The Latin language is one of the Roman Empire’s lasting legacies. We hear it around us every day in the form of direct Latin loan-words into English, like “abdomen” or “exterior.” Every time you say something is “necessary” or you need to make a “revision” to a document, you’re using a loan-word from French, which ultimately derives from Latin as well. Then, of course, we hear Latin’s descendants in the form of the Romance languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, and a profusion of less widely spoken tongues. Eight hundred million people today hear the legacy of the Roman Empire every time they open their mouths to speak.
Let’s go back 2500 years. As Rome transitioned from monarchy to republic in the middle of the first millennium BC, Latin was just one—and not even a particularly important one—of the profusion of languages spoken in the Italian peninsula. Other communities spoke related languages like Faliscan, Oscan, and Umbrian, all of which belonged to the Italic branch of Indo-European language family. The Greek colonies in the south of Italy spoke, naturally enough, Greek, which belongs to another branch of the broader Indo-European family. The Etruscans, at that point the dominant cultural and economic power in Italy, lived in northern Italy and spoke a totally unrelated language.
As the Romans expanded first throughout Italy and then beyond, Latin went with them. Language followed empire, swamping its Italic relatives within Italy, and Etruscan, too, before spreading throughout Europe. Greek proved more stubborn, but it too declined in importance. In Gaul, Spain, North Africa, the Balkans, Dacia (today’s Romania) and parts of Britain, Latin coexisted with and then eventually displaced an array of native languages. From Iberian in Spain to Gaulish in Gaul to Punic in North Africa, the rising tide of Latin finally swamped them all. Britain is a notable exception: The ancestors of today’s Welsh, Cornish, and Breton languages survived underneath and alongside Latin, which itself disappeared there in the fifth and sixth centuries.
With the exception of Dacia and the Balkans, Latin never made serious inroads in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Greek was too widely spoken, and had both a longer literary tradition than Latin and status as a prestige language everywhere from Greece to Syria to Egypt. To give an example of Greek’s dominance in the east, of the hundreds of bishops from the east who attended a church council at Ephesus in 431, only two of them—both from the Adriatic coast—could even speak Latin.
Latin mostly sank its roots in the western half of the Roman Empire. It was never a static language, or a homogeneous one. Speakers could distinguish educated, high-status Latin from that of common people. There were words and phrases that speakers associated with particular regions of the Empire. We do the same thing in American English, with the regional differences between hero and hoagie, tennis shoes and sneakers, or soda versus pop versus coke. There were regional accents, too: Latin speakers were aware that people from North Africa, for example, had a distinctive way of pronouncing vowels. Over time, just as English has today, Latin changed.
Read more: Deadspin