Monday, November 27, 2023

Language Corner: What happened to the Latin language?

"In an importance sense, Latin never died. So learning Latin today is less like resurrecting the dead and more like looking at an old photo of modern Indo-European languages."

- Blake Adams, author, editor, educator, Latin tutor, and a scholar of Early Christian Studies - From the Ancient Language Institute website

I have always wondered why Latin "died" as a spoken language.  After all, the Roman Empire was so pervasive and far-reaching. So, what happened?  After doing some research, I learned that it is more accurate to say that Latin evolved, rather than to say it died.  

Latin was originally spoken by small groups who lived along the lower Tiber River.  The language spread along with the growth of Roman political power.  It spread throughout most of western and southern Europe, as well as the Mediterranean coastal regions of Africa.

The language of the ancient Romans began to decline in the 6th century, shortly after the fall of Rome in 676 A.D.  The fall of Rome led to the fragmentation of the empire, causing distinct Latin dialects to develop across the Western Empire, which  eventually transformed into the five Romance languages - Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian.  

According to Adams, you could still find writers who wrote classical Latin.  However this changed gradually as writing the language became less common.  Latin schools slowly disappeared except in a few Italian towns .This was another factor in the decline of classical Latin. "Putting a language to writing, and consulting prior works in the same language, tends to slow a language's rate of change," points out Blake Adams in his article "When Did Latin Die?"  For example, modern English speakers use many world that would have been understood in Shakespeare's day.  However, the English language would have changed a great deal more if students didn't study Shakespeare in high school.  

Classical Latin, the language of great Roman writers such ss Cicero  and Virgil, became "dead/" after its form became fixed.  Vulgar Latin, the language ordinarily used by Romans, continued to evolve as the Roman Empire spread.  During medieval times, however, Latin was still the most widely used language among scholars and writers.  

It is important to note that languages don't die like organisms.  Latin is still studied and it is the official language of the Holy See, the central governing body of the Roman Catholic Church (Italian is the official language of Vatican City and is used in all official matters).  Until the changes brought about by Vatican II in the 1960s,, Latin was required in the liturgy of the Church.

SOURCES: Encyclpaedia Britannica; Ancient Language Institute website (, "When Did Latin Die?" Blake Adams, Wikipedia

- Joanne