height of linguistic artifice, setting a standard that would thenceforth be followed and imitated in its own right, independently of the continuing spontaneous evolution of native usage. Learned Latin was thus able to remain one and the same language through the ages, carefully preserving the morphological structure which the native tongue soon abandoned and never altogether oblivious to the eternal model of the classics.

Latin, a perennial language

It could be argued that the native Latin tongue lasted forever, inasmuch as modern Romance languages are the contemporary stages of an uninterrupted native usage of Latin. The greater part of the history of this native idiom, nevertheless, is only accessible to us through considerably hypothetical reconstruction, and is in any case mainly of interest to specialists in historical linguistics. If, on the other hand, we prefer to understand Latin as the language whose grammatical structure has been preserved in the works of the classics, it cannot be denied that, as a native tongue, it existed for just a few generations: one moment it had not yet reached that standard grammatical structure; not much later, certainly well before the end of the Roman Empire in the West, it had already lost it.

  • M. Tullius Cicero

These events, however, are of hardly any consequence in the history of Latin as the language of our most universal poets, philosophers, scientists, historians and statesmen: the language in which our civilisation has for millennia found its expression. Whether native Latin be dead or alive, learned Latin certainly remained in constant use from classical times and throughout history, and the status of native Latin did not affect its continuity as a learned language which educated people continued to read, write and speak. It is learned Latin that gives us access, in the original, to centuries of literature, historiography, philosophy, science and law.

  • Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

Latin is the perennial language of Plautus and Terence, Cicero and Virgil, Seneca and Pliny. It is the language of Statius and Quintilian, Martial and Tacitus, Suetonius and Aulus Gellius. It is the language of Ausonius, Ammianus Marcellinus and Augustine. It is the language of Boëthius and Cassiodorus, of Gregory of Tours and Isidore of Seville. It is the language of Abélard and Héloïse, Alain de Lille, Thomas Aquinas. It is the universal language of the Dutchman Erasmus, of the Pole Copernicus, of the Frenchman Descartes, of the Englishman Newton, of the German Leibniz, of the Swede Linnæus… It is a language that will never die as long as there is learning, and whose significance we ignore to our own detriment.

The Latin patrimony

All the works written in Latin comprise the Latin patrimony, from Catullus's Carmina to Milton's Poemata, and from Cæsar's Commentarii to Spinoza's Tractatus. Erasmus's Encomium Moriæ is no more and no less a work of Latin literature than Seneca's Medea. Few languages can claim to have had such an impact on civilisation or bestowed on humankind a comparable richness of production.

This perennial Latin patrimony stands on its own merits. The closeness of the Latin in which a work has been produced to the native language of the time may be of interest to the specialised linguist, but it is not per se a criterion by which to judge the literary value of the work or its historical significance. Cicero's speeches are not worse Latin because they are in a language farther removed from the native idiom than Terentius's comedies. It is indubitable that the exquisite Latin in which Boëthius was writing in the 6th century had little bearing on either the grammar or the vocabulary of the native tongue used at that time; this, however, does not detract from the beauty and elegance of his Latin poetry and prose, nor from the import of his philosophy for the history of our civilisation. Likewise it is of little matter how much or how little the Latin in which Seneca or Suetonius wrote differed from the native tongue of the time, about which we can only conjecture, or how much that of Petrarca or Erasmus did, of whose distance with the native tongue we happen to be better informed. Unfortunately, nowadays many people give up philological discernment and judge Latin works according to their date of composition: if it was written in the year 100 it is better than if it was in the year 200; if in 500, more worthy of study than 1500. Fortunately, the quality of a Latin work lies, and will always lie, in the fineness of its Latin, in its literary achievement, in the insight of its treatment of the subject matter, and in its impact on the cultural history of civilisation. Latin philology has only been harmed by disregarding these facts and by confining it so narrowly as to make it increasingly irrelevant.

The forgotten side of British heritage

Most people in Britain have encountered Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, but few are taught about Geoffrey of Monmouth and his imaginative History of the Kings of Britain or Life of Merlin. Yet, both Geoffreys are an equally important part of British literature, and certainly the Arthurian legend, of which Monmouth is our main source, runs much deeper in the cultural fabric of the country than the misfortunes of the Pardoner we find in Chaucer. However, Monmouth, who signed himself Galfredus Monumetensis, wrote the Historia Regum Britanniæ and the Vita Merlini in Latin. Although both authors are nowadays mostly read in modern English translations, as Chaucer's "Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder" is hardly more intelligible to the untrained than Monmouth's "Fatidici vatis rabiem musamque jocosam Merlini cantare paro", yet Monmouth's name and text are clearly sidelined in the curriculum as if something written in Latin could not possibly be considered part of the body of national literature.

  • Isaacus Newtonus

Similarly few children in Britain are taught that documents as important for the nation as the Domesday Book or the Magna Carta are also written in Latin, not in English; that many great British authors wrote their works in Latin, like Thomas More with his world-famous Utopia; that important British philosophers like Duns Scotus or Francis Bacon, or British scientists like William Harvey, John Napier or Isaac Newton, produced their work in Latin too; that in fact, until a couple of centuries ago, all teaching at British universities was carried out in Latin, rather than in English.

It is thus no surprise that 60% of the vocabulary of the English language itself comes from Latin, and that it continues to be an important source of vocabulary for many sciences. Yet, even more important than that, is to realise that a still greater percentage of our British cultural treasures and heritage are actually Latin in their entirety.

Alongside English and the languages of the constituent countries of Britain, Latin is our national language too. Ignoring it, we ignore ourselves.

Source - adapted from www.wikipedia.org