Commonly referred to as 'a language shaped by culture and spread by conquest', the Latin language was, at its prime, the bridge language of the American and European people. From Italy to Portugal, Spain to Argentina, Latin was the beautiful tongue of many works of literature and the dominant means of transnational communication in the World.
Tides have changed and so have times. The Latin language has ascended to join its dead ancestors — Akkadian, Sanskrit, Coptic, and Aramaic — as no community now speaks the Latin language as its native language. Nonetheless, Latin remains a classical abstract artefact that excites students and scholars of history across the world.
What does a dead language mean?
Beyond genealogy, languages can be categorised based on the popularity of their use and the currency of their use. If a language is so popular and widespread that different language communities in the world use it as a bridge language, then we say that the language is a world language.
Are you thinking that the English language is one? Yes, it is! On the flip side, if a language has lost its lustre and find no place to call home no more, the language is called a dead language. If you are thinking Latin here, again, you are correct.
However, a dead language should not be confused with an extinct language. While an extinct language refers to a language that is not spoken anywhere anymore, usually because its last speakers have all passed away, a dead language is one that is no longer used by any community as a native language, although there may be some few people who can still speak the language.
So, we can say that while Aka-Bo of the Andamanese has no living speaker, thus an extinct language; Latin still has a few living speakers, but it is no more the native language of any community, hence, it is a dead language.
What is more about this language of ancient Literature?
In some quarters, it is believed that Latin isn’t a dead language per se since it influenced a lot of popular modern languages. Like the saying of the Yoruba people of Nigeria:
When the fire dies, it leaves ashes as its heir.
The ashes of Latin can be found in modern-day French, Italian, Spanish, and even Romanian. These Latin-based languages are called Romance languages in recognition of their ties with Rome and Latin.
Although the English language is not one of the Romance languages, it did get its fair share of Latin influence, especially in its vocabulary. If you can read this article, then you must have come across several English words whose origin is Latin. Are you doubting that? Then, please consider the words below:
- Fame from Latin ‘fama’
- Villa from Latin ‘villa’
- Province from Latin ‘provincia’
- Acumen from Latin ‘acumen’ and ‘acuere’
- Obscure from Latin ‘obscura’
These are just a few examples. The spread of the Roman Empire and its civilisation during the classical period contributed to the widespread use of Latin at that time. Even when the Roman Empire started to fall and the domination of Rome waned, it took long before Latin completely lost its popularity. Although many European countries, erstwhile under the reign of the Roman Empire, started to create their own spoken and written languages to proclaim their new sovereignty, Latin still found use in other affairs.
If you would follow this article till the end, you would learn about the history of Latin as a classical language of the Italic tree, its period by period growth in Europe, America, and Africa, and its role in the development of the romance languages of today. Let’s get to it.
A Random Language by the River
Word has it that Latin was just a local dialect in its early days. Just as Nigeria has over 500 native languages used by different communities within her corners, Italy, at that time, had many dialects and Latin was just one of them. Latin sprang up in a multidialectal region in central-western Italy called Latium and soon became the dominant dialect in the region. But it was not done. As time passed, it overtook other dialects in neighbouring regions such as Sabines and Marsians, and later it swept through Etruscan, Celtic, and their mates, and finally settled as the main language of use in the whole of Italy.
While it is clear that Latin influenced many modern languages, it should be known that Latin itself got a lot of contributions from Greek. Both languages are like siblings of the same parents, the Indo-European language family, but Greek was the older one. And while Greek was the choice language of the highly-educated elites of then Rome, Latin was the favourite for legal affairs and administrative writings.
The story of the Latin language is usually told in three chapters.
Foremost, the time of the old or archaic Latin, which describes Latin before 75 BC, the time of its humble beginnings. In its early time, Latin was only spoken and used by some small groups of people who lived along the Italian second-longest river, the Tiber River.
Soon, it outgrew neighbouring languages and prided itself as the popular tongue of the Western people. How did that happen? After its deep popularity in Italy, Latin became the Roman war souvenir and spread with the conquests of communities and the acquisition of territories by the Roman Empire.
It spread from Europe to America and even Africa. Its influence in trade, communication, arts, and many other fields became profound, such that even in death, the Latin language still has its shadow in medicine, philosophy, law, and even religion.
Beyond these, the deep influence of the Latin language can also be seen in how much rub off it has on the English language, as well as, the modern romance languages, such as French, Spanish, and Italian. It is neither strange to find Latin-sourced words in many popular languages of today nor is it abnormal to say that many building blocks of reputed old professions are steeped in the Latin blood.
The Period of Classical Latin
This is more like the most celebrated form of Latin — Classical Latin. It consisted of polished written figurative uses as can be found in early literature and old works of art. Its popularity spanned the latter half of the first century BC until around 400 AD.
For many historians, this form of Latin language is recognised as the proper Latin and the standard language for literature. Even today, when we refer to Latin, the general belief is that the classical form is being alluded to.
Classical Latin witnessed about two periods: the Golden Age and the Silver Age.
The Golden Age of Latin Literature
This period is marked by distinctive pristine writing and skilful use of Latin in Arts. It is considered the period when Latin literature reached its zenith in use, the perfection of form, and styles. The period produced celebrated writers who went on to become models for later writers that came. Such writers include:
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
- Julius Caesar
- Marcus Terentius Varro
- Quintus Cornificius
The Silver Age of Latin Literature
Known as the period of literary greatness and achievements only second to the Golden Age, the Silver Age recorded more poetic styles and a great variety of literary forms than its predecessor.
Most notable is the emergence of satire. Owing to the dangerous consequences of speech making under the reign of Roman Pharaohs like Caligula and Nero, rhetoricians resorted to written literature and satire became a popular form
The following are notable names during the Silver Age of Latin Literature.
- Marcus Manilius
- Gaius Petronius
- Silius Italicus
The Different Later Forms of Latin
This word describes non-literary everyday Latin spoken from the start of the classical Latin period onwards. At those times, when literary speeches were the culture, Latin words and expressions that were considered literal and plain are put under the vulgar class.
Vulgar Latin was used mostly for petty dealing and it was common among Romans at the tail end of the social ladder.
Vulgar Latin consists of colloquial words and vernacular dialects. It is believed that Vulgar Latin was the precursor to the Romance languages, including Spanish, French, and Italian, that can, today, be found in many European countries.
With Vulgar Latin, the complexity and richness that characterised the earlier forms were greatly toned down for more popular options.
The Middle Age saw another important use of the Latin language. After the fall of Rome as an empire, Latin was still being used as a popular means of communication in many European states and America. How? Latin became the language of the Church.
The language wore a new robe and became recognised as one of the three sacred languages, the others being Greek and Hebrew.
Unlike now that the English language is considered the favourite, church services, business, and activities were, at that time, conducted in Latin. Even the Bible adopted in Western Europe, at that time, was a Latin translation produced by St. Jerome.
Another reason for the continued relevance of Latin in the medieval time was its prime role in education, especially Literature.
Latin might not have had the most musical syllables or the easiest vowels, but the contributions of Latin classicists and their works remained authoritative in literature and education. More so, the influence of the language in medicine, philosophy, and even law, could not be easily discarded.
With its long and diverse history, Latin now finds comfort in its fruits, the Romance languages. It is one language that has its fingers in many pies.
From religion to law, literature to medicine, its contributions abound in many modern fields and its legacies lie in books for people to learn.
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