Myth: Latin Died a Long Time Ago

SD writes:

I presume you want an answer based on ‘raw’ knowledge, that is, without looking up on the internet. Latin has been a dead language for a long time. I think even during the Roman empire, classical Latin was a language that only the educated elite spoke, and even they probably spoke in their own dialects at home.

It really depends on where you want to draw the line between classical Latin and vulgar dialects, but classical Latin as we know it has not been spoken as a native language for at least 2000 years. I’m quite sure the language spoken in Roman marketplaces was quite different from what 19th century classics professors would present their obscure papers in.

This is a common myth, and like so many myths, it’s not even true.

but classical Latin as we know it has not been spoken as a native language for at least 2000 years.


Incredible as it sounds, Latin lived as a native language into the 20th Century! He was born in Budapest, Hungary about 100 years before, maybe in 1836 or thereabouts. He was born into a very upper class, elite family, possibly with connections to Royalty. His family actually spoke Latin and the principal language of the home! So he was raised speaking Latin. Latin was his first language, and while he did learn a couple of other languages, Hungarian and maybe German, but Latin was the language that he was always most comfortable in. He said that his situation was not unusual among the class that he was born into.

At that time, Latin was widely spoken at least as a 2nd language. In earlier post, I pointed out that Latin was actually the official language of the Croatian Parliament until 1846!

He later moved to the US where of course he become a Classics Professor who specialiazed in teaching Latin at one of America’s most elite universities, possibly Harvard or Yale.

He died in 1936. I found his obituary and I believe it said he died when he was around 100 years old.

Latin lived as a native language until the 1930’s!


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4 thoughts on “Myth: Latin Died a Long Time Ago”

  1. Dear Robert

    Some time ago, I studied Latin, on my own as I always do with languages, and my conclusions were that nothing in Latin is very hard to understand, but that it places a huger burden on one’s memory. For instance, for every noun you should know its gender and declension class, even for reading. The reason is that there is a lot of overlap with the endings. For instance, in amici the i can be a genitive singular or nominative plural because amicus belongs to the 2nd declension, but in regi the i is dative singular because rex is a noun of the 3rd declension. In vinum, the um can be nominative or accusative singular, but in regum the um is genitive plural because they belong to different declensions.

    Take this sentence: “Discordia in regiam immortalium deorum malum aureum iecit” = “Discordia threw a golden apple in the palace of the immortal gods”. Immortalium and deorum are genitive plural but malum and aureum are accusative singular. I could give you more examples. The endings of Latin nouns don’t allow the reader to recognize right away what role the noun or adjective is playing. You have to know the gender and declension class as well.

    Verbs are much easier because there is less overlap and more consistency. For instance, in all the active tenses, indicative as well as subjunctive, the 3rd person singular and the first, 2nd and 3rd person plural always end in respectively t, mus, tis and nt.

    Still, after not so much studying, I had acquired a basic reading ability in Latin. What deterrred me from pursuing the study was the style of the Roman authors. The word order of these guys is very convoluted. I don’t mean that their order is different from English, but that they divide noun phrases and other phrases as well. Take this sentence: “Belua multorum es capitum”, which literally translated means “Beast of many you are heads”. The es stands in the middle of a noun phrase. If they had written “Belua multorum capitum es”, then it would have been much easier.

    I really don’t think that the word order of written Latin in Roman times was a reflection of the word order of spoken Latin. The words and grammar may have been the same, but the differences in spoken and written syntax must have been vast.

    Regards. James

  2. The problem you describe of many declension cases looking alike is solved in advance if you learn to pronounce all the nouns with the right stress and the right vowel lengths, even Saint Augustine who wrote in a country (Maghreb-Numidia) where Latin was mostly a second language told of the problem : you have to learn first the vowel lengths by heart, if you don’t pick up the habit to spend the rest of your life just deciphering laboriously. In reality there are not five but up to fifteen vowels (long-short-muted short) in Latin, but they don’t show in the writing, quite like as regards Arabic where only the long ones show up. The -um termination of accusative supine “veni tibi dictum” doesn’t sound at all like the -um of second declension “istud dictum”. These different vowels also gave out very different results when they were passed into the romance languages, so its very worthwhile to learn them first and never to misread the accents (there were two, one of pitch and one of stress), in this way you never risk for instance confusing a neuter accusative plural in -a and a feminine ablative singular in -a.

    In classical times and even quite a long time after latin started turning into romance languages, word order was even more sloppier among the populace than among the literate, the great advantage of latin was that you did not need to organize your thoughts before speaking grandiosely and impressively, thanks to the declension system you could make sense with all the terms you had pitched in front of your co-citizen’s eyes only about the end of your sentence and most people just didn’t bother to finish them altogether as we can judge by the soldiers’ inscription. Even the declension cases were very approximately used by most, you spoke in an impressionistic way throwing touch after touch.

    Literate Latin was more coherent and analytical (though contrived and counter-intuitive) thanks to a long habituation of all educated speakers with Greek, a language having a much more articulate spirit and also a much more articulate syntax with articles and numerous other connectives together with a very coherent though most flexible way of ordering the whole, something altogether missing in Latin. Greek was appreciated for the general clarity of its expression, Latin rather for its very impressionistic way of speaking. The military and the judicial powers were most rigorous as regards the formation and the definition of terms (much more than in Greek, a very polysemic language), since in most cases very few words were sufficient to transmit an order, but once the orders were given and obeyed you had no mental energy left to make clear sentences, you spoke in a most leisurely way, concern for syntax and thought organization was perceived as emanating from Greek philosophy and typical only of persons who also knew Greek. Greek was the single one language of money, and of all realms of knowledge money coud buy, at the world market order level of that time. Latin fell apart as a language common to both commoners and learned right at the time Greek had ceased to be there as a background educating language as the Empire grew more and more divided.

    1. Dear Judith

      You sound like a person who really knows Latin. I never bothered much with pronunciation.

      Regards. James

    2. Dear Judith

      You sound like a person who really knows Latin. I never bothered much
      with pronunciation.

      Regards. James

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