Who spoke Latin natively?

I once heard/read (don’t recall where) that Latin is a “constructed” or “invented” language. According to what I heard the early Catholic Church, recognizing that the meanings of words change over time, invented Latin for the express purpose of being the language of scripture. Latin would be used strictly for scripture - not for conversation. Thus would the words of scripture be made safe from changes in meaning.

More recently, I’ve heard that the Romans spoke Latin. (Of course, I’ve also heard that Greek was the common language of the Romans - this is borne out by the fact of Paul using Greek in his letters to various churches in the Roman Empire.) The idea that the Catholic Church invented Latin is rather blatantly discredited by the Biblical account of the crucifixion of Jesus: the sign they tacked over his head was written in three languages, one of which was Latin. This would have been well before the establishment of the Catholic Church.

So what’s the Straight Dope? Whence came Latin?

i’m prety sure some people might have spoken it natively in…latin america.

Latin is an Indo-European language which gets its name from the area of Italy around Rome (Latium). Other languages in the Italian peninsula in the earliest times of Latin are Etruscan, Oscan and Umbrian. We have a great deal of pre-Christian written evidence of Latin in Italy as well as the western provinces of the Roman empire, not to mention elsewhere. Latin became widespread as the lingua franca in the western part of the empire because it was the language of the conquerors. It was also known and used in the eastern part of the empire, but there the lingua franca remained, primarily, Greek (thus, Paul, who grew up in the eastern part of the empire, would have learned Greek to communicate with non-Jews, and the Christian communities he was writing to would have all migrated from the east in that frist generation).

Hope that is helpful.

Just to clarify slightly, the Christian community Paul was writing to in Rome, the only really ‘western’ community, at the time of his writing to them, probably consisted mostly of immigrants from the East (some of them Jewish Christians, and some of them Gentiles).

If you are unfamiliar with the fact that Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, and before that, the Roman Republic, beginning hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, try reading the Wikipedia entry just to get some sort of overview of the subject.

In short, Latin is far older than Christianity, was the language of Ancient Rome, and evolved from earlier languages in the vicinity of Rome.

At the slim risk that this question isn’t a joke (You’ve heard of Latin, but “more recently heard” that the Romans spoke it? ), Latin was most definitely a living language (i.e. there were native speakers, people born into it) from at least 500 B.C.E. to 400 A.D. (those are rough dates only, and are probably conservative).

Proof of this is ubiquitous; inscriptions on public works across most of Europe, graffiti at the excavated city of Pompeii, coins in circulation with legible slogans, just to mention things that most certainly were accessible to the average Roman. Furthermore, it would be hard to explain the similarities between the modern Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portugese, Romanian, Italian et al.) without a spoken Latin as a predecessor language. Add to this the vast body of literature that has come down to us over the centuries through hand copying, and I think you’d have a hard time convincing anyone Latin was just the construct of a small cadre of church officials.

The Catholic Church–particularly in the Dark Ages–did actively preserve the forms of Latin known in the ancient world far beyond their power as a native language. This lead to a fossilization of Latin as other common languages evolved. Its use as a quasi-international language though the Middle Ages no doubt increased its austerity until it became increasingly irrelevant in day-to-day life, a ritual without a purpose.

Dan Quayle? Is that you?

Yes, the Ancient Romans spoke Latin. Latin is the root of the Romance Languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, among others) and, via Norman French, had a large impact on English as well. (English is a Germanic language that had a lot of input from Old Norse early in its history, with the French coming in after 1066 and William the Conqueror.) I don’t know how you got taught that it was artificial, but it certainly is not. It was a living language and Italian is its lineal descendant.

It is now a mummified language which is kept functional for the purposes of the Roman Catholic Church by the addition of new words but is otherwise left unchanged. It was preserved through the Middle Ages and Renaissance after the fall of Rome (400-600 AD to roughly 1500, then the Renaissance was 1500 through 1800 when the Industrial Revolution happened in a big way)* to serve as the common language of everyone rich enough to have learned it in school. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileio, and Newton all published their works in Latin so they could be read throughout the civilized (that is, European) world.

It was taught in high school and college as part of a ‘liberal education’ because people thought it was ‘improving’. That is, they thought it made you better in some immeasurable way. More rationally, they also thought it helped you learn English grammar.** That notion and practice held on well into the 20th century.

*(All dates horribly simplified. 410 is when the Roman Empire ended in England, a rather far-flung province. It lasted longer in Rome itself. 1500 is when the back of Catholic domination was broken by Lutheranism and the New World was open to large-scale exploitation/exploration/immigration. I’m not going into the huge changes between 1500 and 1800 in such a small post.)

**(Less rationally, they thought ‘correct’ English should conform to Latin rules. Obvious nonsense, and the source of obviously nonsensical rules against splitting infinitives (“To boldly go…”) which is impossible in Latin but often good style in English.)

Do the languages Latin descended from have known identities? It never even ocurred to me. I’ve always imagined a big blank space between PIE and Latin, even though intellectually I know that can’t be true.

Nope, not a joke :slight_smile: But my schooling took place well after the public schools in the USA stopped teaching Latin as a matter of course. I think my mom mentioned taking it in high school in the 1950s-60s. All I ever heard about Latin as a kid was in some 1960s comic books I found in my grandparents’ garage, and certain newspaper comic strips, in which a recurring gag seemed to be a kid showing Dad his report card, with decent grades in most subjects but an “F” in Latin. A joke I really didn’t get at the time, since it wasn’t a subject in school for me.

In any case, I’m sure my first actual knowledge of the language was that it’s what the Romans spoke. But not being a Catholic, I never had any reason to look further into it. So when I came across an article calling it an “invented language”, it made a certain amount of sense. After all, my only experience with Latin came from hearing or reading it in religious or scientific contexts. Somewhere along the line, my brain connected what I’d read about the religious use of the language with the idea that the scientific community had adopted it for the same reasons.

Yes, ignorance on my part, I know. But it’s simply something I’ve never really had to think about. So the bit about it being an invented language was tucked away in the back of my brain, and popped back to the front at some point when the topic of Latin came up in a conversation. The “more recently heard” was quite a few years ago. I’ve just never gotten around to trying to clear this up until now :slight_smile:

[sub]maybe I was thinking of Esperanto …[/sub]

In a sense, they are Latin, only evolved into their present form. Gradually, the language acquired new words, and dropped case endings (this probably began before 410), and had other changes to its grammar. I know that Latin had a raft of different dialectsa at the time Erasmus was writing (early 16th Century); it was a frequent complaint of his.

I can pretty much guarantee you never read anywhere that Latin was an invented language. You may be thinking of Italian, which was more or less invented (or synthesised anyway) by Dante.

He meant the precursors of Latin, not the Romance languages. And AFAIK, they don’t.

BTW, maybe the OP is thinking of written Classical Latin. Wasn’t that at least partially constructed and not something that people actaully spoke?

I mean the Latin spoken by the oldest Romans; what is its parent language called? Or have we not broken up that Latinate continuum into discrete languages?

AFAIK, it’s just called “Old Latin”. But that only goes back to ~900 BC, which is when Latin was brought into that region.

I’d like to read that article; I could use a good laugh. It is very loosely, vaguely, barely defensible that modern Latin is an ‘invented’ dialect because, for one thing, we really have no good idea how it was pronounced Way Back When. The Church has one traditional idea, Latin scholars have a different notion, and the people who use Latin terms in daily conversation tend to pronounce them after their native language’s fashion.

Aside from that, its use in technical contexts is easy to understand. The sciences, including the medical sciences, like Latin and Greek because those languages’ root-affix method of word building makes it easy to construct new terms for specific things out of familiar terms for more general things. For example ‘cardiac’ means ‘heart’, ‘peri-’ means ‘surrounding’, so ‘pericardium’ means ‘that which surrounds the heart’. That the great works in medicine were widely known to Europeans in Latin didn’t hurt matters, either. (I don’t know how many of them had to be translated out of Arabic first, though.)

Its use in law comes from the fact that the people who made laws back in the Classical and Medieval periods spoke Latin, because that’s the language high-status people spoke going back to the Roman Empire.

A more complete sense of Latin’s place in the world might come from Wikipedia’s “History of the Latin Language.” In short, however:

Old Latin is the earliest written language in its line; there are, therefore, no inscriptions indicating the nature of any precursors. Latium is believed to have been settled from farther north, and linguistic hypotheses include Italic, Proto-Italic, and Proto-Italo-Celtic (the Italic languages appear more closely related to Celtic than anythng else). Ancient Latin is known to have been influenced by (but not descended from) Etruscan and Greek. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan alphabet, but the similarity ends there.

Classical Latin was indeed artificial and highly formal, and its declensions, conjugations, cases, and moods were multiplied to suit the needs of rhetoric, an art which the Romans patterned after the Greeks. In fact, Greek was the language of literature and educated discourse for the early Romans, as Latin was for most Europeans centuries later. The common speech in Rome was “Vulgar Latin,” or “vulgate,” which was simpler to speak. It is also the ancestor of the Romance languages. Similarly, Greek had literary (“Hellenistic”) and common (“Koine”) versions, and Koine was the common speech of much of the Roman Empire (as well as being the language of the New Testament), but not of Rome itself.

Medieval Latin and Church Latin are distinct from Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin, and served literary, official, liturgical, and diplomatic purposes that aren’t too far from what’s in the OP.

John, any background on the ~900 BCE migrations? It’s something I had never run into, and would be interested in learning more about.

The Italic languages were Latin, Faliscan, Oscan, Umbrian, and Venetian. (Other, unrelated or less closely related languages were also spoken in prehistoric Italy, notably Etruscan.) Latin was spoken in what’s now the province of Latium (Lazio). It early replaced Faliscan (roughly the area inland and south from Lazio towards Naples) and Oscan. Umbrian (spoken, of course, in Umbria) held on a bit longer, but was completely replaced by 200 AD/CE. During the late Republic and early Empire, it spread across a wide area in western Europe and the western Mediterranean littoral, and of course was the “official” language of the Empire (though Greek was more common in the eastern Mediterranean). As noted, the Latin of Cicero and Virgil was something of a formalized, literary language, akin to precisionist formal English, and the populus vulgaris tended to speak a breezier form called Vulgate, from which, with admixtures from Germanic languages and other sources, the modern Romance languages sprang.

Typically, in the first centuries AD/CE, you would have been understood in Vulgar Latin in coloniae ranging from the Rhineland to the Severn Valley to most of Spain, the Maghrib, Italy, and Dalmatia, with an outlier in Dacia (at first northern Bulgaria and later through most of Romania). The transition from vulgar Latin to the old forms of the modern Romance languages was a very gradual one, and Latin remained a “current learned” language up until modern times, gradually losing ground to the vernaculars.

I though that Venetian was a Celtic language. I’ve read mentions of the Veneti in passing, and they’re identified as a Celtic tribe.

So if Latin was the language of the Roman conquerors and a wide-spread group of people, why did it die out as a spoken language?

It didn’t, it evolved. Someone who spoke only Latin would recognize Spanish and Italian as being Latin-based languages quite easily (they might have a little bit of trouble recognizing French because of the Germanic influences on it’s pronunciation). They might even be able to understand a little, in the same way a Spanish speaker can understand a little Italian.

Languages can change pretty quick. Most English speakers would think a person speaking the English that Chaucer spoke less than a thousand years ago is a totally different language. If they saw it in writing, they’d probably understand more, but the pronunciation is very different. English from 500 years ago is easily read, but it would be hard to follow a native speaker unless he spoke very slowly. It’s still English.

In one of Poul Anderson’s “Time Patrol” stories, a man from the past (I think it was sometime after the fall of the Roman empire) gets his hands on a time machine and uses it to try and prevent the fall of Rome. At one point the protagonist (from 1950s California) has to try and convince him that he was successful, and is asked to speak in his native tongue to convince him that the Roman Empire is still around in the 20th century. The hero uses a few phrases from his limited vocabulary of Mexican Spanish and the other traveller is convinced he is hearing a form of vulgar Latin, and in a way he’s right.