Latin Is Dead, but Not Extinct

No community has claimed Latin as its native tongue since the collapse of the empire that sowed its grammar and lexicon across the ancient world. For a language that officially died more than a thousand years ago, however, it clings to life with all the tenacity of a Roman legion.

From the Renaissance through the 18th century, Latin served as the lingua franca for a monumental wave of intellectual progress — to the extent that its hold on the scholarly world is apparent even today. In the courtroom, defendants challenge unlawful imprisonment by applying for habeas corpus. In the laboratory, scientists assign names like Homo sapiens to each newly discovered species. And many who attended high school in recent decades have memories (fond or otherwise) of parsing sentences by the Roman writers Seneca, Ovid and Cicero.

On the religious front, Latin rode out the Middle Ages in the mouths and pens of the Roman Catholic Church, which preserved it in its “ecclesiastical” form. This dialect remains an official language of Vatican City: the church still employs it in papal documents and Catholics there enjoy its solemn intonations at Sunday Mass.

Interwoven as Latin is with contemporary culture, its pulse seems steady (if a bit fainter than 1,500 years ago). In what sense, then, is it truly dead?

Read more: Discover Magazine

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