Is Latin a dead language?

86187764_50cc694871_oThis is what they always say, right? But come to think of it. You’ve surely heard a bunch of phrases like carpe diem or memento mori. And whatever happened to the Romans who spoke it? Did they disappear?  So is Latin really a dead language?

In short: yes, it is. A linguist may add, however, that it is dead but not extinct, so now, let’s have a closer look to realise what the difference is.

What does it normally look like when a language gets extinct? The community gets smaller, the people who speak it don’t teach the language to their children. Then at some point the last person to speak it dies. And some time later there dies the last person who could only understand the language while the first person spoke it. Never happened to Latin. Think of Rome. Romans have just always spoken their language, and taught it to their children. With time the language evolved… from ancient Latin to classical Latin to early Italian to… the Italian we know (ok, in the 19th century the polished Tuscan dialect was imposed but it doesn’t invalidate the point; take Florence, and it will fit). But it was a natural and slow process, like from Old English to modern English. The same happened all across the former Western Roman Empire – it’s just that it was so big and divided into so many states that without a central authority and modern mass media its local varieties evolved to French, Romanian, Provencal, Spanish and a few others. It was evolution, not extinction.

Another point. Unlike those hardcore extinct languages like Gothic, Polabian or recently Klallam, Latin is actually used for some purposes. It’s the official language of the Vatican, and it’s sometimes still used in scholarship (OK, mainly by classicists – people who discuss Latin in Latin). Bits and pieces of Latin are in use around the Western world: maxims, sayings, mottos. Latin is still used as a source of new word coinages – even if we don’t speak it, we treat as a reference framework from which it can be drawn.

There’s also a whole body of people who put Latin into really contemporary uses. Some schools in Europe and America teach it as a spoken language, thus generating a whole crowd of fluent Latin-as-a-foreign-language speakers. There are Latin language web portals, forums, Wikipedia in Latin; Radio Bremen (Germany) broadcasts in Latin regularly. The language has still a taste of prestige – for this reason it’s used for decorative in all things official and formal (like university celebrations  or… the newsletter of Finland’s EU presidency). For Latin fans or Latin-reading fans modern books are translated, like Winnie Ille Pu or Harrius Potter. Need to name a modern concept in Latin? No worries. The Vatican publishes a newsletter for that. Thus we finally know that vodka can be called válida pótio Slávica.

A dead language, yes, but Latin makes quite a lively zombie.


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