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Latin (Latīna, pronounced Template:IPA) is an ancient Indo-European language that was spoken in the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The conquests of Rome spread the language all around the Mediterranean and a large part of Europe. It existed in two forms: Classical Latin, used in poetry and formal prose, and Vulgar Latin, spoken by the people. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, Latin became the universal ecclesiastical language and the lingua franca of educated Europeans.

Having lasted 2,200 years, Latin began a slow decline around the 1600s. Vulgar Latin, however, was preserved: it split into several regional dialects, which by the 800s had become the ancestors of today's Romance languages. English, though a Germanic language, derives 35% of its words from Latin:[1] largely by way of French, but partly through direct borrowings made especially during the 1600s in England.

Latin also lives on in the form of Ecclesiastical Latin spoken in the Roman Catholic Church. Latin is borrowed from, as a source of vocabulary, 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 is the most widely used alphabet.


File:Duenos inscription.jpg
The Duenos inscription, from the 6th century BC, is one of the earliest known Old Latin texts, and probably comes from the tribe of Latins.

Latin is a member of the Italic languages and its alphabet is based on the Old Italic alphabet, derived from the Greek alphabet. In the 9th or 8th century BC Latin was brought to the Italian peninsula by the migrating Latins who settled in Latium, around the River Tiber, where Roman civilization would develop. During those early years Latin came under the influence of the non-Indo-European Etruscan language of northern Italy.

Although surviving Roman literature consists almost entirely of Classical Latin, the actual spoken language of the Western Roman Empire was Vulgar Latin, which differed from Classical Latin in grammar, vocabulary, and (eventually) pronunciation.

Although Latin long remained the legal and governmental language of the Roman Empire, Greek became the dominant language of the well-educated elite, as much of the literature and philosophy studied by upper-class Romans had been produced by Greek (usually Athenian) authors. 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 spoken language of most Eastern citizens (of all classes).


To write Latin, the Romans invented the Latin alphabet, basing it on the Etruscan Alphabet, which was based on the Greek alphabet. The Latin alphabet lives today in modified form as the writing system for Romance, Celtic, Slavic, and Germanic languages. English is a Germanic language and is written with a form of the Latin alphabet.

However, the Ancient Romans used their alphabet differently than it is used today: they didn't use punctuation, letter spacing, or lowercase letters. So the ancient Roman wrote


the modern editor prints this sentence as

Philosophia est ars vitae;

and the student translates this sentence as

Philosophy is the art of life (or, the art of living).
The language of Rome has had a profound impact on later cultures, as demonstrated by this Latin Bible from 1407


The expansion of the Roman Empire spread Latin throughout Europe, and, eventually, Vulgar Latin began to dialectize, based on the location of its various speakers. Vulgar Latin gradually evolved into a number of distinct Romance languages, a process well underway 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 in 1296, after which it was replaced by Portuguese. Many of these "daughter" languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, and Romansh, flourished, the differences between them growing greater and more formal over time.

Out of the Romance languages, Italian is the purest descendant of Latin in terms of vocabulary, though Sardinian is the most conservative in terms of phonology.[citation needed]

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 and stress are no longer distinctive. Another major distinction between Romance and Latin is that all Romance languages, excluding Romanian, have lost their case endings in most words, except for some pronouns. Romanian exhibits a direct case (nominative/accusative), an indirect case (dative/genitive), and a vocative, but linguists have said that the case endings are a Balkan innovation.

There has also been a major Latin influence in English. English is Germanic in grammar, largely Romance in vocabulary, with Greek influence. Sixty percent of the English vocabulary has its roots in Latin[1] (although a large amount of this is indirect, mostly via 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, extrapolate, dormant and employer are all 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.


Latin is a synthetic, fusional language: affixes (often suffixes, which usually encode more than one grammatical category) are attached to fixed stems to express gender, number, and case in adjectives, nouns, and pronouns—a process called declension. Affixes are attached to fixed stems of verbs, as well, to denote person, number, tense, voice, mood, and aspect—a process called conjugation.


There are five Latin noun declensions. Almost every one is used when the noun is the direct object of the verb or object of certain prepositions, or to denote movement towards. Due to these declensions, word order is not as important in Latin as it is in other languages. With the declensions, words can be moved around in a sentence and the meaning will stay exactly the same, but of course the emphasis will have altered.

  1. Nominative: used when the noun is the subject of the sentence or phrase.
  2. Genitive: used when the noun is the possessor of an object (example: "the horse of the man", or "the man's horse"—in both of these cases, the word man would be in the genitive case when translated into Latin). Also indicates material of which something greater is made of (example: "a group of people"; "a number of gifts"—people and gifts would be in the genetive case). Some nouns are genitive with special verbs too.
  3. Dative: used when the noun is the indirect object of the sentence, with special verbs, with certain prepositions, and if used as agent, or reference.
  4. Accusative: used when the noun is the direct object of the sentence/phrase, with certain prepositions, or as the subject of indirect statement.
  5. Ablative: used when the noun demonstrates separation or movement from a source, cause, agent, or instrument, or when the noun is used as the object of certain prepositions; adverbial.
  6. Vocative: used when the noun is used in a direct address (usually of a person, but not always).


Verbs in Latin are usually identified by the four main conjugations—the groups of verbs with similar inflected forms. The first conjugation is typified by infinitive forms ending in -āre, the second by infinitives ending in -ēre, the third by infinitives ending in -ere, and the fourth by infinitives ending in -īre. However, there are a few key exceptions to these rules. There are six general tenses in Latin (present, imperfect, future, perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect), four grammatical moods (indicative, infinitive, imperative and subjunctive), six persons (first, second, and third, each in singular and plural), two voices (active and passive), and a few aspects. Verbs are described by four principal parts:

  1. The first principal part is the first person, singular, present tense, and it is the indicative mood form of the verb.
  2. The second principal part is the infinitive form of the verb.
  3. The third principal part is the first person, singular, perfect tense, active indicative mood form of the verb.
  4. The fourth principal part is the supine form, or alternatively, the participial form, nominative case, singular, perfect tense, passive voice participle form of the verb. The fourth principal part can show either one gender of the participle, or all three genders (-us for masculine, -a for feminine, and -um for neuter). It can also be the future participle when that verb cannot be made passive.

Instruction in Latin

File:Latin dictionary.jpg
A multi-volume Latin dictionary in the University Library of Graz

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, and speaking and listening skills are left inchoate.

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.

Institutions that offer Living Latin instruction include the Vatican and 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, The Lord of the Rings, Le Petit Prince, Max und Moritz, and The Cat in the Hat are intended to bolster interest in the language.

Modern use of Latin

File:Wallsend platfom 2 02.jpg
The signs at Wallsend Metro station are in English and Latin as a tribute to Wallsend's role as one of the outposts of the Roman empire

Today, Latin terminology is widely used, inter alia, in philosophy, medicine and law, in terms and abbreviations such as subpoena duces tecum and q.i.d. (quater in die: "four times a day"). The Latin terms are used in isolation, as technical terms.

Some films set in the Roman empire have been made with dialogue in Latin, such as Sebastiane and The Passion of the Christ.

The Pope delivers his written messages in Latin.

See also

Latin language

Latin culture

Historical periods



  1. 1.0 1.1 Frederic M. Wheelock, Latin (5th ed.), 1995.


  • Bennett, Charles E., Latin Grammar (Allyn and Bacon, Chicago, 1908)
  • N. Vincent: "Latin", in The Romance Languages, M. Harris and N. Vincent, eds., (Oxford Univ. Press. 1990), ISBN 0-19-520829-3
  • 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.
  • Wheelock, Frederic, Latin: An Introduction (Collins, 6th ed., 2005) ISBN 0-06-078423-7
  • Frank Palmer. Grammar

External links

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Contemporary usage

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