Latin inscription in Rome.
The old city of Rome, the former capital of the Roman Empire and birthplace of the Latin language is covered with inscriptions written in Latin and dating from 2000 years ago (by jillmackie)

The Latin language was the first language to be born in Europe and to have been used commonly throughout the continent.

Despite Latin being a dead language today, it makes no doubts for historians than the Latin language, during the hegemony of the Roman Empire, was comparable to English today, as an international language.

The Roman Empire that extended from the Portuguese shores of the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the banks of the Euphrates in what is today Iran, had made Latin the official language of any newly conquered land, or province.

Most people know that Latin was the idioms spoken by the Roman and it is common knowledge that France, Spain, Portugal and Italy have all inherited from the Latin culture.

But what are the true story of Latin and its origins?

Officially, a language is declared extinct when the last native speakers of the said language die. For Latin, it was many centuries ago.

But even though Latin is a dead language, what is essentially the same alphabet as the one the Romans used, is the same one we write in English today.

Some people consider that, because of the Latin alphabet and languages directly descendant of Latin like Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian, are so widely used across the world, Latin is alive and well.

Even Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia, use the Latin alphabet to write their language even though this one has no Latin roots whatsoever.

What is the history of Latin?

It is what Superprof is going to answer in this article.

At The Beginning Was Archaic Latin

Map of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire spread across Eupore, North Africa and the Middle East.

It is on the banks of the Tiber River, in the region of the Latium in Central Italy, that the first traces of Latin appears, in the city of Rome.

It was one of many local dialects spoken by the indigenous just like the Oscan, Umbrian or Samnite languages.

These dialects were more or less all related but all found their roots in the Greek and Etruscan idioms.

The precise origins of Latin are somewhat still unclear today. At the time the absence of a writing system left very few if no traces at all of archaic Latin.

The oldest written proof that survived through the ages if a golden brooch called, by historians and archaeologist, the Praeneste fibula.

Only discovered in 1887, the famous brooch was officially authenticated in 2011 by an Italian research team.

It is believed that archaic Latin evolved over the course of four or five centuries before being standardised by the Roman as their official language, from when it was used for all legal documents and as the lingua franca (common language)

However, the legend has it that Rome was founded in 753BC by brothers Romulus and Remus.

From the 3rd century BC, under kings and emperors, many philosophers and orators were used to spread the Latin language: Plautus (254BC-184BC), Terence (185BC-159BC), Cicero (106BC-43BC), Horace (65BC-8BC), Petronius (27-66AD).

From the early archaic language, many words have been borrowed from the Greeks who had several colonies in Italy, notably in Sicily. Many Greek words would eventually make their way into other romance languages, like French but also into the English vocabulary.

It is commonly acknowledged that archaic Latin ended around 100BC.

Discover also the many reasons you should study Latin...

The Periods of Classical Latin

Classical Latin commonly refers to the Latin used in classical texts, written by the most famous authors like Cicero.

The Golden Age of Latin (From 100BC to 14AD)

The declension of Latin evolve from the archaic version, and many texts are written during that era.

Historians discovered many of the texts of famous authors such as:

  • Julius Caesar
  • Cicero
  • Titus Livius
  • Catullus
  • Virgil
  • Horace
  • Ovid
  • Lucretius

Prose and poetry emerge during the last decades of the Roman Empire and marked the transition from an oral tradition of the Latin towards a noble literary language described as classical.

You can take Latin lessons here if you wish to improve your learning.

Statue of Julius Caesar
One of the most famous figures of the Roman civilisation, Julius Caesar installed the base of the Roman Empire (by jedibfa).

The Silver Age of Latin (14-130AD)

This period was coined as the "post-Augustus" period to refer to the end of the reign of Emperor Augustus and the beginning of the decline of the Roman society, including its literature.

Some of the great authors of the Roman literature are Senecas, Pliny the Elder (died in Pompei in 79), Petronius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger or Quintilius.

This "Imperial Latin" matches with the apogee of the Roman Empire under the Emperors Nero, Domitius, and Flavius, period which was characterised by the development of the rhetoric art.

The influence of the Greek stoicism led to the importance of religion and Gods to decline in Rome.

Late Latin

From the 2nd to the 8th century AD, many successive barbaric invasions provoked the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of the political and administrative institutions that was holding all the provinces under the control of Rome.

At that time, Latin went through deep changes, as it was no longer the official language of the state, or rather, the state could not enforce it.

Even though the Eastern Roman Empire, late known as the Byzantine Empire, kept its border until the fall of Constantinopolis in 1453, Greek always had been its official language.

During the centuries that followed the reign of the last Roman Emperor, Latin got mixed with the local dialects: linguist refers to the non-standard form of Latin that developed around the Mediterranean region after the Classical Period as Vulgar Latin.

It is from vulgar Latin that the Romance languages evolved. Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and French all evolved from vulgar Latin.

This form of Latin was closer to the Sermo plebeius (common speech) used by the everyday citizens of the Roman Empire and amongst them the legionaries that conquered most of Europe.

In some places, Latin will remain the prevalent common language. In France, Spain or Italy, many local dialects disappeared in favour of Latin.

In England, Latin was replaced by Old English under the influence of the Anglo-Saxon invaders and historians believe that Latin was no longer in use as early as the 6th century AD.

From Medieval Latin to the Renaissance Latin

The library of Oxford.
Most of the books that were found in Oxford library were in Latin or Greek until the 16th century, 500 years after the university was founded.

A long shifting of the Latin language occurred from the Early Middle Age up until the Renaissance Period.

Latin was the common language used for any literature through Western Europe. The Church was the main responsible for the conversation of Latin as the language of the lettered people.

The nobility and clergy of the time were all taught in Latin.

During that period, a massive amount of liturgic texts was written or copied but the clerical literature slowly opened up to the scansion of ancient texts.

In 800AD, Charlemagne, then Emperor of most of Western Europe (including current France, Belgium, Switzerland, Northern Italy and Western Germany) decided to reform Latin. The syntax is then simplified and many neologisms are incorporated into the Latin language.

After centuries of Christian obscurantism in Europe, came a new age: art, reason and science take over religion. It was the Renaissance.

The movement that started in Italy at the end of the 13th century only reached England late in the 15th century.

After Dante popularised the Italian language over Latin in Latin, Chaucer did the same with Middle English in England. Until then only Latin was used to write books. But Chaucer was instrumental in popularising English as a medium of the literary composition.

As Latin is replaced by Middle English, it is still the scientific idiom used by scholars and academics all across Europe.

From then Latin started to gradually decline in literature but it remained the language of scientists.

Many of the philosophers and scientists of the time kept using Latin to write their books. Francis Bacon (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) are probably the most famous English examples.

Latin remains the common language to transmit scientific, philosophic or religious knowledge and it was understood by all the lettered people of Europe.

Statue of Isaac Newton.
Isaac Newton, the famous English scientist of the 18th century, wrote most of his work in Latin.

From Neo-Latin to Contemporary Latin

Still today, Latin remains as one of the official languages of the Vatican city and The Catholic Church.

Linguists use the term of neo-Latin to refer to the Latin idiom in use since the Italian Renaissance.

Around the times when the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) fell, Gutenberg was inventing its printing press in Germany and helped to spread Latin texts more easily thanks to the mass printing of those.

However, from the 18th century, Latin was only used for scientific texts and some Latin poetry.

This explains why at least 90% of scientific words in English come from Latin.

Nowadays, debate still happens on whether Latin should keep being taught in schools or not. But if you are interested why not teach yourself?

Find out all of the benefits you could derive from learning Latin!

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