Is Latin a dead language?

At first, the question may appear absurd. No population alive today speaks Latin as its mother tongue, so the answer seems self-evident.

Yet in reality, the position is more complex than that.

Dead Versus Extinct

It’s important to grasp at the outset that there are conceptual differences between a language described as “dead” and one described as “extinct”.

The ‘conceptual’ reference there is because some scholars differ in their definitions in this area. Some even argue that terms such as ‘extinct’ or ‘dead’ don’t really have any meaning when what we should be talking about is a continuum oflanguage ranging from ‘active’ to ‘inactive’.

However, very broadly speaking, many experts would accept a general definition of:

  • Dead – a language that is no longer spoken by a group of people as their normal everyday mother tongue, though some individuals can still learn and speak the language if necessary. It is reasonably well defined in terms of reading, writing and pronunciation.

 

  • Extinct – this breaks down into two. The first are those languages which have largely been lost in time. Some texts may be readable but not fully while others may remain totally unintelligible. The second are those languages that cannot be spoken with any confidence, as they have been unused for an extended period of time.

 

An example of an extinct language would be Minoan Linear ‘A’. Significant amounts of writing in this language have been discovered in Crete and it dates back to around 1900-1700 BCE. It is currently un-deciphered and therefore cannot be spoken or read/written.

An example of a dead language might be Latin. Certainly it is not spoken by any group (this excludes perhaps individual family experiments to raise children with Latin as their native language) as a mother tongue. However, its grammar is perfectly understood and it can be written and read with ease by those who have studied it.

Although we have no source of an audible representation of classical Latin, it’s probably relatively safe to make certain assumptions about pronunciations from successor languages such as Italian, Romanian and Spanish.

Yet this perhaps begs the question – is Latin really dead?

The History and Distribution

The origin of the Latin language was a relatively small population in Latium – an area of Italy around where the city of Rome would eventually come to prominence.

It’s worth remembering that even at the height of the later Empire, significant parts of Italy probably were never home to native Latin speakers.  In large parts of southern Italy, Greek was the mother tongue of the cities and would remain so.  To the north, initially Etruscan was spoken and further north various Celtic languages would have been in common use.

Certainly Latin was the governing and administrative language of the Western Roman Empire. It spread across much of Western Europe and North Africa. However, Greek was the ‘lingua Franca’ of the Eastern Empire covering western parts of the Middle East and into the area of the Black Sea.

This distribution though is of only limited use as a tool for thinking about Latin as a living mother tongue.  All over the colonial world in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, English and French were very widely used for all official purposes and most educated and civil-service imperial administrators in countries such as Egypt (English) or Algeria (French) would have used them in their work.

However, the vast majority of the populations of such countries did not speak the languages very well if at all – and certainly not as their in-the-home tongue.  That position may have been very analogous to Latin in the classical period.

The Fall – and Latin Today

After the fall of the Empire in the West, Latin initially continued to play a powerful role across Europe and North Africa.

Trade and commerce, though much disrupted, continued, as did diplomacy of sorts. People needed to communicate and Latin was a tongue that filled the requirements given its previous geographic distribution.

As literacy fell and the old conventions of a centralised and urban state collapsed further into tribalism in the West, Latin increasingly became the preserve of the Roman Catholic Church and a very few scholars. Not only was it important in religious ritual but also as an ongoing tool for allowing rulers and traders to communicate.

However, its importance in daily life declined over centuries, as it was replaced by more modern languages. Even though some scientific works were still being written in Latin into the 18th and 19th centuries, this was increasingly seen as an anachronism. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, the use of Latin for the public main mass was prohibited in the 1960s, as it was felt to be irrelevant for everyday 20th century life.

Is Latin Dead?

Today, Latin remains the official language of the independent state of Vatican City in Rome.  In that environment, it is used not just for religious observance and tradition but also ‘sometimes’ as a practical day-to-day method of communicating between the multiple nationalities that live and work there.

It is unclear though just how much real official business and communication is conducted in Latin as opposed to Italian, French or increasingly English.   The fact that communiques may be issued in Latin isn’t, in itself, conclusive. It is now acknowledged that many of even the most senior Bishops and Cardinals cannot read or speak Latin well.

Latin is fairly widely studied as a second or tertiary language by students around the globe who are interested in studying the Romance languages of Europe (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian).  That’s because they have firm structural and grammatical roots in the language they evolved out of – Latin.

Figures vary widely but some estimate the number of people in the world who could hold a fluent conversation in Latin to be in the ‘small thousands’.

So, Latin is perhaps not ‘dead’ in the sense it is consigned to the historical record only. It is used in itself and it forms the basis of many modern languages but it couldn’t be described as a fully ‘living language’ either.

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