Is Latin a dead language?
The Latin language was spoken throughout the Roman Empire. But no country speaks it officially now, at least not in its classic form. So, did Latin really fade away when the Roman Empire ceased to exist?
Rome was one of the greatest empires in the world, but gradually Rome’s hold on its colonies diminished until it completely lost control. Despite this, Latin remained the lingua franca in much of Europe for hundreds of years after this. The answer to the question of when Latin, the language of ancient Rome, died is complicated. There is no date in the annals of history to mark the end of Latin as a spoken language, and some would argue that is because it never really died.
The Vatican can still give masses in Latin, but hardly anyone in Italy uses Latin on a daily basis. Still, that doesn’t amount to the death of Latin, said Tim Pulju, a lecturer in linguistics and classics at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
Related: Why did Rome fall?
“Latin hasn’t really stopped being spoken,” Pulju told Live Science. “It continued to be spoken natively by people in Italy, Gaul, Spain and elsewhere, but like all living languages it has changed over time.”
Basically, the modifications to Latin were peculiar to the many different regions of the Old Roman Empire, and over time these differences developed to create entirely new but closely related languages. “They gradually added themselves over the centuries, so that eventually Latin developed into a variety of languages distinct from each other, and also distinct from classical Latin,” Pulju said. These new languages are what we now call Romance languages, which include French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish.
Such linguistic evolutions occur with every language. Take English, for example. “English has been spoken in England for over a millennium, but it has changed over time, as is evident if you compare present-day English to Elizabethan English, as seen in Shakespeare,” a said Pulju. “Elizabethan English, about four centuries ago, is still generally understandable to us, but Chaucer’s English from the 14th century is much less so. And ‘Beowulf’ English, from about l year 1000, is so different from modern English [it’s] not understandable to us today. But no one would say English is a dead language – it just changed very gradually over a long period of time.
The only difference between English and Latin is that Old English developed into modern English and modern English alone, while classical Latin diversified into a number of different languages. This is why people tend to think, perhaps wrongly, that Latin is an extinct language.
Languages can disappear, however; Sometimes the native speakers of a language all die, or over time their native language changes until there are finally no fluent speakers left.
This happened with the Etruscan language, originally spoken in modern Tuscany in Italy. “After the Romans conquered Etruria, successive generations of Etruscans continued to speak Etruscan for hundreds of years, but some Etruscans, naturally, learned Latin as a second language; moreover, from many children grew up bilingual in Etruscan and Latin, ”Pulju said. “Eventually, the social benefits of speaking Latin and having a Roman identity outweighed those of speaking and being Etruscan, so that over the generations fewer and fewer children learned the language. Etruscan.” The end result is that the Etruscan language is simply dead.
Dying languages are not an ancient phenomenon either. “This also happens to indigenous languages in many places around the world today,” Pulju said. the The Middle East is sort of a hotspot for dying languages, which can happen when society is stigmatized by speaking a non-fluent language, the language is not taught in schools, and more brutal measures are taken, such as ethnic cleansing and violence perpetrated against minorities. UNESCO estimates that at least half of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today will be extinct before the end of this century.
So when did Latin die? It doesn’t, it just evolved.
Originally posted on Live Science.