Earth & Conservation

How Did Latin Become A Dead Language?

While Latin's influence is apparent in many modern languages, it is no longer commonly spoken. So exactly why did the language die out?

When the Catholic Church gained influence in ancient Rome, Latin became the official language of the sprawling Roman Empire. Latin was king of the world -- the language of international communication, scholarship, and science. So what happened? Jules Suzdaltsev investigates in today's Seeker Daily report.

Latin is now considered a dead language, meaning it's still used in specific contexts, but does not have any native speakers. (Sanskrit is another dead language.) In historical terms, Latin didn't die so much as it changed -- into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. These are known as the Romance languages -- "Rome" is the root term -- and while other tongues developed from Latin, these are the most common.

All five of these languages incorporate grammar, tenses and specific intricacies from Latin. Not coincidentally, each language developed in former territories of the Western Roman Empire. When that empire failed, Latin died, and the new languages were born.

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Part of the reason that Latin passed out of common usage is because, as a language, it's incredibly complex. Classical Latin is highly inflected, meaning that nearly every word is potentially modified based on tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, gender and mood. With no central power promoting and standardizing usage of Classical Latin, it gradually passed away from everyday usage.

Vulgar Latin, essentially a simplified version of the mother tongue, survived for a while but diverged more and more as it folded in various local languages. By the end of the sixth century, people from different sections of the former empire could no longer understand each other. Latin had died as a living language.

Still, due to the overwhelming prevalence of Latin in early Western literature, medicine and science, Latin as a language of antiquity never quite went extinct -- a term which has its own particular meaning in linguistics. Today, Latin is still used in many technical fields, medical terminology and taxonomy, the scientific classification of species.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

Britannica: Romance Languages

Boston Globe: Besides the Pope, Who Speaks Latin Today?

About Education: Vulgar Latin - Learn Why Late Latin Was Called Vulgar