The influence of the Roman Empire on our modern civilization cannot be underestimated: Europe’s judicial systems, scientific traditions, and literature can all be traced back to the ancient world. Their language also made a significant contribution to Europe’s development: Latin was the main language of education and court up until the 18th century, and it is still used in fields like medicine, zoology, and botany.
Today, the only country where Latin has an official status is the Vatican, where it is still used by the clergy. You will not find anyone who speaks the language natively anymore.
Doesn’t that seem a bit strange?
Have you ever wondered: how could a prominent language from one of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever seen die out?
Furthermore, what killed it?
It wasn’t the collapse of the Roman empire — Latin outlived its empire by nearly a thousand years, thriving as a written language in Europe. (To be clear, we actually still use the Latin alphabet).
Let’s take a look at how — and why — Latin met its end.
An overview of the Latin language
Latin was a language which belonged to the Italic branch of the Indo-European family. Originally a dialect spoken by the tribe of Latins inhabiting the Tiber river area around modern-day Rome, it eventually became the main language of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. From there, Roman conquest brought Latin to the areas of modern-day France, Spain, Portugal, Maghreb, Romania, Tukey, and many other places. Despite the fall of Western Rome in 476 CE and the subsequent decline of Roman culture, Latin remained the common language of international communication in Europe until well into the 18th century.
In other words, it occupied a position much like the one that English occupies today.
In terms of grammar, imagine a crazy mixture of modern-day Italian and Russian:
- Grammatical cases for nouns/adjectives (rose is rosa when it’s the subject of a sentence, rosam when it’s something you’ve given away, and rosae when it possesses something like beauty or poise.)
- Multi-pattern verb conjugation (just as we say I run but she runs, the endings of Latin verbs change depending on who is doing an action: I, you, he/she/it, we, you [plural], or they.)
- Verbal aspect (whereas tense tells when something happened, aspect instead focuses on the duration, frequency, or completion of an action. In the sentence I am sitting, -am shows that we are in the present tense while -ing shows that we’re using the continuous aspect.)
So, this brings up the question: perhaps Latin died out because it was too complicated, and no one wanted to speak or learn it anymore?
The short answer is no. The actual reason was different.
Manner of death: natural causes
Having said that, languages are like a living organism. They get born, they live, and they die.
So do empires.
Latin and the Roman empire
Even though the Roman Empire once held in its hands a large chunk of the world, corruption, bureaucracy, political, economic, and social crises slowly led it to collapse.
No matter which country we’re talking about, the standard language anywhere tends to be based on the dialect spoken in its capital. This was true of Latin, too. There was much more linguistic diversity back then,but the dialects of Latin spoken in Hispania (roughly modern-day Spain and Portugal) and Dacia (modern-day Romania) still at least somewhat resembled the language spoken in Rome.
After the collapse of the empire, people slowly but steadily stopped caring about the way people who lived thousands of miles away spoke like. More emphasis began being placed on how people here spoke. As such, the languages started drifting apart: the Latin spoken in Hispania became less and less similar to the Latin spoken around modern-day Italy.
During the Empire’s existence, the language was divided into two different registers, classical and vulgar. Loosely speaking:
- Vulgar Latin was a spoken language, common amongst most people living in the Roman Empire
- Classical Latin was a written language, based on more ancient dialects and spoken by the educated population
Due to the centuries dividing the two languages, by the time the Empire collapsed, the norms of each one had significantly diverged.
Vulgar Latin became the basis of what we know today as “Romance languages,” with the word itself paying homage to the Latin name for the city itself — Roma.
Latin after the Roman empire’s collapse
The new kingdoms (Hispania, Dacia, etc) pursued their own policies, which led to the separate development of their languages. Furthermore, they went on to lead separate histories. The Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula led to the emergence of Arabic words in Spanish and Portuguese, for example, but not in Italian or French.
The Frankish conquest of the Gauls led to the “Germanization” of the Gallic dialect of Vulgar Latin. Over time, this led to the emergence of the French language, which diverged more from its ancestor language than its cousins would. The first written evidence of the French language is the Strasbourg oaths of 842.
This evolution of Latin into Romance languages took around 800-1000 years. In terms of linguistic evolution, that's not much time at all.
Why, exactly, did Classical Latin disappear?
By the time that the Roman Empire collapsed, there was already a significant gap between written (classical) and spoken (vulgar) Latin: the way that Latin was written did not really reflect how people spoke it. The collapse of the empire widened this gap further. People here and there were speaking the language differently, and without an up-to-date written language to help preserve how they were actually speaking, the versions of Latin being spoken around Europe quickly changed and evolved.
In other words, Latin evolved into the many Romance languages.
Romance languages differ from Latin not only lexically, but also grammatically.
- Natural evolution over time led to the extinction of grammatical cases
- Generally speaking, Latin's grammar got simplified
- Articles (a, an, the) emerged
Here's a big-picture look at some of the major factors leading to Latin's fall from the throne:
National language growth
New nations emerging from former Roman provinces slowly grew, eventually becoming major players in the European political sphere. Alongside this growth of European nation-states was the growth of new languages spoken by the populaces of those nation-states.
Around the 12th-13th centuries CE, French became the main language of German, Flemish, and Dutch nobility. In the second half of the 13th century CE, Italian authors, such as Marco Polo, used the French language for their literary works due to its popularity across the continent.
In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu ordered the opening of the French Academy, which led to the increase of the scientific and scholastic use of the French language. From the middle of the 17th century, French began being used as the main language of international communication and correspondence. The peak of its popularity occurred during the 18th century, when French replaced Latin in diplomacy, science, international cultural exchange, and literature. This status was upheld until World War I.
Today in the 21st century, French is still one of the most important languages of the world, officially spoken in 33 countries. It is also the working language of over 17 international organizations, including the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the African and European Unions, among others.
Portuguese and Spanish
The Reconquista and the subsequent emergence of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires on the Iberian Peninsula allowed for the increased use of their state languages. Since the late 12th century, Portuguese has been the main written language in Portugal, which by that time already diverged so significantly that it was no longer considered a variant of Vulgar Latin.
The Age of Discovery became a founding ground for the expansion of the Spanish language and culture across the globe, which subsequently led to modern-day Spanish-speaking Latin American nations.
In the early Renaissance, the Florentine dialect gained popularity among the nobility of Italian states. Writing and speaking it was considered prestigious, and by the end of the 16th century it completely displaced other Vulgar Latin-based dialects from everyday use. By the 21st century, this dialect had evolved into literary Italian.
Due to the division between Italian states, different dialects of the language kept growing apart to the point where different dialects became mutually unintelligible. Even after the unification of 1861, the Italian language spoken in the North and South of the country remained different. After the popularization of radio and television in the first half of the previous century, this division got smoothed out, but it has not been eradicated completely.
Dacian tribes inhabiting modern-day Romania voluntarily switched to Latin after the Roman conquest of 106 CE. The whole process took a few centuries, after which they lost their original native language in favor of the “enlightened” tongue of Romans. By the 13th century, they had already started calling themselves “Romans” (Romania), despite the fact that their language had been significantly altered by extensive contact with Slavic and Germanic peoples.
The national movement of the Romanians in the latter half of the 19th century led to the abolishment of the Cyrillic alphabet in favor of a Roman character-based writing system, plus the strengthening of the role of the Romanian language in the country.
Martin Luther’s Bible translation led to an increase of nationalism and religious consciousness in Central and Western Europe during the late Renaissance. Whereas Latin had previously been the language of the Church, now religion was accessible to more people who could now pray in their native languages.
Latin's popularity also took a hit as the scope of the Church shrank and the continent moved towards secularization. Latin had long been propped up as the main language of the Catholic Church, so when the influence of Catholicism declined, so too did that of Latin.
The First Industrial Revolution (1760) caused the beginning of economic globalization: more and more foreign goods became available to the common population for the first time in history. More people started to travel internationally, and for that, a living, spoken language was needed. As stated above, by the 19th century, French had firmly established its position as the most prominent international language. The invention of the telephone and telegraph hastened the economic unification of the planet. Political and technological developments of the 20th century shifted the focus from (Romance) French to (Germanic) English.
Will the next several centuries see English eventually go the way of Latin?
As stated above, languages live and die, just like people. No matter how important the language once was, some day it’ll follow in the footsteps of Latin, Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek, and countless others.
Now, here's an interesting thought to mull over: did Latin actually die out, or did it just acquire new names (French, Italian, etc) and continue evolving in these new nation-states that it inhabited?
As for now, that’s it for now, folks. Have a nice day, and bye!
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