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Latin was the 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 are descended from Latin, and many words based on Latin are found in other modern languages such as English. It is said that 80% 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, which makes it 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.


Main features

Latin is a synthetic or inflectional language: affixes 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 of nouns and four conjugations of verbs.

The six noun cases are:

  1. nominative (used of the subject of the verb),
  2. genitive (used to indicate relation or possession, often represented by the English of),
  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),
  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 (normally expressed by the ablative with a preposition such as in), but this survival from Indo-European is found only in the names of lakes, cities, towns, similar places, and a few other words, including those for house, ground, and countryside.

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 being still 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 Romance languages, excluding Romanian, have lost their case endings in most words except for some pronouns. Romanian still has five cases (though the ablative case is no longer represented).

Latin and English

See Latin influence in English for a fuller exposition.

English grammar is independent of Latin grammar, though prescriptive grammarians in English have been 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, Spanish, 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, dubbed "inkhorn" or "inkpot" words (as if they had spilled from a pot of ink), were rich in flavor and meaning. Many of these words were used once by the author and then forgotten, but some remain. Imbibe, extrapolate, and inebriation are all inkhorn terms carved from Latin and Greek words.

Latin was once taught in most British schools. However, after the introduction of the Modern Language GCSE, it was gradually replaced by other languages, although it is now being taught by more schools along with other classical languages.

Latin education

Latin courses offered in high schools and universities are primarily geared toward translating Latin texts into modern languages rather than teaching it as a tool of communication. As such, the skill of reading is heavily emphasized, whereas speaking and listening skills are barely touched upon. Nevertheless, there is a growing Living Latin movement, whose supporters believe that Latin can, or should, be taught in the same way that modern "living" languages are taught i.e. as a means of both spoken and written communication. One of the most interesting aspects of such an approach is that it allows for 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 normally distinguished in Latin poetry. Institutions offering Living Latin instruction include the Vatican and the University of Kentucky. In addition, in the United States there is a thriving competitive organization for high school Latin students, the National Junior Classical League.

See also

About the Latin Language

About the Latin Literary Heritage

Other related topics

External links

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