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Everything You Need to Know About the Latin Language

By Yann, published on 20/06/2018 We Love Prof - AU > Academia > Latin > Questions and Answers on Latin

In 20 years, the number of Latin speakers has halved.

Yet this language is useful in many ways: learning Latin languages, understanding our own language, improving spelling, studying ancient history and mythology …

If you do Latin, you may want to find out more about this ancient language:

  • How was the Latin alphabet invented?
  • How to learn this language by heart?
  • Is English grammar influenced by Latin?
  • Which official or non-official languages come from Latin?

Don’t worry, we’ll answer all these questions in this article.

Where Does the Latin Alphabet Come From?

Learning Latin is helpful for every subject at school. The Caroline minuscule (named after Charlemagne) is the direct ancestor of modern lowercase letters. Source: Visual Hunt

Latin writing comes primarily from Mesopotamia, which corresponds nowadays to the Middle East. This is where the writing system that later became Latin was born.

The alphabet of romance languages, therefore, has a Semitic origin. Thus, the Egyptian hieroglyphs gave birth to the cuneiform writing of Phoenicia.

Later still, the Greeks took over the Phoenician alphabet to create their own.

Then more recently, the Etruscans became the creators of the Latin alphabet. They took over the Greek alphabet to create the Latin alphabet we know today. The Etruscan language, however, remains a mystery. The people are a priori from Minor Asia but the experts, even if they can read the language, are unable to understand it.

The Etruscan civilisation spread throughout Italy and in the third century, there were 20 letters in the Latin alphabet:

A, B, C, D, E, F, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X.

Originally, the writing was used to transcribe poems, literary texts but primarily speeches, Latin being first and foremost an oral language. There were only capital letters until Charlemagne reformed the writing by introducing what came to be a model for modern-day lowercase letters in 771.

During the Renaissance, the arrival of the printing press finally confirmed the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet. Since then, there’s been no major change. Only the writing and vocabulary has evolved in each language.

The Best English-Latin Dictionaries

Learn all the Romance languages with a good foundation in Latin. In the Latin language, some terms correspond to abbreviations. Source: Visual Hunt

There are various Latin dictionaries available, for all budgets:

  • A Latin Dictionary by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, a free online database
  • Oxford Latin Dictionary can be downloaded for free online in PDF and Kindle formats
  • Collins Latin Dictionary & Grammar, available to buy on Amazon and most bookshops
  • A Copious and Critical English-Latin Dictionary by William Smith, available on Google Books
  • New College Latin-English Dictionary by Traupman, available to buy on Amazon
  • Lexicon Totius Latinitatis, a free online database
  • Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, available both in print and online

You can find other Latin dictionaries but these are the most popular and highly recommended. It is also possible to enrich your Latin vocabulary thanks to various websites which give lists of Latin lexicon:

  • learn101 is available for free online and covers the alphabet, grammar, phrases as well as vocabulary,
  • ilanguages is another free online resources that teaches through flashcards and quizzes
  • LingQ, available online or on your mobile, gives you access to tutoring and guidance from Latin speakers around the world

Our recommendation: the Oxford Latin Dictionary is the most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary of Classical Latin. With more than half a century in the making, the newly published second edition is an essential resource for any serious Latin student. It contains illustrative quotations, revised English translations and expansion on abbreviations to help you learn Latin properly.

How to Learn Latin Declensions

In Latin, there are:

  • 5 declensions of nouns (singular and plural, feminine, masculine and neutral),
  • 6 distinct cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative).

Learning the Latin declensions by heart is essential for anyone wanting to know basic Latin. The declension of a noun or an adjective depends on its function in the sentence: subject, direct object, complement, indirect object complement/direct object complement, circumstantial complement. The vocative has an interpellation function.

Why learn Latin? Get a private tutor and speak like they did in Roman times! Source: Visual Hunt

It’s up to you to memorise the five Latin declensions according to the following rules:

  • 1st declension: rosa, ae, f,
  • 2nd masculine declension: dominus, i, m,
  • 2nd neutral declension: templum, i, n,
  • 3rd declension: the most difficult:
    • Male or female parisyllabic noun: civis, is, m,
    • Neutral parisyllabic noun: mare, is, n,
    • Male or female imparisyllabic noun: consul, is, m,
    • Neutral imparisyllabic noun: corpus, is, n.
  • 4th male/female declension: manus, us, f,
  • 4th neutral declension: horned, us, n,
  • 5th declension: res, rei, f.

Ok, now that we know what we are talking about, here are some tips for learning the different Latin declensions by heart:

  • Using the theory of multiple intelligences: linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence and spatial intelligence are particularly suited to learning Latin. Verbalise what you think about declensions, make tables, use colour codes, make diagrams… Find out what works best for you,
  • Singing Latin declensions: Brel did it before us for rosa, ae, f. Listening to something repetitively that you want to memorise is a great way to remember. You will find some examples of Latin declensions set to music on Youtube,
  • Doing Latin exercises: when it comes to memorising, nothing beats applying what you have learned. There are many Latin exercises on Latin declensions available on websites such as latinesice or graverini,
  • Studying with a private tutor: if none of this works or you struggle to work independently, get in touch with a private Latin teacher. They will have surefire methods to help you learn!

What Latin Phrases Do We Use in English?

English is a Germanic language, therefore, the influences of Latin are primarily lexical. A significant amount of our language stems from Latin, some are even borrowed words and phrases. You will probably already have heard a lot of these, but you may not know what they mean. Here’s a short list of the most commonly used English words and phrases which stem either directly from Latin or via French or Spanish:

But what have we kept from our origins? The Latin quotations are numerous and you necessarily know. But let’s talk about these little phrases or abbreviations. We do not always know what they want to say, so here is a short guide to the most used Latin quotations in French:

  • Ad nauseam: To the point of sickness.
  • Bona fide: In good faith.
  • Carpe diem: Seize the day.
  • Conglomerate: parts put together to form a unit while remaining separate identities
  • Debilitate: weaken
  • De facto: In fact.
  • Et cetera: And the rest of such things.
  • Facsimile: exact copy
  • Ipso facto: By the fact itself.
  • Insipid: lacking flavour
  • Naive: exhibiting lack of experience
  • Pro bono: For the good.
  • Pro forma: As a matter of form.
  • Rigor mortis: The stiffness of death.
  • Ubiquity: found everywhere
  • Vice versa: The position being reversed.

Find a private tutor online to teach you Latin words and phrases. Trust us! Knowing a bit of Latin will help you with modern languages, science and law! Source: Visual Hunt

Some of these phrases will be very useful if you have to write a thesis or dissertation. And it’s still fun to know why we use certain Latin phrases and what they mean, right?

Check out these famous Latin quotes.

Which Modern Languages Have Latin Roots?

Today, 430 million speakers speak a Latin language, nearly 8% of the world’s population.

The languages spoken in Europe are mostly Indo-European languages, ie languages spoken from Europe to India (from Greek to Sanskrit via French, Spanish, Occitan, Portuguese, etc.).

There are a number of  Romance languages especially in Europe where the Roman Empire exerted its influence for centuries, spreading the Roman language at the same time in the Mediterranean basin in particular.

The popularisation of Latin gave rise first to the rural Romance language, then gradually to the different languages that we know today. The languages closest to Latin are:

  • Sardinian (spoken in Sardinia): 8% of derivation compared to Latin,
  • Italian: 12%,
  • Spanish 20%,
  • Romanian 23.5%,
  • Occitan 25%,
  • Portuguese 31%,
  • French 44%.

There are many similarities between these languages as shown in the table below:

LatinItalianSpanishRomanianOccitanPortugueseFrench
ClaveChiaveLlaveCheieClauChaveClé
NocteNotteNocheNoapteNuèit/nuèchNoiteNuit
CantareCantareCantarCîntaCantarCantarChanter
CapraCapraCabraCapraCabraCabraChèvre
LinguaLinguaLenguaLimbǎLengaLinguaLangue
PlateaPiazzaPlazapiaţǎPlaçaPraçaPlace

But these similarities are only valid in writing. Orally, the Latin languages differ greatly from each other, especially French which was also influenced by the Gallo-Romance spoken in northern France.

Here are different Latin-speaking groups in terms of their similarities:

  • Ibero-Romance which encompasses different dialects, among them are Castilian, Andalusian, Portuguese, Galician and Catalan,
  • Occitano-Romance is composed of French but also other patois like the Gascon or the Languedoc,
  • Italian-Romance includes Italian and all its dialects such as Piedmontese, Lombard, Tuscan but also Corsican,
  • Gallo-Romance group includes the languages of oïl and therefore the patois of northern France and Belgium such as Walloon, Picard or Norman,
  • Rhaeto-Romance is composed of Italian Friulian and Swiss Romansh,
  • Eastern Romance languages was developed in the East, specifically in the Balkans, and includes Daco-Romance, modern-day Romanian, Moldavian as well as dead languages such as Istro-Romanian and Aromanian.
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