Latin Language


Latin Language, language of ancient Rome and the neighboring territory of Latium. With the spread of Roman power Latin was carried to every part of the known ancient world and became the dominant tongue of western Europe. It was the language of scholarship and diplomacy until the 18th century and of the Roman Catholic liturgy until the late 20th century.

The Latin language was not native to Italy but was brought into the Italian Peninsula in prehistoric times by Italic peoples who migrated from the north. Latin is a member of the Italic subfamily of the Indo-European languages; among non-Italic Indo-European languages, it is related especially closely to Sanskrit and Greek and to the Germanic and Celtic subfamilies. In Italy, Latin was originally the dialect of the region around Rome. Within the Italic languages Latin, Faliscan, and other dialects formed a Latinian group distinct from other Italic languages, such as Oscan and Umbrian. Early Latinian inscriptions survive from the 6th century bc; the oldest texts clearly in Roman Latin date mostly from the 3rd century bc. Latin was influenced by Celtic dialects in northern Italy, by the non-Indo-European Etruscan language in central Italy, and by Greek, which was spoken in southern Italy as early as the 8th century bc. Under the influence of the Greek language and its literature, which was first translated into Latin in the second half of the 3rd century bc, Latin gradually developed into a great literary tongue.


The Latin literary language may be divided into four periods, corresponding in general to the periods of Latin literature.

The Early Period

(240-70 bc). This period includes the writings of Ennius, Plautus, and Terence.

The Golden Age

(70 bc-ad14). This period is famed for the prose works of Julius Caesar, Cicero, and Livy and for the poetry of Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. During this period, in both prose and poetry, the Latin language developed into a highly artistic medium of expression and attained its greatest richness and flexibility.

The Silver Age

(14-130). This period is characterized by a striving both for rhetorical elaboration and ornament and for concise and epigrammatic expression, the latter qualities being found especially in the works of the philosopher and dramatist Seneca and in those of the historian Tacitus.

The Late Latin Period

Extending from the 2nd century to the 6th century ad (circa 636), this period includes the Patristic Latin of the Fathers of the Church. During the Late Latin period invading barbarian tribes brought into the language numerous foreign forms and idioms; this corrupted Latin was termed the lingua Romana and was distinguished from the lingua Latina, the classical tongue cultivated by the learned.


The colloquial speech of cultured Romans appears in the works of various writers, notably in the comedies of Plautus and Terence, the letters of Cicero, the Satires and Epistles of Horace, and the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. It is characterized by freedom of syntax, by the presence of numerous interjections, and by the frequent use of Greek words. This colloquial speech of polite society (sermo cotidianus) is not to be confused with the sermo plebeius, the language of the uneducated classes, which shows a greater disregard for syntax, a love of new words, and a striving for simplicity, especially in word order. The sermo plebeius is known as Vulgar Latin, a term that sometimes includes the sermo cotidianus of the more educated Romans. The Romance languages developed not from the literary Latin language but from the sermo plebeius of the Late Latin period, when it was also known as lingua Romana. For instance, equus (“horse”) fell out of use, and caballus (“nag,””packhorse”) provided the Romance words for horse (cheval, caballo); similarly, the Romance word for head (tête, testa) comes not from Latin caput, but from a Latin slang word for head (testa), literally “pot.”


Latin was the language of letters in western Europe in the Middle Ages. The Latin of this period is termed Medieval Latin or Low Latin. Even for the people in general, Latin continued to be a living language, because the church provided a huge mass of ecclesiastical literature in both prose and poetry. The language, however, underwent many changes. The syntax was further simplified, new words were adopted from various sources, and new meanings came into existence; nevertheless, Latin changed far less during this period than did either French or English.


In the 15th and 16th centuries New Latin, also called Modern Latin, came into existence. The writers of the Renaissance produced a new and brilliant Latin literature that was closely imitative of Latin classical writers and especially of Cicero. Almost all books of importance, scientific, philosophical, and religious, were written in Latin at this time, including the works of the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the English philosopher Francis Bacon, and the English physicist Isaac Newton, and Latin was the medium of diplomatic intercourse among European nations. Not until the end of the 17th century did Latin cease to be an international tongue. During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it remained the language of classical scholarship, and even in the 20th century scholarly treatises are sometimes composed in Latin. The Roman Catholic church still uses Latin as the language of its official documents.

In the modern teaching of Latin, several methods of pronunciation have been accepted. The continental method is based on the pronunciation of modern European languages, the chief continental pronunciation today being that used by the Roman Catholic church, which favors a pronunciation similar to that of Italian. In the English method, Latin words are pronounced as in English, each syllable, however, being pronounced separately. The Roman method is a conjectural reconstruction of Latin pronunciation of the Ciceronian period. This method is in use in schools and colleges both in the U.S. and abroad. Proper names, however, when mentioned out of their Latin context, are still pronounced according to the principles governing the language of the particular country; thus, the pronunciation of the name Cicero would be in Germany Tsítsero, in Italy Chíchero, in Spain Thíthero, in France Sísero, in England Sísero.

Latin in antiquity has less flexibility and grace than Greek; its vocabulary was more limited, and it was less able to express abstract ideas. The Romans realized the limitations of their tongue and borrowed many words from the Greeks. Latin, rigorous in syntax and weighty in diction, has vigor and precision and has proved throughout the centuries an admirable vehicle for the expression of serious thought. Its survival has been twofold: Not only has literary Latin itself remained in use to the present time, but it also lives on in the Romance languages, which represent the modern evolution of Vulgar Latin; Italian, in particular, may be described as modern Latin (see Romance Languages). English has borrowed extensively from Latin, both directly, and indirectly through French. The Latin language is significant not only because of its literature, but also because a study of its development provides information on the history of language in general and specifically on the origin and development of several major languages of modern Europe.


A Selection of Latin Phrases
Phrase Meaning

ab ovo from the beginning
ad astra per aspera to the stars through difficulties
addendum something to be added, usually in writing, which qualifies a foregoing thesis or statement
ad infinitum to infinity, endlessly
ad nauseam to the point of disgust
animus will or intention
carpe diem “seize the day”; live for the present
casus belli justification for war, grounds for a dispute
caveat emptor “let the buyer beware”; dictum that professes the buyer is responsible for checking that the goods or services they purchase are satisfactory
cave canem beware of the dog
cogito, ergo sum “I think, therefore I am”; quotation from French philosopher René Descartes
cognomen surname or family name; nickname
compos mentis of sound mind
corrigendum something to be corrected
curriculum vitae (CV) “the course of life”; account of a person’s education and previous employment, attached to a job application
de facto in fact
de gustibus non est disputandum there is no accounting for taste
de jure according to law; legally
deus ex machina “a god from the machinery”; far-fetched or unlikely event that resolves an intractable difficulty
dramatis personae the characters in a play
emeritus someone who has retired from an official position but retains their title on an honorary basis, for example, a professor emeritus
ergo therefore; hence
erratum an error
et alia or et al. and other things
ex cathedra “from the throne”; term describing a statement by the pope, taken to be indisputably true, and which must be accepted by Catholics
ex libris “from among the books of”; used on bookplates to identify the owner
factotum “do everything”; someone employed to do all types of work
fiat “let it be done”; authoritative decree or order, especially one given by a person or group holding absolute power
in loco parentis “in place of a parent”; in a parental capacity
ipse dixit “(he) himself said (it)”; the master has spoken
in situ in place, on the spot, without moving from position
inter alia among other things
in vino veritas in wine (there is) the truth
ipso facto by that very fact
literati educated or cultured people; literary persons
magnum opus a great work of art or literature
mea culpa “my fault”; an admission of guilt
modus operandi a method of operating
modus vivendi “way of living”; a compromise between opposing points of view
mores the customs and manners of a society
mutatis mutandis with changes being made; with alterations to fit a new set of circumstances
ne plus ultra no further; the furthest point possible; limit
nil desperandum never despair
nolo contendere plea of no defense; no contest; equivalent to plea of guilty
non sequitur “it does not follow”; statement that has little or no relevance to the one that preceded it
obiter dictum incidental remark; remark made by a judge on a matter not within their jurisdiction
passim “in many places”; indicates that a reference occurs repeatedly throughout the work
per se in itself
postmortem “after death”; autopsy
post scriptum (PS) something written below the signature on a letter
prima facie at first sight
pro rata in proportion
pro tem (pore) for the time being
quantum “as much, how much”; an indivisible physical quantity
quidnunc “what now?”; gossip; busybody
quid pro quo “something for something”; an exchange of one thing in return for another
quod erat demonstrandum (QED) “which was to be proved”; added at the end of a geometry proof
quo vadis? where are you going?
abbreviation for quod vide
(“which see”), indicating a cross-reference
sic “thus,” “so”; sometimes found in brackets within a printed quotation to show that the original has been quoted accurately even though it contains an apparent error
sine die “without a day being appointed”; indefinitely
sine qua non “without which not”; absolutely essential
status quo “the state in which”; the current situation, without change
sub judice “under a judge”; of judicial proceedings, not yet decided by a court of law or judge: as long as a matter is sub judice all discussion is prohibited elsewhere
tabula rasa “scraped tablet” (from the Romans’ use of wax-covered tablets which could be written on with a pointed stick and cleared by smoothing over the surface); a mind without any preconceived ideas
tempus fugit time flies
terra firma dry land; solid ground
vade mecum “go with me”; a useful handbook carried about for reference
(abbreviation v. or vs.)
vice versa the other way around
viva voce “with living voice”; by word of mouth; an oral examination

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