How Science Is Keeping Latin Alive

Is Latin really a dead language? Find out why science continues to use the language in naming species and body parts.

Latin is what's known as a dead language, in that there are no living native speakers. But it's not totally extinct, which would indicate that it's no longer in use. In fact, Latin is used all over the world in law, medicine and various classification systems. How is that Latin has earned this enduring second life?

As Jules Suzdaltsev explains in today's DNews dispatch, the reasons for this are both historical and practical.

First, the history: When the Christian church teamed up with the Roman Empire, the church's favorite language, Latin, was exported around the world. Over time, Latin was established as the lingua franca of religion and knowledge. Everything that was worth knowing -- science, law, medicine -- was written down in Latin. If you wanted to be someone in the Empire, you needed to speak, read and write the language.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, Latin broke apart into the Romance languages -- French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. Classical Latin stopped being used as an everyday language.

RELATED: How Did Latin Become A Dead Language?

It was retained in scholarly pursuits, however, for very practical reasons. Since the language was no longer being spoken, it was no longer shifting and changing. That, plus its formality and precision, made Latin perfect for classification systems like biological taxonomy.

As such, and to the delight of biology majors around the world, all species have a two-part scientific designation, called binomial nomenclature or Latin name. The polar bear, for instance, is known to science as Ursus maritimus. The first name is called the "generic epithet" and is usually the genus, while the second is a "specific epithet" or the species.

Regardless of the language you speak otherwise, that's the technical term for that big white thing on the ice floe, with the pointy bits on five of its six ends. The Latin name protects against vagaries of the living language, too. Pop culture is an unpredictable beast, and in a few years, polar bear might become a slang term for something untoward. Science shall not fret, though, because: Ursus maritimus.

Check out Jules' report for more details. Also, quick note if you're in the market for an impressive conversational trivia drop: The application of these names is governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN).

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

The History Of English: What is a Global Language?

WWF: Scientific Nomenclature: How do we give scientific names?

Saylor Academy: Christianity and the Roman Empire