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More about Latin


Starting out

The Joy of History

Latin voices

Latin classes

Who were the classical Romans?

Ancient food

Aeneas, Augustus and Virgil

Ancient Romans and philosophy

Latin 'au'

Latin 'g'

A glossary of grammatical words

Classical Latin

Classical Latin spans the two centuries either side of the life of Christ, the first centuries BC and AD. The period starts with Cicero, a public speaker who enthralled his listeners with his clever invective and rhetorical flair. His speeches were written down and their elegant measured style became the model for later scholars and schoolboys. Caesar and Sallust and a little later Livy were similarly held up as examples of good classical Latin. The works of the first two chronicled events in their own time, while Livy’s started at the founding of Rome and ended in his day – though the contemporary and final part is lost.

The best known of the poets of this time is perhaps Virgil, whose epic story of the founding of Rome by the Trojan fugitive Aeneas emerged within a few years of publication as a political symbol and literary masterpiece. Horace, a friend of Virgil, is remembered most for his Odes, four books of lyric poetry drawing on themes of love and friendship, and a desire for homely contentment and rustic ease. The erotic elegies of Propertius and Tibullus echo Catullus’ earlier infatuation for Lesbia and foreshadow the work of Ovid, a decade or so later. Ovid’s wit and fresh invention brought new twists to the epic and elegiac genres, and his verse was imitated more than any other by medieval writers; partly, perhaps, because copies were available, but also because of his lightness of touch which won him many admirers and imitators.

More on this page:

Vulgar Latin

Latin and the Vulgate

Latin and the Renaissance

Latin and the Reformation

Ecclesiastical Latin

From Medieval Latin to a ‘dead’ language

The Sound of Latin

Latin and English

The next century (1st AD) added Martial and Juvenal, poets with a sharp wit, and the biographer Suetonius and the letter-writer Pliny, each pulling back the curtain on life around them, and the historian Tacitus whose pointed asides on the theme of moral and aristocratic degeneration enliven our view of Rome under the early emperors. Until relatively recently these later writers were branded by scholars as ‘Silver’ Latin writers, a sub- or post-classical group, while the ‘Golden’ Latin writers of the previous century were the ones students were encouraged to imitate. Since schools dropped the writing of Latin this distinction became unnecessary and all these writers are now described as ‘classical’.


Vulgar Latin

Romans no doubt swore profusely and used rude words with the best of them. But that is not what we mean by Vulgar Latin, even if it was not entirely untouched by a sense of dirty hands. ‘Vulgar’ Latin was the language spoken by all the people, in contrast to the literary (‘classical’) Latin which was written by the educated elite. That’s a very broad concept when you pool together all the different peoples speaking Latin in the different centuries. And we have very little direct knowledge of it, for spoken language has a brief lifespan. We know from various sources that the Latin which survives on the page, the Latin of Cicero and Virgil and the great writers, is a much more elaborate language than the spoken version. Case endings were often dropped, and words which figure in classical Latin were not used in the spoken form, or at least not in the same way. Take the word for a ‘horse’: in the spoken language the usual word was caballus. In literature it was equus.  Similarly a ‘head’ in classical Latin was caput (plural capita); in Vulgar Latin a ‘head’ was ‘testa’ (in classical Latin a ‘tile’ or ‘brick’ or ‘earthenware pot’).

Vulgar Latin mingled with local speech habits in the various corners of the Roman world, and after the empire fragmented it evolved directly into the Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Romanian too has strong Latin roots, and so too several dialects and sub-languages: Occitan in France, Catalan in Spain, Sardinian in Italy and Romansh in Switzerland. Many words in these languages have roots in Vulgar Latin: ‘Head’ in French is ‘tête’, in Italian ‘testa’. ‘Horse’ is ‘caballo’ in Spanish, ‘cavallo’ in Italian and ‘cheval’ in French.

English is not a direct descendant of this spoken Latin for it started life as a Germanic language and arrived in Britain with the Anglo-Saxons. However from 1066 onwards a stream of French words started to flow into English and many of these have Vulgar Latin roots: ‘cavalry’ and probably ‘cabbie’ can be traced via French to caballus. There were also many words from classical Latin that were deliberately adopted, like ‘equestrian’ from equus and ‘decapitate’ from caput, but most of these arrived later during the Renaissance.


Latin and the Vulgate

St Jerome’s translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin became known as the 'Vulgate'. Completed in the early 5th century the Vulgate was the first standard Bible to appear in western Europe and lasted in service for more or less a thousand years. (Latin title Versio Vulgata = The Standard Translation). Vulgata literally means something that has been ‘put about’, ‘spread abroad’, 'made broadly accessible', and hence ‘published’.


Latin and the Renaissance


“Away with him, away with him, he speaks Latin.”                                                                                 William Shakespeare

There have been moments in our past when a new technology has had a profound impact on our lives. Most recently it’s ‘googling’, which helps us discover just about anything we need to know without having to leave our chair. Before googling we had to put in some heavy research or employ detectives just to find a plumber. People will point to similar major moments – the engine, perhaps, or medicines. In the early 20th century there was the telephone. In the late 15th century it was the printing press.

This arrival of printing coincided with a major cultural event in Europe called the Renaissance. In fact, printing helped it happen. Literally a ‘rebirth’, the Renaissance was an artistic and literary rediscovery of the classical past, of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. The great writers of the past were copied, imitated, prized – and printed – more than ever before. These new books were incomparably more expensive and difficult to produce than the paperbacks we skim through daily, but they were a whole lot cheaper than the previous means of publication when each copy of each work was scratched out by a monk’s hand on costly parchment. Many more people started to read. Latin and Greek authors were translated into English and run off the presses. It wasn’t all classical material. There were romances, stories, poetry, early ‘how-to’ books, including a 16th century grammar of English – written in Latin.

The demand for the classics and the application of more rigorous classical norms in the writing of Latin killed off the spontaneous ‘deformed’ Latin of the medieval era and helped to push the language into its glass case. Still very much used by scholars, it soon became exclusive to them.


Latin and the Reformation

“Can there be anything more ridiculous than that a father should waste his own money and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language?”                                                                                                                                            John Locke

The Reformation was a parallel event to the Renaissance in the middle of the second millennium, though restricted to the northern countries of Europe. For a thousand years and more Christianity had been the principal religion of Europe and a political hierarchy grew up around it with a powerful figure at the top – the Pope. Throughout medieval times, kings and dukes and all the most important secular leaders conformed to papal authority. Fall out of line and you might be excommunicated, i.e. barred from taking communion, which today may not seem much of a deterrent to those not of the faith but in those days it lost you your subjects, your allies and your spiritual sanity. The medieval church is well remembered for its fat friars and martyred archbishops; it was also the centre of all publishing, learning and ‘clerical’ activity. Upset the church and you were losing the equivalent of all the TV, media and software barons in one throw. 

So monarchs who challenged the authority of Rome never did so lightly. Until the Reformation. Rulers especially in northern Europe woke up to the fact that, with the arrival of printing, monks scratching away in their monasteries were becoming surplus to requirement. The church’s importance to day-to-day life was slipping. The authority of the distant Vatican was questioned. There were new allies to be courted with the growing influence of merchants (the ‘middle class’). And those abbeys and churches glittered with wealth accumulated over centuries. The temptation was irresistible; and the justification for taking it in front of their eyes: here were churchmen piling high their coffers while paying lip service to Christian values. Finding a new home for all that loot would be a service to society.

If political opportunists were the sponsors of the Reformation, its footsoldiers were genuine believers, who were frustrated by the machinery of the church, its hypocrisy, and distractions from the principal source of belief, the Bible. The first major step of reformists was to translate the Latin Vulgate into their own vernacular languages, at great risk to themselves. Naturally, as the Reformation took hold, Medieval Latin was the loser. It remained the language of Catholic ritual until the 1960s; but Protestants – and later humanists – never forgot its association with the church of Rome. The Reformation combined with the Renaissance to sideline the church-orientated living language, while interest in the humanistic literature of pre-Church classical times kept Latin alive, if only just.


Ecclesiastical Latin (‘Ecclesia’ = ‘church’)

Latin was finally dropped from Catholic liturgy in the 1960s, ending an unbroken line of Latin from the Church’s earliest days, though hymns, prayers and chants are still sung in some churches. In the centuries before printing presses, churches were the centres of learning where books were copied and kept, and churchmen found pleasure in classical Latin literature; but the primary use of the language was to observe the ritual and get the Christian message across to the local brethren. Each region of the Christian domain will have had its own mix of Latin and local speech habits, evolving over many centuries. The pronunciation will have varied from country to country and priest to priest. In 1912 Pope Pius X, frustrated by the disparate sounds of Latin across Europe, encouraged the clergy everywhere to adopt what was then the Italian pronunciation of Latin. Hence ‘Yaysoos’, ‘bone-us’ and ‘chaylum’ for Jesus, bonus and caelum.


From Medieval Latin to a ‘dead’ language

After the fall of the Roman empire, the gap between spoken (Vulgar) and literary Latin widened. The Latin spoken in the kingdoms of fragmenting western Europe evolved under local influences into the Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. The literary language kept its Latin identity and survived for a thousand years in the churches and their schools. The liturgy and school texts were in Latin, they wrote and sang in Latin, and they joked in Latin. This language was a mixed bag, some was laboured, some light and impish, some echoed the beauty of ancient models. Medieval Latin is not recognised as a specific language or dialect, but a term we use to lump together the various threads of Latin spoken and written in the different parts of Europe. Classical authors were the secular inspiration and classical Latin the model style. But despite recurring attempts to pull the language back to classical norms, medieval Latin inevitably showed signs of the wear and tear of a living language and ‘failed’ to live up to its past. Forms and idioms were influenced by Vulgar Latin and by the vernacular languages, and the church added a number of new words and new meanings to classical ones. Medieval Latin was largely confined to the page: a derivative, secondary language, yes; but alive.

The Renaissance was to change that. What was, ironically, a ‘rebirth’ of interest in the classics was a strait-jacketing of the language in use, a suffocation of the living remains: classical models were adhered to more rigorously; schoolmasters became even more particular about what was and what was not acceptable Latin; the models were limited to Cicero, Caesar and, at a pinch, Livy. The living language with all its medieval foibles and imperfections was finally being laid to rest. The embalming of the classical language helped it on its way.

In the second half of the second millennium Latin enjoyed a productive afterlife in schools, where it was picked over and rigorously analysed, the stuff of mental gymnasia. A dead language is fixed for evermore and so prone to unchanging prescriptive rules and patterns. It’s worth remembering that Latin was once a living language, a shifting, evolving organism, subject to influences of region, of education and period, with the inconsistencies and variants you’d expect of a world language spoken by a myriad of different peoples.


The Sound of Latin

A recording of Cicero making a speech or Virgil reciting his poetry would be a fine thing. The best we can do twenty centuries later is tentatively reconstruct the sound of Latin, letter by letter, syllable by syllable, from various bits and pieces of evidence. Much is disputed, much open to interpretation. But we have to live with this, for no one can begin to appreciate a literature – which was written for recital – without some idea of its sound. Our reconstruction may be a somewhat incomplete jigsaw puzzle, but so too is that of Elizabethan English, and that hasn’t stopped production of Shakespeare’s plays. We would be hard put to identify just one correct pronunciation in any case. Latin was the first language of the empire of Rome, which lasted for over half a millennium, and stretched from the Crimea to Spain, Edinburgh to Egypt.

The clearest evidence we have is of the sound of the individual letters themselves. This evidence comes from ancient commentators who give detailed advice about certain sounds (that it was given at all can be taken as a symptom of variance if not change); other clues come from transliteration into and out of other languages (e.g. Greek ‘Kaisar’ for Caesar, and ‘Oualerios’ for Valerius); also from puns and plays on words, rhymes and assonance; and from the Romance languages, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, of which the more isolated and conservative dialects are especially interesting – the hard ‘c’ in centum (‘hundred’), for instance, in Sardinian ‘kentu’.

The 'g' is a letter we probably need to look at again. The evidence points towards a hard sound, as in ‘gap’, although I myself suspect that this did not occur in all uses. A softer sound in some words (not the ‘g’ in George but closer to the modern Greek ‘g’) is hard to resist: ego (I), which evolved in Spanish as ‘yo’ and in Italian as ‘io’, may well have been closer to a plain ‘y’ sound than hard ‘g’ – or something in between. Likewise for fugit (escapes), in which the hard ‘g’ makes an oddly stumbling sound for something so lightfooted. And it’s not all fanciful guesswork: magister (‘master’, ‘maître’ and ‘maestro’) crossed into German as ‘Meister’. Clues from the animal kingdom, whose noises are commonly onomatopoeic, remind us that snakes hiss, hens cluck, cats miaow and dogs woof: are we then to suppose that two thousand years ago cows said ‘moog’ (mugire)?

Many ‘g’s were no doubt hard, or harder: certainty is beyond us. It may have varied according to region, speaker, period, and most of all the word itself. Little is known about region or period, and even less about the characteristics of individual speakers, even the ones whose works we read, most of whom admired Greek so much that they tried to reproduce it in their own language, and this too may have influenced their pronunciation of Latin. The scope for divergence is inevitably broad. But this shouldn’t put us off; nor should it permit vagueness or the licence to read Latin simply as we please. What contemporaries and later writers wrote about the language, what has survived in inscriptions or graffiti, what can be deduced from transliteration into and out of Greek, and what evolved in Latin’s offspring languages, all these offer considerable help. And most of all, the metrical framework, rhythm and alliterative qualities of the poetry itself will lift us out of the darkness and show that the instruments might have changed but the music is alive and well.


Latin and English

Latin is not the ancestor of English, which is Germanic, but no language has been a more fruitful source of new words. Some of these words are still in their original form and have settled so well they have lost their ‘foreign’ feel, like circus, computer and virus. There are also quite a few Latin phrases which are widely used though retain an unEnglish look, e.g. status quo, ad nauseam, ad lib, vice versa, per annum, and also abbreviations, not least e.g. (exempli gratia  = by way of example), n.b. (nota bene = note well), and i.e. (id est = that is).

The majority of ex-Latin words in English were created afresh during the 16th and 17th centuries. This began as a natural process of absorption as Latin texts were translated ever more frequently into English in the course of the Renaissance, buoyed by the printing boom. It soon became a fad across Europe and before long was ridiculed by writers like Shakespeare and Molière. These ex-Latin words gave you an immediate ‘education’ or social polish: “I relinquish to fatigate your intelligence” wrote a poor fellow to someone he hoped to impress. This kind of self-aggrandisement is still with us today, and does Latin – the historical language – no favours. Academics who write dreary stuff like “contemporary linguistics validates the opinion” are among the worst offenders. Likewise politicians who have an “expectation of a conciliatory statement” and all around us professional people implement procedures and facilitate collaborative projects. People in authority constantly indulge in these little pomposities, drawing on Latinate language to boost their importance, or cover up an indiscretion: how much cleverer it is to be culpable than at fault or erroneous than wrong. Buzz words are coined all the time, especially in business, many with strong Latin roots (transformational vision, innovative governance) which with a favourable wind will pass out of the language as quickly as they arrived.

Thus when in 2008 some local government manager in the UK banned staff from using ex-Latin expressions ‘to aid comprehension’ I nearly fell off my chair. Of course he didn’t mean the bloated English words created from Latin, he meant those few phrases that still have a Latin look about them (ad hoc, e.g., etc.). People were likely to confuse e.g. with ‘egg’, apparently. Was he having a laugh? What is he going to do with his cigar, salary and pension – imported words no less 'foreign' than status quo?

It seems to me that English is at its most vital when expressed in the native shorter words of the old Anglo-Saxons. It’s a matter of finding the right balance. There’s no question that Latin has been a plentiful and valuable resource for English. For instance see how old Anglo-Saxon nouns now sit alongside adjectives which were created from Latin (e.g. kitchenculinary, housedomestic, dogcanine, sunsolar, nightnocturnal). And many ex-Latin words are not dull at all but crisp and colourful. You would not easily replace agile, splendid, fatuous, virile, judicious or devious. I once heard an Irish roadworker voicing his displeasure at bungling officialdom: “I tell you, I am irate,” he said. Angry wouldn’t have conveyed anything like the same sparkling rage.


© George Sharpley 2009

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