- 1 What writing system(s) does this language use?
- 2 How many people speak this language?
- 3 What is the history of this language?
- 4 Some famous people who spoke this language
- 5 What are some basic words in this language that I can learn?
- 6 What is a simple song/poem/story that I can learn in this language?
What writing system(s) does this language use?
Latin was the language of an ancient people called the Romans, and Latin is still used within the Catholic Church.
The Romans used the same alphabet we use today in most of Europe. We call it the Latin Alphabet. Historians think this is how the Latin alphabet came into being: People living in Phoenicia on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea had developed an alphabet. The Greeks took to using it, with changes, and since the Greeks were seafarers the alphabet spread. The Etruscan people of north west Italy adopted it and the Romans learned it from them, changing it so it was suitable for writing their language, Latin.
In Roman times only capital letters had been invented, so everything was written in capitals. Words were sometimes run together; sometimes there were spaces or dots between words. Those dots were the only punctuation marks. It must have been hard to pick out where sentences began and ended.
Later, at a time when Rome's power was fading, people took to writing in a new style, one in which the letters were more rounded. For centuries the two styles existed as individual styles. The few people who did any writing, mostly monks copying out the scriptures, used either one style or the other. Then, at the court of King Charles the Great, scribes combined the two, inventing our modern way of using capitals and lowercase letters together.
Monks also invented letters. The Romans used I for both the long "ee" found in the English word "see" and the "y" sound in the English word "yacht". It is not as strange as you might think to use the same letter for both sounds because if you say "ee" then "ah", "oh" or "oo" you will find your "ee" turns into a "y" sound. The monks must have thought it would make their Latin easier to read if they had a special letter for the "y" sound so they added a tail to the letter I making J.
The Romans used the letter V for the sound "oo" in the English word "look" but they also used it for a sound that was like either th English "w" or the English "v". Nobody knows for sure. The monks invented the letter U by rounding the bottom of V and they invented the letter W by putting two V's together.
So what did Latin look like in Roman times? Here is how the name Julius Caesar would have been written: IVLIVS CÆSAR.
Romans wrote on paper made from papyrus, a sort of reed. The reeds were mashed into pulp then the pulp was shaped into long thin sheets and dried in the sun. Their ink was made from a mixture of soot, vinegar and a little gum. Roman books were long rolls of papyrus paper, called scrolls, that the Romans had to unroll as they read.
For jotting down notes Romans used little wooden tablets with a layer of wax on one side. They would scratch what they wanted into the wax using a sharp little stick. Later they would smooth the surface of the wax erasing what they had written.
How many people speak this language?
Nowadays nobody learns Latin as their mother tongue, as we call the first language people learn to speak when they are a small child. Latin is a "dead language". Nevertheless, many people learn some Latin at school or college and some young people even attend conventions where they can try talking to other people in Latin. (By the way, we get the word "convention" from the Latin "conventiculum", meaning "a little gathering".) Although it is possible for people who have learned Latin to speak it, it is considered an unusual thing to do, because in most Latin classes students do written work all the time, in contrast to what happens in classes where students are learning to speak modern languages.
People consider Latin difficult to learn because Latin words change their endings according to their role in the sentence, so there is a lot to memorise. In English the order that the words are in tells us the role of each word, but Latin is entirely different. In fact, you can put Latin words in almost any order you like, and people will grasp the meaning because of the endings on the words.
Latin and the language of the ancient Greeks are together known as "the classics" and some students take both at college. A scholar who makes Latin and Ancient Greek his or her special subjects of study is known as a "classicist".
Archeologists sometimes dig up things with Latin words on them that have been lying underground since ancient times and people who know Latin are needed to translate the writing.
Linguists are people who study languages. Some linguists learn to speak one or two foreign languages really well. Other linguists choose to study many languages, seeing in what ways they are similar and in what ways different, and trying to understand how they came to be the way they are. Such linguists need to know Latin as in nearly all modern European languages there are many words that have come from Latin words.
Lawyers have to learn some Latin phrases. For example, they are expected to know the saying "Audi alterem partem" which is a saying that reminds judges to hear both sides in any case before them. (Word for word the Latin words say "Hear the other side".)
Many Latin words and phrases are used in medicine and science. Scientists still use Latin, along with Greek, to name new discoveries such as new species of plants and animals.
Until recently it was the custom in Britain and other English-speaking countries to give Latin a pronunciation that was different from its pronunciation anywhere else. At school boys were taught that they should pronounce the letters A, E, I, O and U like their names as letters of the alphabet, and that they should pronounce AE like the "ee" in "free" and pronounce C as an "s". Then, about a hundred years ago, teachers changed over to teaching their pupils to pronounce Latin words the way scholars were insisting the Romans had done. There is a novel you might read called Goodbye, Mr Chips by James Hilton. It is about a Latin teacher, and he doesn't like the change!
Medical and scientific words are pronounced in the old fashioned way. So are the signs of the zodiac -- for example, Pisces, the sign of the fish, is pronounced "pie" (as in pie) then "sees". (The Romans would have said "peeskes".) If you take Latin at high school/secondary school then go on to study medicine you will become very aware of just how many medical words have come from Latin words. When you start your medical training you will have to remind yourself from time to time about how the medical words must be pronounced -- otherwise it will be as if you are a Roman girl or boy who has just arrived in a time capsule from two thousand years ago!
Where is this language spoken?
The official language of the Vatican City is Latin (though most of the time it is Italian that is spoken there). The Vatican City is situated in the middle of the city of Rome. Though it is small, it is actually an independent, or, as we say, "sovereign", country. The Catholic Church has its headquarters there and runs the little country. The Pope (who is the head of the Catholic Church) and his bishops use Latin to make important announcements. Catholic priests learn Latin as part of their training for the priesthood and sometimes, when priests who do not speak each other's native language meet, they use Latin to converse.
For centuries Latin has been has been kept alive by being used in the Catholic Church, but the way Latin is pronounced within the Church is not quite the way that we think the Romans pronounced it, at least not at the time of the Emperor Augustus. Latin as it was spoken in Augustus's Rome is now called "Classical Latin". In Church Latin some letters are pronounced as they are pronounced in Italian.
If you take a Latin course in school how you'll pronounce Latin words depends on your school. Most schools teach the classical pronunciation but if you go to a Catholic school you'll be taught the Catholic Church's pronunciation. Where ever you learn your Latin, if you sing Latin hymns in church you will have to use the Church pronunciation like the other singers -- or they won't be pleased!
What is the history of this language?
Two thousand years ago, Latin was spoken throughout the Roman Empire, which extended at its height from Portugal (which the Romans called Lusitania) to Iraq and from Britain (known as Britannia) to North Africa.
Historians think the people whose descendants were the Romans moved down into what is now Italy about 800 years B.C.E. ( B.C.E. means Before the Common Era. You may prefer to write B.C., which means Before Christ, as Jesus was born at the start of the Common Era.) These people settled in an area called Latium on the banks of the River Tiber. The name they later gave their language, Latin, comes from Latium.
To the north of Latium was Etruria where the Etruscans lived. Historians believe their language was very, very different from Latin because they were descendents of people who lived in a different part of the world from the ancestors of the Romans. Some Etruscan words became part of Latin. This always happens with languages. We talk about languages "borrowing" words from other languages. Latin also borrowed words from the Celtic peoples in the neighbourhood and from the colonies of seafaring Greeks to the south.
By the first century B.C.E. Rome had become powerful and rich. The people at the top of society were wealthy enough to build elegant houses, to have statues and other works of art made, to buy slaves who were good musicians, and to buy books. (All books were expensive as the only way to make them was to copy them out by hand.) Latin literature (that is, writings) flourished.
Later, looking back to this time, people took to calling it the "Golden Age" of Latin writings. They thought of this special time as lasting from around the middle of the first century B.C.E to around the middle of the first century C.E., about a hundred years. By calling this time "golden" people meant that what had been written during this time was very valuable. They called the next hundred years or so following the Golden Age the "Silver Age". By calling the time that followed the Golden Age "silver" they were saying that what was written then was almost, but not quite, as valuable, just as silver is not quite as valuable as gold.
Roman sculptors, musicians and poets learnt a lot from the Greeks. Rome had conquered Greece but Romans admired many things about Greece. Well-educated Romans spoke Greek. If you were a child in a wealthy family you might have your own Greek slave to teach you Greek.
Wealthy Roman parents also made sure their children spoke Latin in the way that was considered correct by upper class people. Boys (but not girls) were sent to school to be taught the complicated grammar of Latin. Ordinary people, of course, spoke Latin in their own way, using local words and slang and making what was seen by some strict, disapproving folk as mistakes in grammar. In that way people acted just as people do today.
The Latin spoken by the well-to-do during the Golden Age and the Silver Age is called "Classical Latin". All languages change over time. Ask your grandparents, if you get the chance, about changes they have seen during their lifetime. By about 200 C.E. (200 years after the birth of Jesus -- C.E. means Common Era) Latin had changed so much that scholars do not think of the Latin of that time as Classical Latin. Latin went on and on changing as languages do. Some words stopped being used as people found new words and took to using them instead. Grammar changed. Differences in how Latin-speaking people spoke Latin in different parts of the Roman Empire became greater. In time people changed the way they pronounced their words; for example, in Italy people at some time started pronouncing the letters CI as "chee" instead of "kee".
The civil servants who ran the empire and the army officers went on using Latin for their paperwork, but historians think that in Rome and other cities in the Empire the people who were upper-class and well-educated had taken to speaking Greek among themselves. This they did because they thought highly of the Greek poets and thinkers whose books they read and wanted to be like them. Ordinary people spoke the new versions of Latin. Scholars call this Latin "Vulgar Latin", which sounds insulting to the people who spoke it but in fact by "Vulgar Latin" scholars just mean "the commonly-used Latin".
During the Golden Age and the Silver Age rich Romans had encouraged poets to write by buying copies of their Latin poems, but, when it became the fashion for well-educated Romans to ignore the Latin language, poets must have felt nobody would care to buy and read Latin verse. Almost all the Latin writings that have survived to our time are in Classical Latin. It is possible that some good poems were written in Vulgar Latin that have not survived. We can never know. We are lucky that over the centuries enough people have cared about the great Roman writers to make copies of what they wrote and to keep them safe.
Eventually a Roman emperor, Diocletian, decided the Roman Empire was too large for one man to rule and split it into a western half and an eastern half, with an emperor in each. In the east civil servants used Greek for their paperwork but in the west it was still Latin that civil servants used.
The western half of the Roman Empire was soon in trouble. Beyond its borders there had always lived people the Romans called "barbarians". These were people who had not been conquered and taught to live in the way that the Romans lived. The very word that the Romans used, "barbarian", referred to the fact that the outsiders had beards while the tradition was for Romans to be clean shaven. (The Latin word for "beard" is "barba".) A new barbarian tribe, the Huns, arrived in Europe. The Huns were so fierce they forced the other barbarian tribes over the border into the western half of the empire, which was no longer strong enough to cope. They overran its lands. In 410 C.E. barbarians were even able to break through the city of Rome's defences and kill and rob the people who lived there. That was the end of the Roman Empire in the west, but there was still the Church which kept Latin alive by using it in services and scripture.
Meanwhile the people living in the various parts of what had been the western half of the Roman Empire were using ways of speech that were less and less like each other's as they were joined by tribes of invaders, each with their own native language. Separate languages were starting to form. In time these became Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French. We call these languages the "romance languages" because they have grown from the language of the Romans.
(You may think "romance languages" is a misleading name for these languages because most people, when they hear the word "romance", think of stories about a handsome boy meeting a pretty girl and falling in love. Such tales are called "romances" because a few centuries later they became fashionable among courtly ladies and gentlemen in regions such as the south of France where the people still thought of themselves as speaking a language that was like the language of the Romans.)
Romanian is also a romance language. You might think that surprising if you look in an atlas and see that Romania is far to the east, to the north of Greece, while the other romance languages are spoken in western Europe. The Emperor Trajan conquered Dacia, as the Romans called the region that is now Romania. He followed the usual custom of making those local people who had fought against him slaves and taking them away from their homes, while giving their land to retired Roman soldiers to farm. Dacia was part of the empire for less than two hundred years, but so many Latin speakers moved there that Latin was still the language people spoke after the Roman Emperors ceased trying to hold onto the region. In time their way of speech became the modern language known as Romanian.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, priests and monks and nuns were for centuries almost the only people who could read and write. The books they used were in Latin.
In time universities were founded. Students were taught in Latin and all scholars throughout western Europe wrote their books in Latin. It is only two hundred years or so ago that lecturers at universities stopped giving their lectures in Latin. Imagine how difficult you would have found it to learn your subject, perhaps philosophy or mathematics or law or medicine, while struggling with Latin. There was one good thing to be said for it though: scholars throughout most of Europe could understand each other. Scientists use German a bit like that nowadays. Many accounts of scientific experiments are written in German and some scientists learn German just so as to be able to read them.
Some famous people who spoke this language
- Julius Caesar — Julius Caesar was a famous military general who later wrote down accounts of all of his battles in his book Gallic Wars which he published for Romans to read. Julius Caesar was trying to become more powerful than anyone else in Rome and probably hoped his book would impress people as to how he had added to Rome's wealth by conquering foreign peoples, bringing some of them as slaves to Rome. Fearing how ambitious he was, a group of Romans stabbed Julius Caesar to death. They failed in their attempt to prevent Rome from being ruled by one man -- seventeen years later the great nephew of Julius Ceasar, Octavianus, later known as Augustus or Caesar Augustus, made himself the first Roman Emperor.
- Cicero -- Cicero was a lawyer and politician who became well known for his speeches. Roman boys were taught the skill of public speaking at school because it was considered so important by upper-class families. Cicero, who was a great believer in republican government, lived in the unsettled times when powerful men -- Julius Caesar and others -- were fighting amongst themselves. He made an enemy of one of them, Mark Anthony, and was put to death by soldiers when trying to escape from Italy.
- Virgil — Virgil was a poet and a friend of the Emperor Augustus. His name in Latin was Vergilius but English-speaking people almost always shorten it. Some people spell his name Vergil and some spell it Virgil. Virgil wrote the Aeneid, a long poem telling a legend of how a Trojan prince called Aeneas came to Italy and became an ancestor of the Roman people. A long poem telling of great deeds is called an epic.
- Livy — Livy (Livius to the Romans) was an author who wrote a history of the city of Rome with the title From the Foundation of the City. He started with the legend of how the founder of Rome, Romulus, killed his brother Remus. Livy is not a historian we can rely on to tell what actually happened. This is simply because he was writing long after the events and using stories handed down over generations without having a way of checking their truth. His writing style has lots of complicated phrasing.
- Catullus — Catullus wrote poems to his friends and to his girlfriend, Clodia, and poems to comfort them when someone had died. He also wrote poems that abused people he was displeased with. There is a story that he insulted Julius Caesar in a poem, but when he apologised Julius Caesar invited him to dinner.
- Horace -- Horace (Horatius to the Romans) wrote lyrical poetry. Lyrical poetry is poetry which is very much about the poet's own feelings.
- Ovid -- The Romans had many gods and goddesses and there were a lot of stories of a type we call "legends" about them. Ovid (Ovidius to the Romans) wrote an epic poem with the title Metamorphoses, telling some of these stories. He displeased the Emperor Augustus, probably by writing something in a poem that the Emperor didn't like. The Emperor exiled him (that is, sent him away) for the rest of his life. He was sent to a place on the Black Sea, on the very edge of the Roman Empire. At the bottom of this page you can read part of a poem he wrote about being sent away.
- Pliny the Elder -- Pliny the Elder wrote about plants and animals. He had a house by the sea near Pompeii, and was there when the nearby volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted. He took out a boat to try to rescue some friends and died in his brave attempt.
- Pliny the Younger -- Pliny the Younger was Pliny the Elder's nephew. As a very young man he was visiting his uncle when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Years later he described the eruption in a letter to his friend Tacitus.
- Suetonius -- Suetonius was a historian who wrote a book now known as The Twelve Caesars, telling the life stories of Julius Ceasar and the first eleven Roman Emperors -- with a lot of gossip included! (The first five emperors belonged to the same family and Caesar was the family name. Later emperors adopted the name almost like a sort of title.)
- Tacitus -- Tacitus lived at about the same time as Suetonius and like him was a historian. Tacitus wrote with sympathy of the plight of the Germans and Britons who had been conquered by Rome.
- Seneca the Elder -- Seneca the Elder wrote a book on how to make good speeches in public.
- Seneca the Younger -- Seneca the Younger was the son of Seneca the Elder. Seneca the Younger wrote on philosophy and was the young Emperor Nero's teacher. (Nero is notorious, that is, famous for doing bad things. Nero is said to have played music while a huge fire was destroying Rome -- but that story may not be true!)
- Saint Jerome -- Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Vulgar Latin. There was already a version of the Bible in older Latin, but he was doing a more up-to- date version. Saint Jerome's translation was used by Christians for hundreds of years and was known as The Vulgate.
- J.R.R. Tolkien — J.R.R. Tolkien was a famous English author in the 20th century. He was brought up a Catholic at a time whlifeen services in the Catholic Church were in Latin and as a result he had a great love of the language. He wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (though not in Latin).
What are some basic words in this language that I can learn?
Scholars believe that the Romans pronounced A as in "father", E as in "pen", I as "ee" in "free", O as in "job", U as "oo" in "too" and AE like the English word "eye". They think C was pronounced "k", G like the "g" in "girl" and QU as "kw". There were no silent letters. When there were two vowels together the Romans pronounced each one in turn: for example, TUUS was "too-oos" and MEUS was "me-oos". If there is an E on the end of a word it is always pronounced (that is, it is always said out loud).
- Salve! or Salvete! — Hello! If you are saying hello to one person you say "Salve!" If you are saying hello to more than one person you say "Salvete!" In that way Latin and other languages are more complicated than English. You have to think about how many people you are talking to to get it right.
- Bonum diem! -- Good day!
- Bonam vesperam! -- Good evening!
- Bonam noctem! -- Goodnight!
- Vale! or Valete! — Goodbye! If you are saying goodbye to one person you say "Vale!" If you are saying goodbye to more than one person you say "Valete!"
- Ut vales ? or Ut valetes? -- How are you? If speaking to more than one person you say "Ut valetes?"
- Bene valeo, gratias. Et tu? -- I'm fine, thanks. And you? ( "Et vos?" to more than one person.)
- Optime valeo -- I'm very well
- Satis bene valeo -- I'm well enough
- Non ita bene valeo -- I'm not keeping so well
- Pessime valeo -- I'm really poorly
- Gratias -- Thank you
- Sis -- Please
- non -- not
- sed -- but
- ergo -- therefore
- et -- and
- Sum -- I am. The word for "I" in Latin is "ego" but you don't need to bother much with words like "I" in Latin as Latin verbs (doing words) take different endings depending on whether it is "I ", "you", "he", "she", "we", or "they" who is doing whatever it is. Spanish verbs are the same.
- Sumus -- we are
- Sunt -- they are
- Quod nomen tibi est ? -- What is your name? The Latin words actually say "What name is yours?"
- Nomen mihi est ... -- My name is [then enter your name - you might like to add -us at the end of your name if you're a boy, or -a if you're a girl, to sound like you're a Roman] Here are examples: "Nomen mihi est Paullus"; "Nomen mihi est Flavia". Remember in Latin you can put the words in any order you like. You can say "Mihi nomen Flavia est" or "Flavia est nomen mihi" or any other order.
- Quod est nomen amicae tuae? -- What is your lady (or girl) friend's name? (For asking this of more than one person say "Quod est nomen vestrae amicae?"
- Quod est nomen eius? -- What is his/her name?
- Nomina eorum sunt ... -- Their names are ...
- Amicus meus est -- He is my friend. We get the words "amicable", which means friendly, from the Latin word "amicus".
- Amica mea est -- She is my friend. Lavinia amica mea est -- Lavinia is my friend.
- hic puer -- this boy
- haec puella -- this girl
- Quis? -- Who? Quis est hic? -- Who is this boy (or it could mean Who is this man)? Quis est haec? -- Who is this girl (or woman)?
- Frater meus est -- It's my brother
- Soror mea est -- It's my sister
- Quod hoc est? -- What is that? "Est" means "is". "Quod" means "what".
- Animal est -- It's an animal.
- Ecce animal! -- Look at the animal!
- leo -- lion
- mus -- mouse
- scorpio -- scorpion
- villa -- country house
- purgamentum -- rubbish. We got the English word "purge" from this Latin word.
- via -- road
- Quae ... sunt ...? -- What are ...?
- Ubi habitas? -- Where do you live? (If talking to more than one person you say "Ubi habitatis?")
- Londinium habito -- I live in London
- Unde venis? -- Where do you come from. If speaking to more than one person you would say "Unde venistis?"
- E Britannia venio -- I'm from Britain. E Caledonia venio -- I'm from Scotland
- Quo vadis? -- Where are you going? (said to one person) There is a famous film with that as a title.
- scio -- I know (how to). If someone asks you if you know how to do something you can answer "Scio!"
- Scisne loqui Latine? -- Can you speak Latin? Ita, Latine loquor. -- Yes, I speak Latin.
- paulum -- a little
- mater mea -- my mother
- pater meus -- my father
- pater noster -- our father. If you are a Christian you may want to know that that is how the Lord's Prayer starts if you are praying in Latin.
- Hodie dies meus est -- It's my birthday today. In Latin you say "my day" for "my birthday".
- unus, duo, tres, quattuor, quinque, sex, septem, octo, novem, decem -- one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. You can see where we get September, October, November and December from.
- Animal video -- I see the animal or I see an animal. Latin doesn't have words for "a" or "the". Most of the time you can tell which is meant but if you want to make it clear use the Latin word for "one" for "a" and use the Latin for "this" or "that" or "these" or "those" for "the".
- Carpe diem! -- Seize the day! This is a well-known saying that means don't put off to tomorrow what you can do today.
- Veni, vidi, vici — I came, I saw, I conquered. This is something you can say if you manage to do something difficult in a short time.
- Per ardua, ad astra — Through hardship, to the stars. Per Ardua ad Astra is the motto of the British Royal Air Force. We get the words "arduous" and "astronomy" from these Latin words.
- Exempli gratia ... -- for example ... In English today you shorten it to "e.g." or "e g". (Some people use dots when shortening, that is, abbreviating, words and other people choose not to.) You write "e. g." before giving an example of whatever it is you are writing about. The word for word meaning (what we call the "literal meaning") of "exempli gratia" is "for the sake of an example".
- Id est ... -- that is ... In English today you shorten it to "i.e." or "i e". You write it before going on to explain further what you mean.
- Nota bene ... -- Note well ... In English today we shorten it to "N B" or "N. B." (Usually we use capitals for it so as to draw attention to it, and usually when we use it we start a new paragraph as what we are about to write is important enough to deserve a paragraph to itself.)
- Et cetera -- and the rest of the things. In English today you write "etc" or "etc." (Even though "et cetera" is two words in Latin, when we shorten it to "etc" we don't ever leave a space between the "e" and the "tc".) You use it to save yourself from writing out the whole of a list (but be sure the person who is going to read your list will be able to know what you have left out; for example, if a woman gives her husband a shopping list that says "Please get the milk, bread, etc" it is of no use unless he knows what other items she has in mind). We don't pronounce "et cetera" the way the Romans would have done because we pronounce the "c" like an "s".
- Cave canem! — Beware of the dog! (To more than one person you say "Cavete canem".) We get the word "canine" from the Latin word for "dog".
- Vox populi — The voice of the people. This means the opinion of the greatest number of the people in a country. We get the words "voice" and "vocal" from "vox". We get the word "popular", meaning liked by people, from the Latin word for people.
What is a simple song/poem/story that I can learn in this language?
The poet Ovid was banished from Rome in 8 AD by Augustus, Julius Caesar's great-nephew. This is the first 2 lines of the poem Tristia (meaning "Sorrows"), which Ovid wrote to express his sadness about his banishment.
Parue — nec inuideo — sine me, liber, ibis in urbem:
ei mihi, quod domino non licet ire tuo!
You will go, my little book, without me to the city, but I don't envy you.
Go on — go to the city forbidden to me — forbidden to your master.
This song by an unknown poet from the 16th Century was popular with students some time ago when all boys (that is all boys whose parents could afford to educate them) had to learn Latin at school:
Flevit lepus parvulus
clamans altis vocibus:
Quid feci hominibus,
quod me sequuntur canibus?
Neque in horto fui
neque holus comedi.
Wept the little rabbit,
shouting with high voice:
What did I do to the humans,
that they chase me with dogs?
I was not in the garden,
and I did not eat the vegetables
Authors and Contributing •