Latin (lingua Latīna, ) is an Italic language, historically spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. Through the Roman conquest, Latin spread throughout the Mediterranean and a large part of Europe. A large part of the Latin vocabulary and grammar was inherited by such languages as French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish, and Portuguese. It was also the international language of science and scholarship in central and western Europe until the 17th century. There are two varieties of Latin: Classical Latin, the literary dialect used in poetry and prose, and Vulgar Latin, the form of the language spoken by ordinary people. Vulgar Latin was preserved as a spoken language in much of Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire, and by the 9th century diverged into the various Romance languages.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Latin survived as the lingua franca of educated classes in the West, and this survival was reinforced by the adoption of Latin by the Catholic Church. In this milieu it survived as a mother-tongue at least into the second millennium A.D. and is referred to as Medieval Latin. The Renaissance had the paradoxical effect of briefly reinforcing the position of Latin as a spoken language, through its (re?)adoption by the Renaissance Humanists. After the 16th century, the popularity of Medieval Latin began to decline.
Latin lives on in the form of Ecclesiastical Latin used for edicts and papal bulls issued by the Catholic Church. Much Latin vocabulary is used in science, academia, and law. Classical Latin, the literary language of the late Republic and early Empire, is still taught in many primary, grammar, and secondary schools, often combined with Greek in the study of Classics, though its role has diminished since the early 20th century. The Latin alphabet, together with its modern variants such as the English, Spanish and French alphabets, is the most widely used alphabet in the world.
Latin is a member of the Italic languages. Its alphabet is based on the Old Italic alphabet, derived from the Greek alphabet. In the 9th or 8th century BC, the Italic languages were brought to the Italian peninsula by migrating tribes, and the dialect spoken in Latium around the River Tiber, where Roman civilization would develop, evolved into Latin.
Although surviving Roman literature consists almost entirely of Classical Latin, the actual spoken language of the Western Roman Empire among ordinary people was what is known as Vulgar Latin, which differed from Classical Latin in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
Although Latin long remained the legal and governmental language of the Roman Empire, Greek was the secondary language of the well-educated elite, as much of the literature and philosophy studied by upper-class Romans was written in Greek. In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which would become the Byzantine Empire after the final split of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in 395, Greek eventually supplanted Latin as the legal and governmental language; and it had long been the lingua franca of Eastern citizens of all classes.
To write Latin, the Romans used the Latin alphabet, derived from the Old Italic alphabet, which itself was derived from the Greek alphabet. The Latin alphabet flourishes today as the writing system for Romance, Celtic, Germanic (including English), some Slavic (such as Polish), and many other languages.
The ancient Romans did not use punctuation, macrons (although they did use apices to distinguish between long and short vowels), the letters j, u or w, lowercase letters (although they did have a cursive script), or interword spacing (though dots were occasionally placed between words that would otherwise be difficult to distinguish). So, a sentence originally written as:
would be rendered in a modern edition as
and translated as
The Roman cursive script is commonly found on the many wax tablets excavated at sites such as forts, an especially extensive set having been discovered at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall in Britain. Curiously enough, most of the Vindolanda tablets show spaces between words, though spaces were avoided in monumental inscriptions from that era.
The expansion of the Roman Empire spread Latin throughout Europe, and, eventually, Vulgar Latin began to diverge into various dialects. Vulgar Latin gradually evolved into a number of distinct Romance languages by the 9th century. These were for many centuries only oral languages, Latin still being used for writing.
For example, Latin was still the official language of Portugal until 1296 when it was replaced by Portuguese. Many of these "daughter" languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romansh and Romanian flourished, the differences between them growing greater and more formal over time.
Some of the differences between Classical Latin and the Romance languages have been used in attempts to reconstruct Vulgar Latin. For example, the Romance languages have distinctive stress on certain syllables, whereas Latin had this feature in addition to distinctive length of vowels. In Italian and Sardo logudorese, there is distinctive length of consonants as well as stress; in Spanish and Portuguese, only distinctive stress; while in French length (for most speakers) and stress are no longer distinctive. Another major distinction between Romance and Latin is that all Romance languages, excluding Romanian, have lost grammatical case.
There has also been a major Latin influence in English. Although English is Germanic in grammar, its vocabulary is mostly Italic. Sixty percent of the English vocabulary has its roots in Latin (although much of this is indirect, mostly via Anglo-Norman and French). In the medieval period, much of this borrowing occurred through ecclesiastical usage established by Saint Augustine of Canterbury in the 6th century, or indirectly after the Norman Conquest, through the Anglo-Norman language.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, English writers cobbled together 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 were so useful that they survived. Imbibe and extrapolate are inkhorn terms created from Latin words. Many of the most common polysyllabic "English" words are simply adapted Latin forms, in a large number of cases adapted by way of Old French.
Latin mottos are used as guidelines by many organizations.
There is also a seventh case, called the Locative case, used to indicate a location (corresponding to the English "in" or "at"). This is far less common than the other six cases of Latin nouns and usually applies to place names, especially of cities. In the first and second declension singular, its form coincides with the genitive (Roma becomes Romae, "in Rome"). In the plural, and in the other declensions, it coincides with the dative and ablative (Athenae becomes Athenis, "at Athens").
Latin lacks definite and indefinite articles; thus puer currit can mean either "the boy runs" or "a boy runs".
The linguistic element of Latin courses offered in secondary schools and in universities is primarily geared toward an ability to translate Latin texts into modern languages, rather than using it for the purpose of oral communication. As such, the skills of reading and writing are heavily emphasized, while speaking and listening skills are de-emphasized (usually passively, through omission).
However, there is a growing movement, sometimes known as the Living Latin movement, whose supporters believe that Latin can be taught in the same way that modern "living" languages are taught, i.e., as a means of both spoken and written communication. This approach to learning the language assists speculative insight into how ancient authors spoke and incorporated sounds of the language stylistically; patterns in Latin poetry and literature can be difficult to identify without an understanding of the sounds of words.
Living Latin instruction is provided in states like the Vatican, and some Institutions in the U.S. like the University of Kentucky. In Great Britain, the Classical Association encourages this approach, and Latin language books describing the adventures of a mouse called Minimus have been published. In the United States, the National Junior Classical League (with more than 50,000 members) encourages high school students to pursue the study of Latin, and the National Senior Classical League encourages college students to continue their studies of the language.
Many international auxiliary languages have been heavily influenced by Latin. Interlingua, which lays claim to a sizeable following, is sometimes considered a simplified, modern version of the language. Latino sine Flexione, popular in the early 20th century, is a language created from Latin with its inflections dropped.
Latin translations of modern literature such as Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh, Tintin, Asterix, Harry Potter, Le Petit Prince, Max und Moritz, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Cat in the Hat are intended to bolster interest in the language.
Today, Latin terminology is widely used, amongst other things, in philosophy, medicine, biology, and law, in terms and abbreviations such as subpoena duces tecum, q.i.d. (quater in die: "four times a day"), and inter alia (among other things). The Latin terms are used in isolation, as technical terms.
The largest organization which still uses Latin in official contexts is the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Mass of Paul VI is usually said in the local vernacular language, it can be and often is said in Latin, particularly in the Vatican. Indeed, Latin is still the official standard language of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, and the Second Vatican Council merely authorized that the liturgical books be translated and optionally used in the vernacular languages.
Latin is the official language of the Vatican City State.
In situations when lingual neutrality is preferred, such as in scientific names for organisms, Latin is typically the language of choice.
Some films of relevant ancient settings, such as Sebastiane and The Passion of the Christ, have been made with dialogue in Latin for purposes of realism. Subtitles are usually employed for the predominantly non-Latin speaking audiences.
Many organizations today also have Latin mottos, such as "Semper fidelis" (always faithful), the motto of the United States Marine Corps. Several of the states of the United States also have Latin mottos.
Some universities still hold graduation ceremonies in Latin.