1,500 years after fall of Rome, Latin lives in many languages
AT RANDOM. ON LANGUAGE.
Chicago Tribune: February 02, 2005
The first irony about the Latin language is that it is often called a dead language, when in fact it is alive and well in other languages — including English. The second irony is that Latin is considered an ancient language, even though, as Swedish linguist Tore Janson writes, “In the last hundred years or so we have taken in more words from this source than ever before.”
Janson offers a tidy summary of Latin’s nearly three-millennium existence in “A Natural History of Latin” (Oxford University Press, $24).
Latin, writes Janson, “was the native language of the Romans in antiquity; it was Europe’s international language until two or three hundred years ago; and it is the language from which the modern European languages have drawn the majority of their loanwords. That means there are three good reasons for knowing something about Latin.”
Janson’s book is a good place to start, although it is a little heavy on history and light on linguistics, and its translation from Swedish is clunky at points.
Still, “Natural History of Latin” is an authoritative introduction to arguably the most influential language of all time.
Named for the ancient region of Latium, now called Lazio in Italian, Latin emerged in the 8th Century B.C. after the settlement of Rome. While it would later become the language of scholarly writing, Latin was probably only a spoken language in its first few centuries, Janson says. And while Latin would come to be associated with the urban vitality of Rome and grandeur of the Roman Empire, its first generations of speakers were farmers, practicing “agricultura,” or “cultivation of the field.”
When Rome overtook Greece and established an empire encompassing the Mediterranean Sea and Europe, it spread Latin far and wide. This alone would make Latin an important chapter in world history, but the language had a second act after the Roman Empire collapsed.
Here lies another irony: Though Latin was the language of an empire that aggressively oppressed Christianity (before adopting it as the official state religion), it was the church that kept Latin alive when Rome fell, using it throughout the Middle Ages for liturgy, theology and translating the Bible.
After the Renaissance, Latin had a third act as the international language of science and philosophy. In the 20th Century, technological innovations made Latin more visible than ever. “Video,” for example, is the Latin word for “I see.” “Digital” comes from “digit” (digital technology uses code written in ones and zeroes), which derives from the Latin word “digitus” for “finger,” because we count with our fingers. The phrase “via satellite” comes from the Latin “via” for “road” or “way” and “satellitis” for “attendant” (which, in a way, describes an orbiting object).
A final irony about Latin is that it became the foundation of English despite belonging to a very different language family. Latin spawned the family of Romance languages, including French, Italian and Spanish, while English belongs to the Germanic family, with such siblings as Dutch and German. But missionaries to England in the first millennium and French conquerors in the second millennium ensured Latin would make its mark on English.
As a result, countless English words — as many as 40 percent of the English vocabulary, by some estimates (Janson doesn’t weigh in on this) — have Latin roots.
Thus, a primer in Latin — such as Janson’s generous appendix of Latin words and phrases — is a primer in etymology. Our word “republic,” for example, comes from the Latin phrase “res publica,” or “things of the public.” “Aqua,” the Latin word for “water,” is the root of “aquatic” and “aquarium.” “Frater,” the Latin word for “brother,” is behind the English words “fraternal” and “fraternity.” The word “facere,” for “to make,” lies at the root of “factory,” “fact” and “defect.”
More than 1,500 years after the fall of Rome, Latin isn’t going away. “That considerable portion of the world’s population who speak a European language,” Janson concludes, “will have to use Latin words every day and every hour for as long as one can see into the future.”
Endings: For more Latin words, see “The Big Gold Book of Latin Verbs: 555 Fully Conjugated Verbs,” released last year by McGraw-Hill ($15.95).
. . . Latin’s status as a living language is bolstered by the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which includes Latin as one of the languages into which the encyclopedia is translated (see http://la.wikipedia.org).
. . . The week of March 7 will be the third annual National Latin Teacher Recruitment Week. Co-founder Thomas Sienkewicz, classics professor at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill., appears in a toga on a promotional poster, pointing in the manner of Uncle Sam beside the statement “I Want You . . . To Become a Latin Teacher.”
E-mail Nathan Bierma at firstname.lastname@example.org.