New Latin

The term New Latin or Neo-Latin is used to describe a form the Latin language used between the end of the Medieval Latin period (c. 1500) to c. 1900, and in a very limited fashion, down to the present day. With a series of reforms in usage, it gave rise to the contemporary Latin of the 20th century.


Classicists use the term "Neo-Latin" to describe the use of the Latin language for any purpose, scientific or literary, after the Renaissance. The beginning of the period is imprecise; however, the spread of secular education, the acceptance of humanistic literary norms, and the wide availability of Latin texts following the invention of printing mark the transition to a new era at the end of the 1400s. The end of the New Latin period is likewise indeterminate, but Latin as a regular vehicle of communicating ideas became rare after the first few decades of the 19th century, and by 1900 it survived primarily in International Scientific Vocabulary cladistics and systematics. The term "New Latin" came into widespread use towards the end of the 1890s among linguists and scientists. New Latin was, at least in its early days, an international language used throughout Catholic and Protestant Europe, as well as in the colonies of the major European powers. This area included all of Western Europe, including Scandinavia; its southern border was the Mediterranean Sea, while in Eastern Europe it had little use in regions with majority Orthodox or Muslim populations, with the division more or less corresponding to the modern eastern borders of Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia. In the 18th century, a Westernizing movement in Russia led, briefly, to the study of New Latin in St. Petersburg.

History of New Latin


New Latin was inaugurated by the triumph of the humanist reform of Latin education, led by such writers as Erasmus, More, and Colet. Medieval Latin had been the practical working language of the Roman Catholic Church, taught throughout Europe to aspiring clerics and refined in the medieval universities. It was a flexible and living language, full of neologisms and often composed without reference to the grammar or style of classical (usually pre-Christian) authors. While accepting many of the strengths of Medieval Latin, the humanist reformers sought both to purify Latin grammar and style, and to make Latin applicable to concerns beyond the ecclesiastical, creating a body of Latin literature outside the bounds of the Church. Attempts at reforming Latin usage would occur sporadically throughout the period, becoming most successful in the mid-to-late 19th century.


The Protestant Reformation (1520-1580), though it removed Latin from the liturgies of the churches of Northern Europe, may have advanced the cause of the new secular Latin. The period during and after the Reformation, coinciding with the growth of printed literature, saw the growth of an immense body of New Latin literature, on all kinds of secular as well as religious subjects.

The heyday of New Latin was its first two centuries (1500-1700), when in the continuation of the Medieval Latin tradition, it served as the primary language of science, education, and to some degree diplomacy in Europe. Classic works such as Newton's Principia Mathematica (1687) were written in the language. Throughout this period, Latin was a universal school subject, and indeed, the pre-eminent subject for elementary education in Western Europe and those places which shared its culture. All universities required Latin proficiency (obtained in local grammar schools) to obtain admittance as a student.

Through most of the 17th century, Latin was also supreme as an international language of diplomatic correspondence, used in negotiations between nations and the writing of treaties. As an auxiliary language to the local vernaculars, New Latin appeared in a wide variety of documents, ecclesiastical, legal, diplomatic, academic, and scientific. While a text written in English, French, or Spanish at this time might be understood by a significant cross section of the learned, only a Latin text could be certain of finding someone to interpret it anywhere between Lisbon and Helsinki.


By about 1700 A.D., the growing movement for the use of national languages (already found earlier in literature and the Protestant religious movement) had reached academia, and an often-cited example of the transition is Newton's writing career, which began in New Latin and ended in English (e.g. Opticks, 1704).

Likewise, starting in the 1710s, French replaced Latin as a diplomatic language, due to the commanding presence in Europe of the France of Louis XIV. At the same time, some (like King Frederick William I of Prussia) were dismissing Latin as a useless accomplishment, unfit for a man of practical affairs.

A diminishing audience combined with diminishing production of Latin texts pushed Latin into a death spiral from which it has not recovered. As it was gradually abandoned by various fields, and as less written material appeared in it, there was less of a practical reason for anyone to bother to learn Latin; as fewer people knew Latin, there was less reason for material to be written in the language. Latin came to be viewed as esoteric, irrelevant, and worst of all, too difficult. As languages like French, German, and English came to be more widely known, recourse to a 'difficult' auxiliary language would seem unnecessary; while the argument that Latin could be used to expand readership beyond a single nation was fatally weakened if, in fact, Latin readers did not compose a majority of the intended audience.

As the 18th century progressed, the extensive literature in Latin being produced at the beginning slowly contracted, until by 1800 it was only a trickle. It lasted longest in very specific fields (e.g. botany) where it had acquired a technical character, and where a literature available only to a small number of learned individuals could remain viable. The perpetuation of Ecclesiastical Latin in the Roman Catholic Church through the 20th century can be considered a special case of the same.

By 1900, New Latin was confined to a few very technical areas (e.g., botany) where it often functioned as a code capable of limited types of expression. In other fields (e.g. anatomy or law) where Latin had been widely used, it survived in technical phrases and terminology. The last survivals of New Latin to convey non-technical information appear in the use of Latin to cloak passages and expressions deemed too indecent (in the 19th century) to be read by children, the lower classes, or (most) women — intending to shrink readership, not expand it. Such passages appear in translations of foreign texts and in works on folklore, anthropology, and psychology, e.g. Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).

Creative Latin composition, for purely artistic purposes, was very rare by the end of the 19th century. Authors such as Arthur Rimbaud and Max Beerbohm wrote Latin verse, but these texts were either school exercises or occasional pieces.

Crisis and transformation

Latin as a language held a place of educational pre-eminence until the second half of the nineteenth century. At that point its value was increasingly questioned; in the twentieth century, educational philosophies such as that of John Dewey dismissed its relevance. At the same time, the philological study of Latin appeared to show that the traditional methods and materials for teaching Latin were dangerously out of date and ineffective.

In secular academic use, however, New Latin declined sharply and then continuously after about 1700 A.D. Although Latin texts continued to be written throughout the 18th and into the 19th century, their number and their scope diminished over time. By 1900, very few new texts were being created in Latin for practical purposes, and the production of Latin texts had become little more than a hobby for Latin enthusiasts.

Around the beginning of the 19th century came a renewed emphasis on the study of Classical Latin as the spoken language of the Romans of the 1st centuries BC and AD. This new emphasis, similar to that of the Humanists but based on broader linguistic, historical, and critical studies of Latin literature, led to the exclusion of Neo-Latin literature from academic studies in schools and universities (except for advanced historical language studies); to the abandonment of New Latin neologisms; and to an increasing interest in the reconstructed Classical pronunciation, which was to displace the several regional pronunciations in Europe in the early 20th century.

Coincident with these changes in Latin instruction, and to some degree motivating them, came a concern about lack of Latin proficiency among students. Latin had already lost its privileged role as the core subject of elementary instruction; and as education spread to the middle and lower classes, it tended to be dropped altogether. By the mid-20th century, even the trivial acquaintance with Latin typical of the 19th-century student was a thing of the past.


Ecclesiastical Latin, the form of New Latin used in the Roman Catholic Church, remained in use throughout the period and after. Until the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 all priests were expected to have competency in it, and it was studied in Catholic schools. It is still today the official language of the Church and the Vatican State. Use of the Latin Mass, restricted through the later 20th century, has recently been broadened by Pope Benedict XVI.

New Latin is also the source of the biological system of binomial nomenclature and classification of living organisms devised by Carolus Linnæus; the need to create names within a superficially Latin structure continues to drive the development of new Latin or quasi-Latin vocabulary today. Another continuation is the use of Latin names for the surface features of planets and planetary satellites (planetary nomenclature), originated in the mid-17th century for selenographic toponyms. New Latin has also contributed a vocabulary, to some extent naturalized in European languages, for specialized fields such as anatomy and law.


New Latin had no single pronunciation, but a host of local variants or dialects, all distinct both from each other and from the historical pronunciation of Latin at the time of the Roman Republic and Empire. As a rule, the local pronunciation of Latin used sounds identical to those of the dominant local language; the result of a concurrently evolving pronunciation in the living languages and the corresponding spoken dialects of Latin. Despite this variation, there are some common characteristics to nearly all of the dialects of New Latin, for instance:

  • The use of a sibilant fricative or affricate in place of a stop for the letters c and g, when preceding a front vowel.
  • The use of a sibilant fricative or affricate for the letter t when non-initial and preceding unstressed i followed by a vowel.
  • The use of a labiodental fricative for most instances of the letter v (or consonantal u), instead of the classical labiovelar approximant .
  • A tendency for medial s to be voiced to [z ], especially between vowels.
  • The merger of æ and œ with e, and of y with i.
  • The loss of the distinction between short and long vowels, with such vowel distinctions as remain being dependent upon word-stress.

The following table illustrates some of the variation of New Latin consonants found in various countries of Western Europe, compared to the Classical Latin pronunciation of the 1st centuries BCE-CE. In Eastern Europe, the pronunciation of Latin was generally similar to that used in Germany.

Roman letter Pronunciation
Classical Western Eastern
Italy France England Portugal Spain Germany Netherlands Scandinavia
before æ, e, i, œ, y
before æ, e, i, œ, y
before a, o, u
before æ, e, i
before æ, e, i, œ, y
before i+vowel
/t/ /ts/ /ts/


New Latin texts are primarily found in early printed editions, which present certain features of spelling and the use of diacritics which are distinct from the Latin of antiquity, medieval Latin manuscript conventions, and representations of Latin in modern printed editions.


In spelling, New Latin, in all but the earliest texts, distinguishes the letter u from v and i from j. In older printed texts, including most from the first decades of the 17th century, v was used in initial position (even when it represented a vowel, e.g. in vt, later printed ut) and u was used elsewhere, e.g. in nouus, later printed novus. By the middle decades of the 1600s, the letter v was used for the consonantal sound of Roman V, which in most pronunciations of Latin in the New Latin period was [v] (and not [w]), as in vulnus "wound", corvus "crow". Where the pronunciation remained [w], as after g, q and s, the spelling u continued to be used for the consonant, e.g. in lingua, qualis, and suadeo.

The letter j generally represented a consonantal sound (pronounced in various ways in different European countries, e.g. [j], [dʒ], [ʒ], [x]). It appeared, for instance, in jam "now" or jubet "orders" (now spelled iam and iubet). It was also found between vowels in the words ejus, hujus, cujus (now normally spelled eius, huius, cuius), and pronounced as a consonant. J was also used when the last in a sequence of two or more i's, e.g. radij (now spelled radii) "rays", alijs "to others", iij, the Roman numeral 3; however, ij was for the most part replaced by ii by 1700.

In common with texts in other languages using the Roman alphabet, Latin texts down to c. 1800 used ſ (the long s), italic ʃ for s in positions other than at the end of a word; e.g. ipʃiʃʃimus.

The diphthongs ae and oe were rarely if ever so written; instead the digraphs æ and œ were used, e.g. Cæsar, pœna. More rarely (and usually in early 17th-century texts) the e caudata is found substituting for either.


Three kinds of diacritic were in common use: the acute accent ´, the grave accent `, and the circumflex accent ˆ. These were normally only marked on vowels (e.g. í, è, â); but see below regarding que.

The acute accent marked a stressed syllable, but was usually confined to those where the stress was not in its normal position, as determined by vowel length and syllabic weight. In practice, it was typically found on the vowel in the syllable immediately preceding a final clitic, particularly que "and", ve "or" and ne, a question marker; e.g. idémque "and the same (thing)". By some printers, however, this acute accent was placed over the q in que when that clitic followed, e.g. eorumq́ue "and their". The acute accent fell out of favor by the 19th century.

The grave accent had various uses, none related to pronunciation or stress. It was always found on the preposition à (variant of ab "by" or "from") and likewise on the preposition è (variant of ex "from" or "out of"). Most frequently, it was found on the last (or only) syllable of various adverbs and conjunctions, particularly those which might be confused with prepositions or with inflected forms of nouns, verbs, or adjectives. Examples include certè "certainly", verò "but", primùm "at first", pòst "afterwards", cùm "when", adeò "so far, so much", unà "together", quàm "than". In some texts the grave was found over the clitics que et al., in which case the acute accent did not appear before them.

The circumflex accent represented metrical length (generally not distinctively pronounced in the New Latin period) and was chiefly found over an a, when that represented an ablative singular case, e.g. eâdem formâ "with the same shape". It might also be used to distinguish two words otherwise spelled identically, but distinct in vowel length; e.g. hîc "here" differentiated from hic "this", fugêre "they have fled" (=fūgērunt) distinguished from fugere "to flee", or senatûs "of the senate" distinct from senatus "the senate". It might also be used for vowels arising from contraction, e.g. nôsti for novisti "you know", imperâsse for imperavisse "to have commanded", or for dei or dii.

Notable works (1500-1900)

Literature and biography

Scientific works

Other technical subjects


  • IJsewijn, Jozef with Dirk Sacré. Companion to Neo-Latin Studies. 2 vols. Leuven University Press, 1990-1998.
  • Waquet, Françoise, Latin, or the Empire of a Sign: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Verso, 2003) ISBN 1-85984-402-2; translated from the French by John Howe.


See also

External links

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