Since the beginning of time, death has been a natural part of living. But, let’s get it right. Living is not only a human, animal, or plant affair — languages and words die too. However, unlike humans, animals, and plants, not all languages die. We learn if a language is dead or modern when we consider the evolution of its use amongst the people known with it.

One, who must die, shall live; one, who must live, shall die.

Like there are many words in one language, there are many languages in the world. From ancient times until today, people have used many different languages in their spoken and written forms and their variations. While some of these languages, examples including Tamil and Greek, are like the biblical Methuselah — interminable; others, like Nigeria’s Kpati and Teshenawa, have completely gone extinct.

A language like Latin sits between the two extremes, neither extinct nor modern, fallen a bit from favour and ceased to be native to any people but still in use in some quarters and has living speakers.

Read on why you should study Latin at this age.

Gutenberg Bible in the NYC Library.
The established Bible in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, The Vulgate, was written in Latin. Source: NYC Wanderer

Languages are considered to be an immaterial cultural element of groups of people. Without languages, civilisation would not have existed, humans would not have been able to think or collaborate or innovate or build the complex system that the world now boasts.

More so, if different groups of people speak dissimilar languages, communication would not have been possible beyond the basic community level. There would not have been relations, whether economic or social, among groups.

These illustrations underscore the primal importance of languages to existence and, even more importantly, the non-stop need for common languages that can unite people in their various exploits.

Latin was that language of integration across old western and southern Europe and some parts of Africa. If we consider this graceful tale of history, it is then not strange to have questions like:

  • So, what changed? And what did not about Latin?
  • Is there still anyone who speaks Latin every day?
  • How long more before Latin becomes extinct? Or can its use be revived?

Or you may even wonder why anyone would consider learning Latin today. Hang on and follow this pretty tour. Your tour guide? Superprof!

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A Dead Language Spoken by Living People

Ha-ha! You just read a paradox. You might have watched some fantasy-Adventure dramas, like Merlin, where some strange-language-speaking dead are resurrected for war allegiance. Make no mistake, identifying Latin as a dead language doesn’t mean that Latin is what those smoky skulls speak in those movies.

Latin is still very much spoken by living people. What then makes it a dead language? A dead language is one that has ceased to be used as a native language by any community. That is, it is spoken by a handful of people; however, it is no longer native to any modern community of people.

Latin was a popular lingo in ancient Europe. During the prime of Rome and the spread of its empire, Latin was dominantly in use in much of western and southern Europe and some parts of Africa.

At the beginning of its time, Latin was most widely used for literary and scholarly functions. Talk about law, poetry, philosophy, and even science. That is why you cannot study many of the modern courses without recourse to Latin terms and words.

In its later time, it found use in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. Its identification with the church also improved its use and repute. Since it was becoming useful in the Roman Catholic religion, a lot of people sought to learn how to speak it and read its text. In fact, the standard Bible in Western Europe at that time was written in Latin.

See an interesting guide to learning Latin.

The City of Rome
The Roman civilisation stretched the popularity of Latin far and beyond. Source: Unsplash

But, you need not consider Latin a strange case. Before it and after, many languages have also walked the dead path. If we start listing some languages of yore, they may just seem to you as some farcical words we coined. You don’t think so? Okay, we bet you have never heard of at least 3 out of the languages below:

  • Sumerian
  • Sanskrit
  • Akkadian
  • Coptic
  • Aka-Cari language

Well, if you knew at least 3 of the languages above before reading this article, you might as well be called Gandalf. The point is, as humans grow and improve their world, some languages may fall out of wide use and join the dead pack. But it is right to be curious: How then did this powerful language move from glory to becoming history?

Learn about the history of the Latin language.

How Latin Slowly Died

Remember that, originally, Latin was original spoken by the people of the lower Tiber River in an area called Latium, just some small groups of people who never dreamt of conquering the rest of Rome, let alone Europe or Africa. But as time went, little Latin rose in stature and spread across Italy.

With that,  Latin became a part of the Roman force and spread with the Roman Empire to many parts of Europe and Africa.

As the Roman Empire grew, Latin enjoyed great uses. It could even rival its predecessor, Greek, in use and popularity. However, that was only until the Western Roman Empire fell in the late 5th century. Although the death was not immediate, it was a slow painful death.

When Rome fell, its colonies were no longer obliged to use Latin. One after the other, each relegated the use of Latin for indigenous options.

Let’s look at the stages Latin passed before becoming dead.

Simplification: The journey to the land of the dead started when Latin reduced its classical grace and became simplified. The simplified language was called sermo vulgaris or 'common speech'. Today, it is broadly called Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin was common in speech and not text and it was the favourite of the common people.

Disintegration: After classical Latin was simplified, it became easy to turn them into variants. Although it took some years, by the ninth century, Latin further diverged and early Romance languages started springing. Today, Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian, and Portuguese are notable Romance languages from old Latin with Italian being the closest.

KIA: Yes, I know KIA means “Killed in Action”. Latin’s case was not so different. With the popularity of the Romance languages, classical Latin slowly died and fell out of use. It is surprising, however, that Greek which existed before Latin persists.

Letter written in Latin
During its reign, Latin was the official language of many public notices and Church texts in Europe.

Ancient Latin and Modern Romance Languages

Practically, Latin is dead. So, why do people still learn about it?

Truth is, Latin permeates modern civilisation. Years after its death, its presence can still be felt. Even if you study in English which is a West Germanic language, you will still feel the heavy presence of Latin.

Especially for university students who study philosophy, law, medicine, or other science courses, Latin words form the root of most of what they learn. Hence, being a Latin speaker makes the work easy.

Beyond its vibrant influence in academia, Latin continues to play an important role in Catholicism and form the foundation of modern-day Romance languages. The notable ones include:

  • Italian: Considered the official language of Italy, Italian is the closest of the Romance languages to Latin. Today, Italian is a major language in Europe with more than 65 million speakers across the globe. Unlike the English language, the standard Italian has only 21 alphabets excluding J, K, W, X, and Y.
  • Spanish: Spanish is another Romance language that has today become a global language. It is the official language of Spain and many other countries, and it finds great use in business. Interestingly, it is the second most spoken language in the world and the third most studied language, just behind English and French.
  • French: When you talk about a language with many homophones, you will be talking about French, another widely-used Romance language used in France and many other countries as an official language. French is many times referred to as Nigeria’s second official language because of Nigeria’s geographical status as a country bordered by many francophone countries.
  • Portuguese: Although not as popular as the first 3 above, Portuguese is another Romance language with millions of speakers. It is the official language of about 9 countries and has Brazil has its largest base of speakers. The language shares many similarities with Spanish and it is considered to be the fastest-growing European language after English.
  • Romanian: ROMANian, right? Yes, another popular Romance language and the only surviving one in Eastern Europe. It is the official language of Romania and it is a phonetic language with its words usually pronounced exactly as spelt.

Latin may be dead but learning to be its speaker can still be very beneficial. For instance, if you work in any of the fields hugely influenced by Latin, knowing Latin can be more than a springboard to greatly ease your work.

Knowing basic Latin can also help you become a good speaker of the Romance languages if you’re considering learning them. It is an ideal tool for intending polyglots. And if you enjoy classical literature and would love to have a taste of the purest breed of poetry and rhetoric, then, again, Latin is your plug. Vale!

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Muhammad

A Nigerian freelance SEO Writer-cum-Editor and 2019 Writing Fellow of ALWF who blends creativity with rich content to produce sterling copy — persuasive, informative, or expository. He loves nature and trains in Karate, and he loves to help others grow — individuals and brands.