Linguistic Anthropology

Why don't people speak Latin anymore?
Answered by Jennifer Horton
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  1. There's a popular rhyme well known to students who've suffered through Latin classes in school: "Latin is a language, dead as it can be, it killed the ancient Romans and now it's killing me." But to be perfectly accurate, Latin's not exactly dead. In a way, we're speaking it right now, or at least a form of it. Let's start at the beginning ...

    Thanks to an inscription on a gold safety-pin of sorts reading "Manios Med Fhefhaked Numasio," we know Latin has existed since at least around 500 B.C. Throughout its lengthy history, Latin has appeared in various forms and passed through a series of distinct stages. These include the archaic stage, which can be seen in ancient stone inscriptions; the classical stage, visible in the works of writers like Cicero, Vergil and Ovid; the Christian stage and finally Late Latin, featuring works whose quality seems to foreshadow the language's deterioration. Complicating things further is the fact that written Latin differed markedly from the spoken vernacular, the latter of which is referred to as "Vulgar Latin."

    Around the 8th century A.D., when Latin was no longer a native language among the populace, its different dialects and forms of vernacular diverged based on geography, resulting in a variety of languages, including ones we now know as French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. These languages are classified together as the Romance languages. Other languages not typically thought of as Romanic are also derived from Latin, including Rumanian, Romansh and Ladink, a Latinate dialect of Yiddish speaking Jews in the Swiss Alps. Latin itself evolved from its ancestor, Indo-European.

    Though no one speaks Latin in conversation today as it was originally spoken thousands of years ago, many people can still read it and it continues to be taught in many schools around the world. Some (apparently masochistic) souls even attend week-long Latin immersion events like this one hosted by the North American Institute for Living Latin Studies. There's even a Latin language Wikipedia. Many Latin roots are also used in forming new words, making a knowledge of the language quite helpful in deciphering an unknown word's meaning. Around the time of the Renaissance, scientists also began to establish Latin terminology to facilitate international research. So while Latin has evolved to the point where it's no longer always readily identifiable as such, it's impact can be seen almost everywhere we look (and listen).

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