When did Latin "die"?

I am reading a book about the development of the English language and there was a reference (more than one, actually) about Latin being a “dead” language. This isn’t exactly new, of course, but I was wondering when Latin was… what? “Declared dead”? Is that the phrase?

And who has the awesome authority to declare a language dead?

(Yes, in the field of taxonomy (sp!) Latin is still very much alive, but in regular everyday use, it’s commonly referred to as a dead language).

Thinking about it, I can see a few points in history where it could be argued that Latin was “killed”:

  1. The fall of the Roman Empire. Didn’t exactly kill it, but didn’t do the future development of the language (as Latin, of course) many favors.

  2. The Protestant Reformation. The stake through the heart? The Protestants rebelled against much, including the use of Latin in church services, preferring the vernacular.

  3. The rise of other Lingua franca’s (sp, again) such as French and English from the 17th-21st centuries.

Or maybe it was something else, or a whole slew of things. If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking the question. :wink:

What say you? When did Latin “die”? And “why?”

It really depends on what you mean. Because there’s an awful lot of people speaking languages that directly trace back to Latin. You might as well ask “when did Old English die”? There is quite a clear path that can be traced from Latin to modern Italian.

Also, you’re making the mistake that there was one “Latin”. Classical Latin is not the same as Medieval Latin, or the Latin that was used for scientific writing in the Renaissance period. Now, they’re certainly quite similar, but by no means identical. Somebody in the fifth century reading Catullus might have been much like you now reading Shakespeare: while clearly the same language, the particular phrasings, choice of vocabulary, etc, would have been quite a bit different. Pronunciation drifts, and spelling with it.

It didn’t die in the usual sense of having less and less speakers until at one point the last speaker died. What happened was that over the years the various dialects spoken by the Latin speakers became more and more different from each other and more and more different from the Latin spoken in the “classical” period (which for this purpose means about 1 B.C.). By 1000 A.D., the dialects spoken by these people were different enough from each other that the speakers of one dialect didn’t understand the speakers of another dialect. Furthermore, the speakers of each of the dialects wouldn’t have understood a Latin speaker of 1 B.C. if one were suddenly resurrected.

Also, there was a group of people in Europe at that point who learned Classical Latin in school and could read and write it. Mostly these people were Catholic priests, but there was also still a tradition of writing important texts in Classical Latin. At some point (and it was actually a gradual process) people began to say, “Hey, what we have here isn’t Latin as it’s written and a bunch of degenerate dialects with speakers who can’t understand the other dialects or the original language. What we have is a dead language (although we can still write it) - Latin - and a bunch of living languages - Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, etc.” What happened wasn’t actually a change in a language as a change in how the language was perceived.

Very true: I’m quite positive that my general query masks a lot of subtleties about the language and its various forms, BUT the general consensus is that “Latin” is a “dead” language.

So, somehow, the idea that the Latin language is dead is fixed in today’s culture… and the evidence I can see is that, apart from limited functions (like taxonomy and internal documents of the Roman Catholic Church), is that it is dead.

However, “Latin” was once the language of all educated European men for 500+ years, then it ceased being to be so.

When? Why? And who declared it “dead”? (If not “who” (likely an impossible to answer question), then when did the “Latin is dead” meme enter the general culture?)

I was reading a history of medieval Europe that discussed this point. The author said that what happened was that Latin, like every other language, slowly changed over the years. But the people speaking it still considered themselves to be speaking Latin even though a first century Roman might barely understand what they were saying.

Then during the reign of Charlemagne there was a revival of classical scholarship and an attempt was made to restore Latin. The attempt ironically ended up killing Latin instead. The scholars used old texts and revived classical Roman Latin and fixed it in place. But they were unable to stop the continuing changes of how people actually spoke.

So during the ninth century, Latin became considered to be the language that was written in classical texts and was unchanging. The language that people were speaking stopped being considered as a Frankish dialect of Latin and began being seen as a seperate language which eventually became known as French.

It was used at Catholic mass until the 1960s. In recent years more people are going back to Latin masses , the current Pope and John Paul II both OKd the Latin mass for special masses, not for most services. For a while after Latin was phased out for Mass churches were not allowed to have a Latin mass without permission but some priests did so anyway.

At least one historian declared it “dead” as early as 1693

As far as I am concerned, it died the moment I finished the second year of it in high school.

One interesting note is that the Roman elite, at least as early as the late Republic, had begun taking rather a dim view of Latin. Greek language and culture were tremendously popular, to the extent that one of the hallmarks of a rigorous education was knowledge of Greek. Moreover, many of the emperors - with varying degrees of enthusiasm and, well, sanity - were serious grecophiles. Augustus, Nero, and Hadrian were good examples - the latter two even made abortive efforts to grant the Greek territories autonomy.

None of this was probably all that important to the end of Latin as the lingua franca of the Western world - which happened much later - but it can’t have helped that even at the height of Roman power, the ruling elite didn’t want to have to actually use this stuff. (Giving them something in common with KlondikeGeoff, I suppose).

And speak it. Until the Second Vatican Council, Mass was in Latin; this could include the sermon (whether it did or not depended on the priest and his audience).

Latin is a language
As dead as dead can be
First it killed the Romans
And now it’s killing me


What was the greatest accomplishment of the ancient Romans?

They could understand Latin.

A language can be considered “dead” when there are no more people who have spoken it from birth. If you learn it in school, rather than at your mother’s knee, then it’s not a living language. So once people spoke Italian, Spanish, French etc as their birth languages, but had to learn Classical Latin in school, Latin was effectively dead (even if widely used in the Church).

Essentially, the Classical Latin now or until recently learned in schools faded out as a ‘birth language’ by no later than AD 100 – and for the last 100-150 years of its existence it was of the character of “U” British English – a ‘proper’ variant on the common speech preserved by a self-styled elite and those who looked to them for cultural leadership.

Alongside it, though, was growing Vulgar Latin, a colorful vivid mostly-oral language that is poorly documented, for the simple reason that what was written and preserved tended to be in Classical Latin. There were vocabulary differences, such as caballus for equus (horse) but major distinctions were in grammatical forms – the specialized -s forms of third-declension nominatives were largely discarded, the -us endings of second conjugation nominative transformed to the -o alreayd present in dative and ablative forms, verb conjugations simplified to a certain degree, and generally hints of what would someday become Romance languages emerged.

Somewhere around or after 400 AD this transmuted to Late Latin, only slightly better documented than Vulgar. But, more importantly, this development coincided with the crumbling of the Empire in the West. (Already a renascent Greek had asserted dominance over the East; Koine Greek had always been a lingua franca, even while the Empire was united and strong, and Latin could not compete with it in the East, except for Dacia.

The ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ brought new life to Classical Latin as the language of culture and such scence and scholarship as existed, but the popular forms were rapidly growing apart as dialects. Imagine, if you will, the fall of civilization in about 1900. Then contemplate reconnection, 300 years later, of Australia, Yorkshire, southern England, English-speaking Ireland, Canada, the Northeast U.S., the American South, California, and New Zealand, each with their own dialects, with a common trait of doing scholarly and cultural work in Victorian English while evryday conversation and trade is conducted in the local dialect. Such a picture gives you the beginnings of the Romance languages.

Eventually national languages based on the dialects of Paris, Toledo, Florence, Lisbon, etc., came to be regarded as ‘separate languages’ but local dialects persisted, all derived from Late Latin and some varying so far from the ‘national’ norm as to be mutually unintelligible. Sardinia, Provence, much of Spain, the Rhaetian valleys, Friulia, are among these – and the consolidation into ‘national’ standards is still far from complete.

One of the signs of a dead language is the fact that it ceases to change. Living languages are in constant flux, evolving new forms, adding words, dropping words, etc. Certainly Latin had a vigorous afterlife as the language of diplomacy and science through much of the Renaissance and Age of Reason but its form was fixed for ever, like a fly caught in amber.

It was this very quality of changelessness that made Latin so appealing for those like poets and scholars who wished their work to last through the ages. Was not Old English now completely unintelligible to a 17th century Englishman? Was it not likely that some New English of the 21st or 22nd century would be equally unintelligible? (Unsurprisingly they had no notion that new and almost instant forms of communication would eventually serve to stabilise internatonal languages like English.)

Thus the 17th century poet Edmund Waller writes (in Of English Verse):

February 3, 1959. But that was also the “Day the Music Died” and it was overshadowed in the news so most people missed it.

That’s one definitive criterion, and a good one, though people do reject it. I myself prefer to side-step the question, but I don’t think that the existence of native speakers is definitive of whether a language is dead or not because of the following complicating notion: David Crystal argued in English as a Global Language that soon native english speakers will be the minority of speakers of English, and that these send-language speakers of English will produce an emergent form of the language that will become the international tongue. I would hardly consider such a thing a dead language, even if no one ever goes on to teach it to their children.

The criterion I find more important is whether the language continues to evolve, and there’s the rub. The language did, in fact, continue to evolve, which is why we have all these romance languages around, as others have pointed out. If you go back to the language the way it was, it’s hard to talk about anything they weren’t talking about back then. The terminology has to be established, and a lot of that has to take place just to establish a common vocabulary before the phenomena of living languages can even get traction. Then, how long are we looking at before the language evolves out of mutual intelligibility?

Personally, I suspect that it would work much like English. With my modern English background, I learned with practice to read and understand the Englishes of Milton, Shakespeare and even Chaucer. Don’t get me wrong, I found it pretty tedious at the time. But if Latin as a living language presented no more difficulty than this in reading across centuries, I believe you could have it both ways.

aldiboronti writes:

> Unsurprisingly they had no notion that new and almost instant forms of
> communication would eventually serve to stabilise internatonal languages like
> English.

There’s no reason to think that English has stabilized. It’s still changing and at about the same rate.

Latin, although much altered from the high language of Cicero and Virgil, remained as a spoken language and merged in a very natural way into the modern Romance languages.

However, that is not the answer that you want, I believe. For as long as the Empire in the West survived, a high level of Latin was used in the church and administration. It was not the same as would have been used 500 years previously, but there would have been little difficulty for an educated person to shift from the vernacular version to the literary. This situation continued until the ‘barbarian’ rulers, who took over the western Empire decided to use the laws of their own people, rather than Latin. This was the death blow. There was no longer a brake on the development of what were later to become known as Spanish, Italian, French, etc. The Church, however, still fostered late Latin, and it became the language of the Mass and religion. In the East Latin was overtaken by Greek after the time of Justinian - late 6th century.

It is interesting to note that those who speak Spanish and Italian, for example, can still, with some difficulty, still make themselves understood to each other. This is fraught with difficulty. A simple example: an Italian might spread ‘burro’ on his bread. This would seem bizarre to a Spaniard, to whom burro is a donkey. But such cases are not too frequent, so somehow mutual comprehension is still possible on some levels. Not so with French, though. The nasality of French, and its somewhat different verbal system make it less accessible to Spanish and Italians alike.

Of course it’s changing but certainly not at the same rate. Just look how rapidly Latin broke into mutually unintelligible languages. The same thing would certainly have happened to English if the separate parts of the English-speaking world had been isolated from each other. In fact just a century or so ago a professor of language at one of the English universities confidently predicted that Australians and Brits would not understand each other by the 21st century. He reckoned without the power of Hollywood and the internet