The linguistic landscape of Central Italy at the beginning of Roman expansion
A number of historical phases of the language have been recognized, each distinguished by subtle differences in vocabulary, usage, spelling, morphology, and syntax. There are no hard and fast rules of classification; different scholars emphasize different features. As a result, the list has variants, as well as alternative names.
In addition to the historical phases, Ecclesiastical Latin refers to the styles used by the writers of the Roman Catholic Church from Late Antiquity onward, as well as by Protestant scholars.
After the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and Germanic kingdoms took its place, the Germanic people adopted Latin as a language more suitable for legal and other, more formal uses.
The Lapis Niger
, probably the oldest extant Latin inscription, from Rome, c. 600 BC during the semi-legendary Roman Kingdom
The earliest known form of Latin is Old Latin, which was spoken from the Roman Kingdom to the later part of the Roman Republic period. It is attested both in inscriptions and in some of the earliest extant Latin literary works, such as the comedies of Plautus and Terence. The Latin alphabet was devised from the Etruscan alphabet. The writing later changed from what was initially either a right-to-left or a boustrophedon script to what ultimately became a strictly left-to-right script.
During the late republic and into the first years of the empire, a new Classical Latin arose, a conscious creation of the orators, poets, historians and other literate men, who wrote the great works of classical literature, which were taught in grammar and rhetoric schools. Today's instructional grammars trace their roots to such schools, which served as a sort of informal language academy dedicated to maintaining and perpetuating educated speech.
Philological analysis of Archaic Latin works, such as those of Plautus, which contain snippets of everyday speech, indicates that a spoken language, Vulgar Latin (termed sermo vulgi, "the speech of the masses", by Cicero), existed concurrently with literate Classical Latin. The informal language was rarely written, so philologists have been left with only individual words and phrases cited by classical authors and those found as graffiti.
As it was free to develop on its own, there is no reason to suppose that the speech was uniform either diachronically or geographically. On the contrary, romanised European populations developed their own dialects of the language, which eventually led to the differentiation of Romance languages. The decline of the Roman Empire meant a deterioration in educational standards that brought about Late Latin, a postclassical stage of the language seen in Christian writings of the time. It was more in line with everyday speech, not only because of a decline in education but also because of a desire to spread the word to the masses.
Despite dialectal variation, which is found in any widespread language, the languages of Spain, France, Portugal, and Italy retained a remarkable unity in phonological forms and developments, bolstered by the stabilising influence of their common Christian (Roman Catholic) culture. It was not until the Moorish conquest of Spain in 711 cut off communications between the major Romance regions that the languages began to diverge seriously. The Vulgar Latin dialect that would later become Romanian diverged somewhat more from the other varieties, as it was largely cut off from the unifying influences in the western part of the Empire.
One key marker of whether a given Romance feature was found in Vulgar Latin is to compare it with its parallel in Classical Latin. If it was not preferred in Classical Latin, then it most likely came from the undocumented contemporaneous Vulgar Latin. For example, the Romance for "horse" (Italian cavallo, French cheval, Spanish caballo, Portuguese cavalo and Romanian cal) came from Latin caballus. However, Classical Latin used equus. Therefore, caballus was most likely the spoken form.
Vulgar Latin began to diverge into distinct languages by the 9th century at the latest, when the earliest extant Romance writings begin to appear. They were, throughout the period, confined to everyday speech, as Medieval Latin was used for writing.
The Latin Malmesbury Bible
Medieval Latin is the written Latin in use during that portion of the postclassical period when no corresponding Latin vernacular existed. The spoken language had developed into the various incipient Romance languages; however, in the educated and official world Latin continued without its natural spoken base. Moreover, this Latin spread into lands that had never spoken Latin, such as the Germanic and Slavic nations. It became useful for international communication between the member states of the Holy Roman Empire and its allies.
Without the institutions of the Roman empire that had supported its uniformity, medieval Latin lost its linguistic cohesion: for example, in classical Latin sum and eram are used as auxiliary verbs in the perfect and pluperfect passive, which are compound tenses. Medieval Latin might use fui and fueram instead. Furthermore, the meanings of many words have been changed and new vocabularies have been introduced from the vernacular. Identifiable individual styles of classically incorrect Latin prevail.
The Renaissance briefly reinforced the position of Latin as a spoken language by its adoption by the Renaissance Humanists. Often led by members of the clergy, they were shocked by the accelerated dismantling of the vestiges of the classical world and the rapid loss of its literature. They strove to preserve what they could and restore Latin to what it had been and introduced the practice of producing revised editions of the literary works that remained by comparing surviving manuscripts. By no later than the 15th century they had replaced Medieval Latin with versions supported by the scholars of the rising universities, who attempted, by scholarship, to discover what the classical language had been.
During the Early Modern Age, Latin still was the most important language of culture in Europe. Therefore, until the end of the 17th century the majority of books and almost all diplomatic documents were written in Latin. Afterwards, most diplomatic documents were written in French (a Romance language) and later just native or other languages.
Despite having no native speakers, Latin is still used for a variety of purposes in the contemporary world.
The largest organisation that retains Latin in official and quasi-official contexts is the Catholic Church. Latin remains the language of the Roman Rite; the Tridentine Mass is celebrated in Latin. Although the Mass of Paul VI is usually celebrated in the local vernacular language, it can be and often is said in Latin, in part or in whole, especially at multilingual gatherings. It is the official language of the Holy See, the primary language of its public journal, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, and the working language of the Roman Rota. Vatican City is also home to the world's only automatic teller machine that gives instructions in Latin. In the pontifical universities postgraduate courses of Canon law are taught in Latin, and papers are written in the same language.
In the Anglican Church, after the publication of the Book of Common Prayer of 1559, a Latin edition was published in 1560 for use in universities such as Oxford and the leading "public schools" (English private academies), where the liturgy was still permitted to be conducted in Latin. There have been several Latin translations since, including a Latin edition of the 1979 USA Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
The polyglot European Union
has adopted Latin names in the logos of some of its institutions for the sake of linguistic compromise, an "ecumenical nationalism" common to most of the continent and as a sign of the continent's heritage (such as the EU Council
Use of Latin for mottos
In the Western world, many organizations, governments and schools use Latin for their mottos due to its association with formality, tradition, and the roots of Western culture.
Canada's motto A mari usque ad mare ("from sea to sea") and most provincial mottos are also in Latin. The Canadian Victoria Cross is modelled after the British Victoria Cross which has the inscription "For Valour". Because Canada is officially bilingual, the Canadian medal has replaced the English inscription with the Latin Pro Valore.
Spain's motto PLVS ULTRA, meaning "further beyond", is also Latin in origin. It is taken from the personal motto of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain (as Charles I), and is a reversal of the original phrase Non terrae plus ultra ("No land further beyond"). This was said to have been inscribed as a warning on the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar, which marked the edge of the known world. Charles adopted the motto following the discovery of the New World by Columbus, and it also has metaphorical suggestions of taking risks and striving for excellence.
Several states of the United States have Latin mottos: such as Connecticut's motto Qui transtulit sustinet ("He who transplanted sustains"); Kansas's Ad astra per aspera ("To the stars through hardships"); Colorado's Nil sine numine ("Nothing without providence"); Michigan's Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice ("If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you"); Missouri's Salus populi suprema lex esto ("The health of the people should be the highest law"); North Carolina's Esse quam videri ("To be rather than to seem"); Virginia's Sic semper tyrannis ("Thus always to tyrants"); and West Virginia's Montani semper liberi ("Mountaineers are always free").
Many military organizations today have Latin mottos, such as Semper paratus ("always ready"), the motto of the United States Coast Guard; Semper fidelis ("always faithful"), the motto of the United States Marine Corps; and Per ardua ad astra ("Through adversity/struggle to the stars"), the motto of the Royal Air Force (RAF).
Some colleges and universities have adopted Latin mottos, for example Harvard University's motto is Veritas ("truth"). Veritas was the goddess of truth, a daughter of Saturn, and the mother of Virtue.
Other modern uses
Switzerland has adopted the country's Latin short name Helvetia on coins and stamps, since there is no room to use all of the nation's four official languages. For a similar reason, it adopted the international vehicle and internet code CH, which stands for Confœderatio Helvetica, the country's full Latin name.
Some films of ancient settings, such as Sebastiane and The Passion of the Christ, have been made with dialogue in Latin for the sake of realism. Occasionally, Latin dialogue is used because of its association with religion or philosophy, in such film/television series as The Exorcist and Lost ("Jughead"). Subtitles are usually shown for the benefit of those who do not understand Latin. There are also songs written with Latin lyrics. The libretto for the opera-oratorio Oedipus rex by Igor Stravinsky is in Latin.
The continued instruction of Latin is often seen as a highly valuable component of a liberal arts education. Latin is taught at many high schools, especially in Europe and the Americas. It is most common in British public schools and grammar schools, the Italian liceo classico and liceo scientifico, the German Humanistisches Gymnasium and the Dutch gymnasium.
Occasionally, some media outlets, targeting enthusiasts, broadcast in Latin. Notable examples include Radio Bremen in Germany, YLE radio in Finland (the Nuntii Latini broadcast from 1989 until it was shut down in June 2019), and Vatican Radio & Television, all of which broadcast news segments and other material in Latin.
There are many websites and forums maintained in Latin by enthusiasts. The Latin Wikipedia has more than 100,000 articles.