Sunday, April 11, 2010

Latin - a dead language?

Here is another question that has raised significant and ongoing debate. Can the ancient language of Latin be considered to be a “dead” language? In essence, yes, Latin is no longer used as a method of communication anywhere in the world, and so in this respect, can be considered “dead”. However, is its use for professional and educational purposes keeping it alive?

As we are aware, many contemporary languages base many aspects of structure and vocabulary on the forms used within the language of Latin. It is in many professional worlds within which Latin is very much still a part of the specialized lexis. Professions such as medicine, horticulture, religious engagements and many others, base much of their work on the basic Latin designations. There has also been, of late, a resurgence of the number of secondary and tertiary students desiring to choose Latin as an elective subject.

My father being a very professionally engaged Anaesthetist, I am naturally immersed in aspects of his work. He is the editor of a medical journal and a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney. It is through many of the things HE does, that naturally leads me to believe that Latin can still be used in an effective way. In his personal and professional opinion, Latin is still very much alive.

Despite this, many will maintain the argument that because it is not used as a “language” so to speak (no pun intended, and it’s not used by a body of people to communicate as a primary means), and is not used as a native language by anyone, then surely Latin as a “language” has to be considered dead.

In my own opinion, and holding a rather conservative view on the matter, I believe that it depends on your level of engagement with the language. People like my dad, who use Latin on a regular basis, are going to think of it as an active part of our contemporary language, while those less engaged with it will be more inclined to believe otherwise.

In summation, as a means of understanding our modern interpretations of language, Latin can serve to enrich our sense of communication, and in doing so, is very much alive. However, as a widely used form of communication, it is no longer in use and therefore can be considered to be a “dead” language. It is all in your understanding of a “dead language”.

Any thoughts? (settle down Joe I know this is probably a strong point of yours, but try and keep it below essay-length if you can =P)


  1. Latin texts are valuable keys to the past, without our ongoing understanding of the language much of our cultural appreciation of past events, especially those of great civilisations - ie the Romans. Cicero's treatises on government are still relevant to an understanding of power today (he wrote in Latin).

    Whilst it cannot be spoken easily (unless you go to Grammar and practice at home), its value for Anglophones is in the written text. With some time one can translate and understand a text from 2000 years ago, or even 400 years ago. The possibilities are endless.

    And final proof that Latin is not extinct - my favourite bedtime reading is 'Latin for All Occasions' or alternately 'Xtreme Latin' by Henricus Barbatus. Please keep that one quiet.

  2. I wouldn't consider it dead since it's still in use for historical study. That could be said for a number of languages but I'd assume Latin is the top of that list and will probably remain historically relevant for quite some time.

  3. LFC, thanks for stopping. Latin may not be spoken, but phrases will always be with I think. Quis custodiet ipsos custode - Who's Guarding the Guards is one of my favorite quotes.

    Stephen Tremp

  4. thanks for folowing guys.
    anyway, as I said, it depends on what you determine is a "dead language". If you use it professionally or for studious purposes then it may be considered alive. It also has a number of contemporary applications. Stephen that quote is a good example. see compared to something like Egyptian Heiroglyphical language, it is rather alive.

  5. Knowledge of Latin (I studied it at school) helps you to avoid silly spelling mistakes. For example, you wouldn't write "dessicated" if you knew that the Latin for "dry" is siccus.

    On the subject of scientists using Latin, in my experience they cock it up. For example, in my previous incarnation as a book editor, I once came across the statement that the plural of foramen (as in foramen magnum) is foramina. No it isn't: foramen is third declension, and all third declension nouns have the plural -es (i.e. foramines). Although maybe that's just me being pedantic.

  6. hahah no i dont think so. i'm sure my dad would say something similar =P. thanks for your thoughts on the matter though dennis!

  7. Latin is still alive and well in the legal world.
    It is also has to be noted that many languages have evolved from it.

  8. While Latin may only be spoken by the legal profession and older priests to little boys, I think I should have liked to have studied it at school 44 years ago. Why? Because, I now live in Brazil and have lived in Peru and Bolivia, learning Latin would have facilitated my learning Spanish and Portuguese enormously. Not only those languages, but French, Italian and Romanian are all Latin based. The tedious schoolboy repetition of the verb structure of Latin gives a solid base for these languages.


  9. Having left a secondary school at 14 years old, I knon almost nothing about Latin. Roman numerals are my extent of old languages.
    But I have always known of it's importance in some professions, so when my eldest son was 10, I got him some private lessons along with Grey's Anatomy book and he became a whiz at spelling extremely long Latin names.
    He never used Latin in his career (Computers) but the experience of another language allowed him to pick up French and Spanish on his own and he is quite fluent in both.


Any thoughts, ideas or suggestions, let me know