Wednesday 12 August 2009

On living Latin

A correspondent writes to ask if Latin is a dead language or not. She goes on: 'Obviously there are no native Latin speakers born any more, but on the other hand there are a number of people who can speak it, or at least understand it...'

The distinction between life and death can be a bit fuzzy, when applied to language. The essential difference is that living languages change, dead ones don't. Just because I study a dead language and get to understand it, or even speak it aloud, does not make it come alive, in that sense. It would come alive only when speakers use it in interaction and adapt it to meet their current needs. Several dead languages (in the sense that their last native speaker died some time ago) have been resurrected in that way, as with Kaurna in Australia. Sometimes there is a tradition linking the present with the past, as with Cornish. But the crucial thing, to say that a language is alive, is to find it changing and growing - new vocabulary, in particular, to express present-day notions, and new variant forms (accents, dialects), to express different identities. Latin is alive in that sense. The 'most alive' languages have native speakers and transmit from parent to child between generations. Latin is plainly not alive in that sense.

Latin is an interesting case, therefore. Many people study it as a dead language, as a way in to an ancient literature and history. On the other hand, it still has live status as a language of real interaction in the Roman Catholic church. The Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis came out a few years ago - over 700 pages of modern vocabulary. I have ingenious translations of Winnie the Pooh, Peanuts, and other texts, so plainly many people are actively concerned with revitalization. How much use is actually being made of the language is unclear, but it certainly suggests there's life in the old language yet.

Anyone interested in the history of Latin as a language should read Nicholas Ostler excellent Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin.


vp said...

There's also the Latin Wikipedia -- or Vicipaedia:

Bill Chapman said...

It's interesting (for me at least) to compare the situations of Latin and Esperanto.

You write, "The 'most alive' languages have native speakers and transmit from parent to child between generations." Esperanto has a small number of native speakers (I know one in Cardiff!), but most people who speak the language have opted in to the speech community voluntarily. The same, I think, is true of Cornish and Manx.

I would certainly count Esperanto as 'alive' in that it produces "new vocabulary, in particular, to express present-day notions, and new variant forms...".

Danny Vincent said...

There is site encouraging users to create their own social groups of Latin speakers, some that meet regularly: This is the initiative of Evan Millner, one of the creators of the Latinum podcast course ( who is hoping to see an increase in Latin speakers - he suggested that there are about 100 fluent Latin speakers in the world today.

The Bent Branch said...

For most of European History educated people were diglott in their vernacular, and Latin. The education system, set up across the Roman Empire, remained in Latin until the mid 1700's. University lectures across Europe were in Latin, facilitating academic exchange. In some areas with minority languages, Latin held sway until the mid 1800's. In areas such as mathematics and biology, texts and monographs were still being published in Latin, until the early 1900's in some cases.
Although people were not learning Latin literally at their mother's knee, there has been an unbroken chain of Latin speakers, from Roman times, to the present, who have transmitted the language. There still remain speakers, and as Danny points out, there are now resources available to help people become speakers, such as the Latinum course, or the Schola Latina Universalis. Latin has been coining new words all the way along - it did so in Mediaeval times, and during the Renaissance. The bulk of european literature was written in Latin - this is largely invisible to us now, as these works remain untranslated. For example, one of the greatest English poets who ever lived, Buchanan, wrote his corpus in Latin. Modern users of the language are also involved in generating new vocabulary. You can find an online community of users of Latin at where there is an active chatroom.
It is only in comparatively recent times that Latin has experienced a dramatic drop in speaker numbers. The rise of the Nation State, and the focus on National languages, spelled the death of Latin as a stateless international language. However, Latin did not die - it was a conceit of the French, trying to displace Latin, that lead to that conceit.

Anonymous said...

and there is the YLE (Finnish Broadcasting Company) Nuntii Latini broadcast weekly.

Interesting to hear Latin in a Finnish accent.