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Why is Latin Important Today?

Latin is a classical language that was originally spoken in Rome. As of today, it is considered a dead language, as it is no longer spoken natively. Many language learners might say, "Why not learn a language more practical like Spanish or Mandarin?" but in this article, we hope to provide insight into why Latin should be considered invaluable.

The End of an Era

The Catholic Church began to gain power after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. With it came Latin: a language of science, learning, and international communication. In historical terms, Latin didn't "die out", but instead morphed into different languages until the original language became unrecognizable to its speakers. Latin changed into languages such as Romanian French, Spanish, and Portuguese, known as the romance languages. But why did Latin disappear in the first place?

One reason is that the language is incredibly complex. Latin is an inflected language (inflection being the process of using different forms of words for different grammatical purposes). Every word could be modified based on voice, tense, gender, number, etc. For example, the Latin word vōx, meaning “a voice”, changes in many ways:

vōx a voice

vōcis of a voice

Vocō. I call.

Vocat. He calls.

Vocet. Let him call.

Vocāvit. He has called.

To many English speakers, this doesn’t seem like anything special. But at the time, many common Romans preferred to speak in a simplified form of Latin called Vulgar Latin. The word “vulgar” itself is an adjectival form of the Latin word for “the crowd”. Even Roman soldiers spoke Vulgar Latin, and they took it with them to other regions. Eventually, it disappeared as it folded more and more into various local languages, which became the modern romance languages we know today.

Latin: the Base of the English Language

“Carpe diem” may be the only Latin phrase you might say you know, but you probably know many more Latin words than you think. Nearly half of the English language derives from Latin words and roots. You can think of the English language as a two-sided coin: the front is English (with Germanic roots), and the back is Latin. When primary school students begin to learn to read and write, they will generally only learn the front of the coin. Then, around the age of eight, students are exposed to the back of the coin. Latin words tend to have more syllables, more abstract meanings, and different pronunciation and spelling patterns. Look at how Henry Hitchings, the author of The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, explains the difference between the two sides: “To put it crudely, the words of Latin origin are formal and scholarly, whereas words of Germanic origin are more every day and at the same time may have more visceral significance.”

In order to gain a deep understanding of the English language, it’s almost impossible to avoid learning a bit of Latin as well. Take the Latin word pater patis (which means “father”) for example. This single word branches into several English words - paternal, patriarch, patriot, and patronize, to name a few - and they all have different meanings.

Latin in Law

If you live in the US, you’ve undoubtedly seen the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (which means “out of many, one”) printed on a dollar bill. The use of Latin in law and government doesn’t stop there. Many legal terms have Latin roots. This includes words such as:

alibi another place

provide evidence of someone’s whereabouts when a crime was committed

subpoena under penalty

orders a person to offer testimony or evidence, or face punishment

Why are the Western world’s legal systems rooted in Latin? This is simply because, at one point in time, Romans had conquered most of Europe. Before the Roman Republic was established, laws were developed through centuries of custom. These laws (called ius, meaning customary law) were considered to be an inherited aspect of society, passed down through generations. However, a period of social unrest erupted, where legal decisions were often decided randomly and arbitrarily. In 451 BCE, a group of ten men called the decemvirs created a committee to write down laws for the first time. These laws became known as the Twelve Tables, and they are the basis of the law systems in place today.

Latin in Science

From scientific names of flora and fauna to the abbreviations on the Periodic Table of Elements, modern science uses Latin words and phrases in many ways. Scientists often Latin as a quarry for new scientific terms.

Latin is present in many fields in the STEM realm. As mentioned above, the Periodic Table of Elements employs the use of Latin abbreviations for periodic symbols. The symbol for sodium “Na” is just the short form of the Latin word natrium. In geology, you will likely see the words igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary, which all are forms of Latin roots. The language is also prominent in astronomy. Sol is Latin for “sun” and takes many different forms such as solar, solstice, insolation, and more. If you would like to learn more about astronomy in ancient times, take a look at our article “Astronomy in Ancient Greece”.

The same method of naming terms extends to math as well. Integer means “whole” in Latin, and therefore integers are whole numbers. Exponent derives from the Latin word ex meaning “out of”.

As you can see, Latin is still useful and important even after it lost all its native speakers. The language was been used for centuries, and it will most likely continue to be used for centuries to come!

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