Wise Czar

Latin: The Un-dead Language

Posted on: January 4, 2014

The Romans were the last civilization to use Latin as a common language.

The Romans were the last civilization to use Latin as a common language.

While at a New Year’s Eve party the other day, I mentioned my latest goal of learning Latin. Almost immediately somebody smarted off saying something along the lines of “Wow, that’s cool. Now you’ll be able to converse with all the other Latin speakers around the globe.”

I don’t blame the person for making the sarcastic comment. Latin is, in fact, a dead language, spoken mostly by a small number of traditional Roman Catholic priests and eccentric Roman history buffs. In high school, I used to question the small number of Latin students’ rationale for wasting their time learning a language that they would never actually use.

So what made me decide to “waste” my time now by learning to speak Latin? Well, for starters, it’s important to understand that almost nobody learns to “speak” Latin anymore. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. If you were living in the Roman Empire during the year 100 BC, Latin was the primary language spoken.  As the empire expanded and conquered foreign populations, however, regional differences in the Latin language, or dialects, began to arise. After the Germanic invasions in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, these regional differences only intensified, causing less and less people to understand classical Latin. By the eighth century AD, the common people could hardly, if at all, understand Latin, and it became the language of the educated elite and clergy.

So yes, Latin has been dead as a “spoken” language for 1300 years. Anybody who wants to learn Latin understands that quite well. Latin is today a “written” language, meaning that people learn only to read and write it, not necessarily to speak it. Indeed, open up any Latin textbook, and you will see that it is aimed at teaching you to understand the language rather than produce it on your own.

imagesF6BASKUIBut that still begs the question: Why even bother learning to read and write Latin? It turns out that there are a number of reasons to do so.

Latin is Everywhere

If you speak English, then you already know a little bit of Latin. Even though Latin died out as a spoken language centuries ago, it helped create other languages. Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, also known as the Romance languages, are direct descendants of Latin. English, although it has Germanic roots, has also borrowed heavily from Latin. As a result, you can figure out what many Latin words mean just by knowing English and vice versa.  Check out these examples:

Porto means “to carry” as in “portable (able to be carried)”

Laboro means “to work” as in “labor”

Femina means “woman” as in “female”

Longa means “long”

Expecto means “to expect, await”

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.

Latin helps you learn other languages

A natural result of the fact that many modern languages have borrowed from Latin is that understanding Latin can help you to learn other languages more quickly. For example, the word “in” means the same thing in Latin, English and German. The Latin word “amicus” means friend, as does the French word “ami” and the Italian word “amico.” Not only will you see these similar word roots appearing in many languages, but you will also acquire a more profound understanding of how a language’s grammar and structure work, which leads me to my next point…

Latin can help you understand English better

Remember the ACT English portion and how you had to remember all those technical grammar rules to proofread the passages correctly? I always tried to get away by just circling what “sounded” right, but that didn’t always work. If you learn Latin, you have to learn the various ways the language is structured (i.e. what ending does the indirect object of the sentence take if it is a plural, feminine noun). If you learn that for Latin, you will be able to pick out pronouns, direct objects, indirect objects etc. in English without any problem.

Latin was used in the Roman Catholic church for centuries and continues to be used today.

Latin was used in the Roman Catholic church for centuries and continues to be used today.

Latin still appears in Religion and Science

Religion and science, bitter rivals on most occasions, have at least one thing in common—Latin. If you are Roman Catholic, the Mass used to be completely celebrated in Latin, and many churches today still keep that tradition. Additionally, many hymns, songs and prayers were originally written in Latin and are best understood in that language.

On the science front, the official name for your four-legged, barking friend is “canis lupus familiaris.” This incredibly complicated name for “dog” is Latin, and if you plan on going into biology you will probably end up learning this and other scientific names. So brush up on your Latin.

Latin makes you sound smart (and cool)

Finally, as a teacher, I can honestly say that if you can explain the Latin root words of everyday English vocabulary, then your students will automatically view you as being smart. The same is probably true for many other situations. Basically, you will sound interesting, intelligent and cultured, and that will make people look up to you.  And if some smart aleck still tries to make fun of you, just yell out “favete linguis!”


I couldn’t resist.



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