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Latin (lingua lătīna, ) is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. Through the Roman conquest, Latin spread throughout the Mediterraneanmarker and a large part of Europe. Romance languages such as Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish are descended from Latin, while many others, especially European languages, have inherited and acquired much of their vocabulary from it. It was the international language of science and scholarship in central and western Europe until the 17th century, when it was gradually replaced by vernacular language.


The Latin heritage has been delivered in these broad genres:
  • Inscriptions
  • Latin literature
  • Latin words and concepts in modern languages and scientific terminology
  • An extensive tradition of instruction in the Latin language, including grammars and dictionaries

Most inscriptions have been published in an internationally agreed upon, monumental, multi-volume series termed the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL). Authors and publishers vary but the format is approximately the same: volumes detailing inscriptions with a critical apparatus stating the provenience and relevant information. The reading and interpretation of these inscriptions is the subject matter of the field of epigraphy. In addition to the approximately 180,000 known inscriptions the works of several hundred ancient authors who wrote in Latin have survived in whole or in part, in substantial works or in fragments to be analyzed in philology. They are in part the subject matter of the field of classics. Their works were published in manuscript form before the invention of printing and now exist in carefully annotated printed editions, such as the Loeb Classical Library by Harvard University Press.

There has also been a major Latin influence in English. 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 and extrapolate are 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.

History of Latin

Latin has been divided into historical phases, each of which is distinguished by minor differences in vocabulary, usage, spelling, morphology and syntax. In addition to the historical phases, Ecclesiastical Latin refers to the styles used by the writers of the Roman Catholic Church in all historical phases from Late Latin on.

Old, early or archaic Latin

The earliest known is Old Latin, a phase of the early and middle Roman republic attested in inscriptions and the earliest surviving Latin works of literature.

Classical Latin

Old Latin was followed in the late republic and empire by Classical Latin, a conscious creation of the orators, poets, historians and other literate men, who wrote the great works of classical literature, and was taught in the schools of grammar and rhetoric. The concepts of today's instructional grammars originated in these schools, which served as a sort of informal language academy to maintain and perpetuate the classical language.

Late Latin

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, literary Latin survived as the lingua franca of educated classes in the West. The population of the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as Byzantine, used a form of Greek that evolved into modern Greek, even though the administration assumed names and titles that had come from Latin. The eastern empire survived until it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire.

Vulgar Latin

Philological analysis of Old Latin works, such as the plays of Plautus, which contain dialogue purporting to be the speech of the common people, indicates that contemporaneous with the literary and official language was a spoken language, which has from ancient times been called Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgi in Cicero), the language of the vulgus or "common people." Since the vulgus spoke — but did not write their language — it can only be known through words and phrases cited by classical authors or in inscriptions.

As vulgar Latin was not under the control or encouragement of the schools of rhetoric, there is no reason to expect any uniformity of speech either diachronically or geographically. Just the opposite must have been true: European populations learning Latin developed their own dialects of the language. This is the situation that prevailed when the Migration Period, ca. 300-700 AD, brought an end to the unity and peace of the Roman world and removed the stabilizing influence of its institutions on the language. A post-classical phase of Latin appeared, Late Latin, in which the spoken forms reappeared, and which is regionalized. Starting about the 5th or 6th centuries, Late Latin contains minor features that are germinal to the development of the Romance languages.

One of the tests as to whether a given Latin feature or usage was in the spoken language is to compare its reflex in a Romance language with the equivalent structure in classical Latin. If it appeared in the Romance language but was not preferred in classical Latin, then it passes the test as being vulgar Latin. For example, grammatical case in nouns is present in classical Latin but not in the Romance languages, excluding Romanian. One might conclude that case endings in regions other than Romania were already wholly or partly missing in the spoken language even while being insisted upon in the written. (Even in Romanian there are as many case endings for nouns as there are for pronouns in the other languages; cf. Romanian endings i, lor with the Italian pronouns gli, loro). Also, much of the vocabulary that went into the Romance languages came from Vulgar Latin rather than classical. The following examples follow the formula, classical Latin word/vulgar Latin word/French word: ignis/focus/feu, equus/caballus/cheval, loquor/parabolare/parler, pulcher/bellus/bel (or belle). In each case French does not use the classical Latin word. The words actually used: focus, caballus, etc., must have been in the Vulgar Latin vocabulary.

The expansion of the Roman Empire had spread Latin throughout Europe. Vulgar Latin began to diverge into various dialects and many of these into distinct Romance languages by the 9th century at very latest, when the earliest known writings appeared. The languages must already have been in place. These were, for many centuries, only oral languages, Latin still being used for writing. For example, Latin was still the official language of Portugal until 1296, when Portuguese replaced it. Portuguese had already developed and was in use under the umbrella of the vulgar language.

Medieval Latin

The term Mediaeval Latin refers to the written Latin in use during that portion of the post-classical period when no corresponding Latin vernacular existed. The spoken language had developed into the various incipient Romance Languages; however, in the educated and official world Latin continued without its spoken base. Moreover, this Latin spread into lands that had never spoken Latin, such as the Germanic and Slavic nations. It became useful as a means of international communication between the member states of the Holy Roman Empire and its allies.

Cut loose from its corrective spoken base and severed from the vanished institutions of the Roman empire that had supported its uniformity, mediaeval Latin lost the precise knowledge of correctness; for example, suus ("his/her own") and eius ("his/her") are used interchangeably, an error that would have been swiftly corrected in the schools of classical Rome. In classical Latin sum and eram are used as auxiliary verbs in the perfect and pluperfect passive, which are compound tenses. Mediaeval Latin might use fui and fueram instead. Furthermore the meanings of many words have changed and new vocabulary has been introduced from the vernacular.

While these minor changes are not enough to impair comprehension of the language, they introduce a certain flexibility not in it previously. The style of each individual author is characterized by his own uses of classically incorrect Latin to such a degree that he can be identified just by reading his Latin. In that sense mediaeval Latin is a collection of individual Latins united loosely by the main structures of the language. Some are more classical, others less so. As the majority of these writers were influential members of the Christian church: bishops, monks, philosophers, etc., the term Ecclesiastical Latin does not accurately apply; the majority were ecclesiastical by occupation but there was no uniform language of the church; that was a product of the Renaissance. Late Latin is sometimes classified as mediaeval, sometimes not. Certainly many of the individual Latins were influenced by the vernaculars of their authors.

Renaissance Latin

The Renaissance briefly reinforced the position of Latin as a spoken language, through its adoption by the Renaissance Humanists. Often led by members of the clergy, they were shocked by the accelerated dismantling of the vestiges of the classical world and the rapid loss of its literature. They strove to preserve what they could. It was they who introduced the practice of producing revised editions of the literary works that remained by comparing surviving manuscripts, and they who attempted to restore Latin to what it had been. They corrected mediaeval Latin out of existence no later than the 15th century and replaced it with more formally correct versions supported by the scholars of the rising universities, who attempted, through scholarship, to discover what the classical language had been.

Language characteristics

Throughout its entire history the Latin language retained the same major characteristics and is on that account classified as one language. These characteristics are reflected best in the classical Latin period and are introduced in this article rather than in the Classical Latin article.

Over its 2500-3000 year history the language varied considerably in minor ways. In general, a native speaker in one historical period understood the Latin of another only with difficulty or not at all. Persons educated in Latin, however, were able through study to broaden their horizons to two or more periods, an event that always commanded the respect of their peers. Queen Elizabeth I of England and her close relatives, for example, who received the best classical education from tutors hired for the purpose from Oxford Universitymarker, were respected at home and abroad for their command of Latin and ancient Greek. Elizabeth could when required slip easily from French or Spanish into Latin for the convenience of foreign dignitaries.


Pronounciation of Latin by the Romans in ancient times can be reconstructed from evidence in the modern Romance languages, transliteration to and from Greek, and the statements of ancient authors themselves.

Latin spelling seems to have been a fairly close representation of the pronunciation, but some distinctions did not show up in the spelling. In particular all vowels could be either long or short, the letter N before G, or X (and probably G before N) represented IPA /ŋ/ (like English ng in sing) and the letters I and V each functioned sometimes as a vowel and sometimes as a consonant. In modern texts, V is generally printed as U / u when a vowel and V / v when a consonant (although some editions use V for upper case and u for lower case). Less commonly, I is printed as I / i when a vowel and J / j when a consonant.

Most of the letters are pronounced the same as in English, but note the following:
  • c = /k/ (never "soft c")
  • g = /g/ (never "soft g")
  • t = /t/ (never as in English nation)
  • v (consonantal u) = /w/
  • j (consonantal i) = /j/ (like English y in you)
  • a = /a/ when short and /aː/ when long.
  • e = /ɛ/ (as in pet) when short and /eː/ (somewhat as in English they) when long.
  • i = /ɪ/ (as in pin) when short and /iː/ (as in machine) when long
  • o = /ɔ/ (as in British English got) when short and /oː/ (somewhat as in holy) when long.
  • u = /ʊ/ (as in put) when short and /uː/ (as in true) when long.


To write Latin, the Romans used the Latin alphabet, derived from the Old Italic alphabet, which itself was derived from the Greek alphabet. The Latin alphabet flourishes today as the writing system for the Romance, Celtic, Germanic (including English), and some Slavic (such as Polish) languages, among others.

The ancient Romans did not use punctuation; macrons (although they did use apices to distinguish between long and short vowels); the letters j, u or w; lowercase letters (although they did have a cursive script); or interword spacing (though dots were occasionally placed between words that would otherwise be difficult to distinguish). So, a sentence originally written as:


would be rendered in a modern edition as

Lugete, O Veneres Cupidinesque
or with macrons
Lūgēte, Ō Venerēs Cupīdinēsque.

and translated as

Mourn, O Venus and Cupids
The Roman cursive script is commonly found on the many wax tablets excavated at sites such as forts, an especially extensive set having been discovered at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wallmarker in Britainmarker. Curiously enough, most of the Vindolanda tablets show spaces between words, though spaces were avoided in monumental inscriptions from that era.


Latin is a synthetic, fusional language: affixes (often suffixes, which usually encode more than one grammatical category) are attached to fixed stem 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 six main Latin noun cases. These play a major part in determining a noun's syntactic role in the sentence, so word order is not as important in Latin as it is in some other languages, such as English. Because of noun cases, words can often be moved around in a sentence without significantly altering its meaning, though the emphasis will have been altered. The cases, with their most important uses, are these:
  1. Nominative: used when the noun is the subject of the sentence or phrase, or when functioning as a predicative of the subject. The thing or person acting (e.g., The girl ran. Puella cucurrit.)
  2. Genitive: used when the noun is the possessor of an object (e.g., "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 (e.g., "a group of people"; "a number of gifts"—people and gifts would be in the genitive case). Some nouns are genitive with special verbs and adjectives too. (e.g., The cup is full of wine. Poculum plenum 'vini est. The master of the slave' had beaten him. Dominus 'servi eum verberaverat.)
  3. Dative: used when the noun is the indirect object of the sentence, with special verbs, with certain prepositions, and if used as agent, reference, or even possessor. (e.g., The merchant hands over the stola to the woman. Mercator 'feminae stolam tradit.)
  4. Accusative: used when the noun is the direct object of the sentence/phrase, with certain prepositions, or as the subject of an infinitive. The thing or person having something done to them. (e.g., The slave woman carries the wine. Ancilla 'vinum portat.)
  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. The vocative form of a noun is the same as the nominative except for second declension nouns ending in -us. The -us becomes an -e or if it ends in -ius (such as filius) then the ending is just -i (fili) (as distinct from the plural nominative (filii). (e.g., "Master!" shouted the slave. "'Domine!" servus clamavit.)

There is also a seventh case, called the Locative case, used to indicate a location and services (corresponding to the English "in" or "at"). This is far less common than the other six cases of Latin nouns and usually applies to cities, small towns, and small islands, along with a few common nouns. In the first and second declension singular, its form coincides with the genitive (Roma becomes Romae, "in Rome"). In the plural, and in the other declensions, it coincides with the dative and ablative (Athenae becomes Athenis, "at Athens").

Latin lacks definite and indefinite articles; thus puer currit can mean either "the boy runs" or "a boy runs".


Verbs in Latin are usually identified by four main conjugations, groups of verbs with similarly inflected forms. The first conjugation is typified by active infinitive forms ending in -āre, the second by active infinitives ending in -ēre, the third by infinitives ending in -ere, and the fourth by active infinitives ending in -īre. However, there are exceptions to these rules. Further, there is a subset of the 3rd conjugation, the -iō verbs, which behave somewhat like the 4th conjugation. There are six general tense in Latin (present, imperfect, future, perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect), three grammatical moods (indicative, imperative and subjunctive, in addition to the infinitive, participle, gerund, gerundive and supine), three person (first, second, and third), two numbers (singular and plural), two voice (active and passive), and a few aspect. Verbs are described by four principal parts:
  1. The first principal part is the first person singular, present tense, indicative mood, active voice form of the verb (or passive voice for verbs lacking an active voice).
  2. The second principal part is the present infinitive active (or passive for verbs lacking an active) form.
  3. The third principal part is the first person singular, perfect indicative active (or passive when there is no active) form.
  4. The fourth principal part is the supine form, or alternatively, the nominative singular, perfect passive 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 the verb cannot be made passive.

Contemporary use

Latin lives in the form of Ecclesiastical Latin used for edicts and papal bulls issued by the Catholic Church, and in the form of a sparse sprinkling of scientific or social articles written in it, as well as in numerous Latin clubs. Latin vocabulary is used in science, academia, and law. Classical Latin is taught in many schools often combined with Greek in the study of Classics, though its role has diminished since the early 20th century. The Latin alphabet, together with its modern variants such as the English, Spanish and French alphabets, is the most widely used alphabet in the world. Terminology deriving from Latin words and concepts is widely used, among other fields, in philosophy, medicine, biology, and law, in terms and abbreviations such as subpoena duces tecum, q.i.d. (quater in die: "four times a day"), and inter alia (among other things). These Latin terms are used in isolation, as technical terms. In scientific names for organisms, Latin is typically the language of choice, followed by Greek.

The largest organization that still uses Latin in official and quasi-official contexts is the Roman Catholic Church (particularly in the Latin Rite). The Tridentine Mass uses Latin, although the Mass of Paul VI is usually said in the local vernacular language, it can be and often is said in Latin, particularly in the Vaticanmarker. Indeed, Latin is still the official standard language of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, and the Second Vatican Council merely authorized that the liturgical books be translated and optionally used in the vernacular languages. Latin is the official language of the Holy See and the Vatican City-Statemarker. The Vatican City is also home to the only ATM where instructions are given in Latin..

Some films of relevant ancient settings, such as Sebastiane and The Passion of the Christ, have been made with dialogue in Latin for purposes of realism. Occasionally, Latin dialogues are used because of its association with religion or philosophy, in such film/TV series as the Exorcist and Lost (Jughead). Subtitles are usually employed for the benefit of audiences who do not understand Latin. There are also songs written with Latin lyrics.

Many organizations today have Latin mottos, such as "Semper Paratus" (always ready), the motto of the United States Coast Guard, and "Semper fidelis" (always faithful), the motto of the United States Marine Corps. Several of the states of the United States also have Latin mottos, such as "Montani Semper Liberi" (Mountaineers are always free), the state motto of West Virginiamarker, and "Esse Quam Videri" (To be rather than to seem), that of North Carolinamarker.

Latin grammar has been taught in most Italian schools since the 18th century: for example, in the Liceo classico and Liceo scientifico, Latin is still one of the primary subjects. Latin is taught in many schools and universities around the world as well.

Instruction in Latin

The Living Latin movement attempts to teach Latin in the same way that modern living languages are taught, i.e., as a means of both spoken and written communication. Living Latin instruction is provided at the Vatican, and at some institutions in the U.S., such as the University of Kentuckymarker. In the United Kingdom, the Classical Association encourages this approach, and Latin language books describing the adventures of a mouse called Minimus have been published. In the United Statesmarker, 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 Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh, Olivia, Tintin, Asterix, Harry Potter, Le Petit Prince, Max und Moritz, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Cat in the Hat are intended to bolster interest in the language.


  1. Herman (2000), pp. 17-18.
  2. Herman (2000) p 8.
  3. Herman (2000), pp. 1-3.


See also



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