Latin is all around us. It’s an official language of Vatican City and plays a key role in Catholicism. It’s prevalent throughout the field of science, particularly in naming organisms, chemicals and body parts. It forms the root of certain philosophies. And it’s at the base of the Romance languages, including Spanish and French. So is Latin a dead language, really? The answer ins’t very straightforward.
It’s Technically Dead, And Here’s Why
A language is considered “dead” when it’s no longer the native language of a community of people. It should be noted that this is different from an extinct language, which no longer has any speakers at all. Latin falls into the former category, but certainly not the latter (more on that in the next section).
Latin is an Indo-European language that started in Italy, but spread with the Roman Empire throughout much of Europe and parts of northern Africa. Latin essentially “died out” with the fall of the Roman Empire, but in reality, it transformed — first into a simplified version of itself called Vulgar Latin, and then gradually into the Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. Thus, Classical Latin fell out of use.
But It’s Also Sort Of Alive
Latin may technically be dead, but its ghost is still very much present, haunting many aspects of our lives. Here are a few fields in which Latin is widely used.
This is one of the disciplines most known for its use of Latin terminology. In the field of medicine, names for diseases, drugs and even the body parts being treated are often in Latin, or at least their prefixes and suffixes come from Latin. Then there’s biology. Binomial nomenclature, the system used for naming plants and animals, is based on Latin (and Greek) words. For example, Crocodylus acutus is the scientific name for the American crocodile. This comes from the Latin words krokodelios (“pebble worm”) and acutus (“pointed”).
Latin is one of the official languages of Vatican City, and Latin words are sprinkled throughout Catholic scripture. Entire masses in Latin are also seeing a resurgence as churchgoers around the world request them. And the most influential Latin speaker? The Pope. In fact, Pope Francis often tweets in Latin to his nearly 900,000 followers.
If you study philosophical theories, you’ll come across a good amount of Latin terminology. There’s tabula rasa (“blank slate”), which is the idea that all knowledge comes from experience and perception — you’re not born with any. Then there’s a priori and a posteriori, as made popular by Immanuel Kant, which relate to “the justification for why a given item of knowledge is held.” Without getting too deep into the complex world of philosophy, just note the significance of Latin’s role in that field.
The legal field is another where Latin is extremely prevalent. Habeas corpus, amicus curiae, ex post facto. You probably recognize these phrases from reading about court cases or watching them on TV, or from working in a legal profession. Even the word “jury” comes from the Latin jurare, which means “swear.”
The Benefits Of Learning Latin
So Latin may be dead, but it’s clearly not extinct. And learning Latin can actually have quite a few benefits.
For one thing, it will help you if you work (or even dabble) in any of the fields mentioned above. Already knowing the terminology going in will save you time and give you a leg up at work.
Studying Latin can also help you learn other languages, especially Romance languages. A ton of prefixes, suffixes and even full vocabulary words in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian derive from Latin, so learning Latin can make studying these languages easier.
A case can also be made for the mental stamina and systematic thinking that learning Latin can garner. Studying the language teaches students discipline, logical thinking and attention to detail. Training your brain is one of the great benefits of learning any language, but Latin has a specific structure that requires increased mental fortitude.