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Latin (lingua latina)
Spoken in: Vatican City
Region: Italian peninsula
Total speakers: none native
Ranking: not ranked
Genetic classification: Indo-European
Official status
Official language of: Vatican City
Regulated by: Roman Catholic Church
Language codes
ISO 639-1 la
ISO 639-2 lat
See also: LanguageList of languages

Latin is an Indo-European language originally spoken in the region around Rome called Latium. It gained great importance as the formal language of the Roman Empire. All Romance languages, those being most notably Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian, are descended from Latin, and many words based on Latin are found in other modern languages such as English. The Latin alphabet, derived from the Greek, remains the most widely-used alphabet in the world. It is said that 80 percent of scholarly English words are derived from Latin (in a large number of cases by way of French). Moreover, in the Western world, Latin was a lingua franca, the learned language for scientific and political affairs, for more than a thousand years, being eventually replaced by French in the 18th century and English in the late 19th. Ecclesiastical Latin remains the formal language of the Roman Catholic Church to this day, and thus the official national language of the Vatican. The Church used Latin as its primary liturgical language until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Latin is also still used (drawing heavily on Greek roots) to furnish the names used in the scientific classification of living things. The modern study of Latin, along with Greek, is known as Classics.


Main features

Latin is a synthetic inflectional language: affixes (which most times encode more than one grammatical category) are attached to fixed stems to express gender, number, and case in adjectives, nouns, and pronouns, which is called declension; and person, number, tense, voice, mood, and aspect in verbs, which is called conjugation. There are five declensions (declinationes) of nouns and four conjugations of verbs.

There are six noun cases:

  1. nominative (used as the subject of the verb or the predicate nominative),
  2. genitive (used to indicate relation or possession, often represented by the English of or the addition of 's to a noun),
  3. dative (used of the indirect object of the verb, often represented by the English to or for),
  4. accusative (used of the direct object of the verb, or object of the preposition in some cases),
  5. ablative (separation, source, cause, or instrument, often represented by the English by, with, from),
  6. vocative (used of the person or thing being addressed).

In addition, some nouns have a locative case used to express place (otherwise expressed by the ablative with a preposition such as in), but this survival from Proto-Indo-European is found only in the names of lakes, cities, towns, similar places, and a few other words related to locations, such as "house", "ground", and "countryside". Latin itself, being a very old language, is far closer to Proto-Indo-European than are most modern Western European languages; it has, in fact, about the same relationship with PIE as modern Italian or French has to Latin.

There are six general tenses in Latin (technically they are tense/aspect/mood complexes). The indicative mood can be used with all of them. The subjunctive mood, however, has only present, imperfect, perfect, and pluperfect tenses. These tenses in the subjunctive mood do not completely correlate in meaning to the tenses in the indicative.

Present system tenses

  1. present (laudo, "I praise")
  2. imperfect (laudabam, "I was praising")
  3. future (laudabo, "I shall praise", "I will praise")

Past system tenses

  1. perfect (laudavi, "I praised", "I have praised")
  2. pluperfect (laudaveram, "I had praised")
  3. future perfect (laudavero, "I shall have praised")

The future perfect tense can also imply a normal future idea (like in "When I will have run...") and so may also sometimes be included in the present system.

Latin and Romance

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Latin evolved into the various Romance languages. These were for many centuries only spoken languages, Latin still being used for writing. For example, Latin was the official language of Portugal until 1296 when it was replaced by Portuguese.

The Romance languages evolved from Vulgar Latin, the spoken language of common usage, which in turn evolved from an older speech which also produced the formal classical standard. Latin and Romance differ (for example) in that Romance had distinctive stress, whereas Latin had distinctive length of vowels. In Italian and Sardo logudorese, there is distinctive length of consonants and stress, in Spanish only distinctive stress, and in French even stress is no longer distinctive.

Another major distinction between Romance and Latin is that all Romance languages, excluding Romanian, have lost their case endings in most words except for some pronouns. Romanian retains a direct case (nominative/accusative), an indirect case (dative/genitive), and vocative.

In Italy, Latin is still compulsory in secondary schools as Liceo Classico and Liceo Scientifico which are usually attended by people who aim to the highest level of education. In Liceo Classico Ancient Greek is a compulsory subject.

Latin and English

See Latin influence in English for a more complete exposition.

English grammar is independent of Latin grammar, though prescriptive grammarians in English have been heavily influenced by Latin. Attempts to make English grammar follow Latin rules — such as the prohibition against the split infinitive — have not worked successfully in regular usage. However, as many as half the words in English were derived from Latin, including many words of Greek origin first adopted by the Romans, not to mention the thousands of French, hundreds of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian words of Latin origin that have also enriched English.

During the 16th and on through the 18th century English writers created huge numbers of new words from Latin and Greek roots. These words were dubbed "inkhorn" or "inkpot" words (as if they had spilled from a pot of ink). Many of these words were used once by the author and then forgotten, but some remain. Imbibe, extrapolate, dormant and inebriation are all inkhorn terms carved from Latin words. In fact, the word etymology is derived from the Greek word etymologia, meaning "true sense of the word."

Latin was once taught in most of the schools in Britain with academic leanings - perhaps 25% of the total [1]. However, the requirement for it was gradually abandoned in the professions such as the law and medicine, and then, from around the late 1960s, for admission to university. After the introduction of the Modern Language GCSE in the 1980s, it was gradually replaced by other languages, although it is now being taught by more schools along with other classical languages.

Latin education

The linguistic element of Latin courses offered in high schools or secondary schools, and in universities, is primarily geared toward an ability to translate Latin texts into modern languages, rather than using it in oral communication. As such, the skill of reading is heavily emphasized, whereas speaking and listening skills are barely touched upon. However, there is a growing movement, sometimes known as the Living Latin movement, whose supporters believe that Latin can, or should, be taught in the same way that modern "living" languages are taught, that is, as a means of both spoken and written communication. One of the most interesting aspects of such an approach is that it assists speculative insight into how many of the ancient authors spoke and incorporated sounds of the language stylistically; without understanding how the language is meant to be heard it is very difficult to identify patterns in Latin poetry. Institutions offering Living Latin instruction include the Vatican and the University of Kentucky. In Britain the Classical Association encourages this approach, and there has been something of a vogue for books describing the adventures of a mouse called Minimus. In the United States there is a thriving competitive organization for high school Latin students, the National Junior Classical League (the second-largest youth organization in the world after the Boy Scouts of America), backed up by the Senior Classical League for college students. Many would-be international auxiliary languages have been heavily influenced by Latin, and the moderately successful Interlingua considers itself to be the modernized and simplified version of the language (le latino moderne international e simplificate).

Latin translations of modern literature such as Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Le Petit Prince and The Cat in the Hat (Cattus Petasatus) have also helped boost interest in the language.

See also

About the Latin language

About the Latin literary heritage

Other related topics

Ages of Latin
—75 BC 75 BC – 1st c. 2nd c. – 8th c. 9th c. – 15th c. 15th c. - 17th c. 17th c. – present
Old Latin Golden Age Latin Silver Age Latin
(Classical Latin)
Late Latin Medieval Latin Humanist Latin New Latin

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