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Is Latin Officially a Dead Language?

May 12, 2020


The official status of Latin continues to be a point of discussion and argument for many linguists throughout the world. There are those who believe it is one of the most important languages ever spoken. Conversely, although many modern languages were heavily influenced by Latin, it is not spoken today as any nation’s official language. Nonetheless, Latin is all around us. Similar to Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, Latin does not have native speakers, which qualifies it as a “Dead Language”. However, Latin had such an overwhelming prevalence in European and Western science, medicine, and literature, it may never be classified as an “Extinct Language”. Tasks like taxonomy, the Latin-based system of scientific classification of all living things, remains dependent upon the language.

Romance Languages with a Latin Origin

All Romance Languages descended from Latin and are so named because Latin (the parent tongue) was the language of the Romans. In fact, Ethnologue: Languages of the World categorizes forty-four different languages as Romance Languages. Nonetheless, the five discussed below account for 90% of the spoken Romance Languages:

  1. Italian – Classical Latin developed in the western provinces of the Roman Empire. Since Latin was spoken by the Romans as a native tongue, Italian developed as one of the prominent Romance Language that is the closest living language to Latin today.
  2. Spanish – Spanish, which is older than the country of Spain, is natively spoken by some 480 million people worldwide. It developed in the Castile region from Vulgar Latin, a colloquial sociolect spoken in many parts of the Mediterranean.
  3. French – Often considered to be the most romantic language worldwide, French is a very euphonic language that has been used for centuries in music, poetry, art, and culture, which has contributed to the language’s sound and romantic allure.
  4. Portuguese – Portuguese has over 215 million native speakers and lends itself rhythmic sounds and unrestricted air flow making it one of the sexiest languages. The Latin-based language is primarily spoken in Brazil and Portugal.
  5. Romanian – Spoken by approximately 25 million people in Romania and Moldova, Romanian developed alongside Slavic languages. Due to the country’s geographic location, the surrounding Slavic speaking countries gives Romanian a distinct sound from other Romance languages

Although English is not one of the named Romance Languages, it is often mistakenly linked to the group since about thirty percent of English words comes from Latin with another thirty percent from Norman French. Nonetheless, English is a West Germanic language, but many English speakers consider learning Latin to be important for a linguist’s discipline, logic, and mental fortitude.

Linguistic Role of Vatican City and the Holy See

There are no countries that currently speak Latin. However, Latin is an official language of the Vatican City, an internationally recognized sovereign state that is surrounded by Rome. As the Catholic Church gained influence during ancient Rome, Latin became the international language of communication, scholarship, and science. Liturgical Latin, also called Ecclesiastical Latin, it is one form that developed to discuss Christian thought and later became a lingua franca for Medieval Western Europe. Unfortunately, Classical Latin is incredibly complex and highly inflected with nearly every word modified based on tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, and mood. Simpler versions of the mother tongue developed for use as local languages. Unfortunately, the use of the classical tongue soon passed from everyday usage. By the end of the sixth century, groups of people from the former Roman Empire could no longer understand each other’s version of Latin. Today, Latin remains an official working language of the Holy See, the supreme body of government for the Catholic Church. Even though Pope Francis often tweets in Latin, the Vatican City’s official language is Italian.  

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