The Last Native Speaker of Latin Died in 1938, only 80 Years Ago!

This man was a famous Professor of Latin at a prominent university such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or Cambridge. He was born ~90 years before into a “royalist” family in Budapest, Hungary and he was raised speaking Latin and I’m not sure what else as a first language. Both of his parents spoke Latin and Latin was the usual language of the home. He said that around 1850 in this part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Latin was still fairly widely spoken as a native language among this very wealthy elite cohort of people with royal blood. Perhaps they lived in castles, who knows? You may be able to find more on him in Wiki.

I know that ~1850, in Zagreb, Croatia, if you went into a bookstore, most of the books would be in German and Latin. Few people could read and write then, and Kaykavian was actually the official language of Croatia as official “Serbo-Croatian” – really Shtokavian – was not even created until decades hence by Vuk based on the Shtokavian dialect of Eastern Herzegovina. The academic journals in this part of the world, especially the former Yugoslavia, to this day often have Latin names.

Latin is the official language of the Vatican, but I think it is only used for writing. I’ve heard it’s not spoken. Also it is only learned as a second language there.

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2 thoughts on “The Last Native Speaker of Latin Died in 1938, only 80 Years Ago!”

  1. The official daily of the Vatican is L’Osservatore Romano. It is written in Italian. I knew a retired Latin teacher once. Whenever I asked her to translate simple English sentences like “I will do it tomorrow” or “I can’t come tonight because I’m sick”, she seemed to be stumped.

    It is one thing to know Latin grammar, which I know too, or to read Latin, and quite another to speak it. For literate people, language mastery has 4 components: reading, writing, speaking and listening. They don’t necessarily go together. I can read and write French, I can also speak a lot of it, but I can’t understand at least 3/4 of French Canadians. For literate speakers of a second language, the least developed skill is often oral understanding.

  2. I think that it is wrong to say that people like Vuk create a language. They standardize and enrich an existing language. For instance, Czech fell into disuse as a written language and stopped being a Kultursprache after the Thirty Years War, but it survived as a spoken language, with dialectical differentiation. Czech nationalists then standardized and enriched it.

    The most amazing transformation was of course in Hebrew, which went from a liturgical language which hardly anyone spoke to the official language of a modern country. Obviously, it must have been enriched immensely by devoted nationalists, but they didn’t create it.

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