I put up my review of how to learn languages (which itself contains links to the languages I had referred to and the introduction to the overall project from two years ago) on social media recently, and was asked why I had included Late Latin but not Classical Latin.
To answer that question, well, I really need to do a page on Classical Latin…
Classical Latin, by which here I mean the Golden Age Latin of Cicero (i.e. that spoken and written by the educated classes around 2100 years ago) whose grammatical and broad orthographical norms are still what is understood to be “Latin” when it is taught. This was the direct ancestor of Late Latin, the spoken vernacular of much of western Continental Europe which, although it had variations, still constituted even in the minds of its speakers a single “Latin” language at least until 700AD (and in some areas almost until the end of the first millennium). Furthermore, Classical Latin remained a single written lingua franca throughout the medieval era, particularly in ecclesiastical, philosophical and scientific life, and is still widely known and learned (and in some cases, typically at specific conferences, spoken) in its Golden Age form.
Latin itself was originally the language of a small tribe based in and slightly to the south (i.e. within easy modern commuting distance) of Rome in the region which eventually became known as Latium (modern Italian Lazio); to the north was spoken the closely related Faliscan, and around it were other Italic languages alongside some tongues of non-Proto-Indo-European origin and Ionian Greek (well to the south along the coast). Latin spread across the Italian peninsula, largely displacing all other languages by the Golden Age Period and completely displacing them by around 100AD (another Italic language, Oscan, is particularly well attested because it was still in use alongside Latin in Pompeii at the time of its destruction but was extinct soon after it); sermō vulgāris or “Vulgar Latin” was brought to all corners of the Empire by legionaries. After the conquest of any individual province, Latin was not formally enforced but in practice administrators would always operate in either Latin or Greek (and the former was almost always preferred).
The phonology of Classical Latin has been subject to much debate. In time it gave way to daughter languages, sometimes sharing phonological developments with each other and sometimes displaying their own. Speakers of those languages, and even of English and German, came to pronounce even Classical Latin according to their own contemporary norms, and it was not until the 20th century that classical pronunciation was largely re-established in education (although Italian pronunciation, known as Lingua Latīna Ecclēsiastica or Ecclesiastical Latin, is still preferred by the Church and, mostly, in music).
Even then, aspects of that classical pronunciation remain contested (or indeed in subsequent decades have proven to be plain wrong).
Some key points of agreement among current linguists include:
- from around 250BC, word stress shifted from the first syllable typically to the penultimate or antepenultimate depending on the length of the vowel and consonant/vowel pattern of the penultimate syllable (with some exceptions where final letters had been dropped);
- as is often forgotten in education but now agreed by philologists, vowel length was essential (for example ancient Romans viewed short [A] and long [Ā] as two fundamentally different letters, even though they were based in the same pronunciation and often written the same way);
- consonants were softer (less plosive) than in some modern languages such as English;
- the pair [I] and [J] were regarded as the same letter, as were [U] and [V];
- [M] and [N] after vowels were nasalised (even though this is rarely recognised in education).
Points of minor contention include:
- [C] and [G] (originally regarded as the same letter but clearly distinguished by the Golden Age period) were always pronounced hard, but there is some evidence that before high vowels ([E], [I] and in practice by the Golden Age period also [AE] and [OE]) they were always pronounced with a “y-glide” (i.e. as occurs after the [n] of British English ‘news’);
- English- and German-speaking linguists often posit a seven-vowel system (typically with [E] and [Ē] and [I] and [Ī] exhibiting not just distinct length but distinct quality) but this seems at odds with subsequent development and Southern European linguists assume only five (i.e. all five vowels had simply long and short forms; albeit six if including the [Y] in borrowings from Greek);
- [V], while certainly closer to English [w] than modern Italian [v], may have been somewhere between /ß/ (as in Spanish vivir) and /w/ rather than purely /w/ as is often taught, particularly between vowels;
- the third person form est ‘is’ and et ‘and’ may have been strongly elided (i.e. to something approaching ‘st/’t) in speech at all times (and not just in poetry or common speech), particularly after vowels and nasals; and
- in common speech, where a word ended in a vowel or a nasal it was often elided (by omission or conversion into a semi-vowel) if the next word began with a vowel or h-.
The result was a language from which harsher and slushier sounds (e.g. German [ch] /x/ or English [sh] /ʃ/) were entirely absent; however, it would have been markedly less vocalic than modern Italian (or even Late Latin), and when read aloud its rhythm sounds quite alien even to speakers of its daughter languages, given its unstressed final syllables and frequent long vowels (and also long consonants, retained only in Italian among today’s major national languages descended from it). Late Latin, which distinguished previously long versus short vowels only by quality rather than length and generally dropped final nasal consonants, would sound much more familiar to speakers of daughter languages, particularly Italian and Spanish.
Before the age of printing or even paper (although they had papyrus, a word itself borrowed from Greek), Latin did not require a written standard. However, in effect it developed one in the centuries before Christ through literature (such as Terence and Plautus) and particularly the form adopted by Cicero and Julius Caesar himself. This came to be recognised as the “classical” (understood to mean “first class”) form which has been used among the educated and in education ever since.
The Romans of Caesar’s time were generally aware that their language had developed and changed through time. Many knew that older competing grammatical inflections had in time been dropped, amended or regularised; in some cases minor confusion remained (for example initial du– became b– over a period probably during the second or third century BC, so duenos ‘good’ became bonus, but in some cases such as duo ‘two’ the du– was retained; hence even English ‘dual’ but ‘binary’). Romans of Caesar’s time were not of the view that their Latin was in any way superior linguistically to that which had gone before or to any other language – indeed, if anything, quite the opposite (educated upper classes in Ancient Rome in fact chose to speak to each other in what they regarded as the true language of high culture, namely Greek).
Latin was written with an alphabet ultimately derived from Phoenician, of 23 familiar letters. [K] was by some writers considered the same as [C]; [G] and [X] were borrowed from Greek after Latin was first written but before the Golden Age of its literature; [Y] and [Z] were only used in words of Greek origin (initially so were the digraphs [CH], [PH], [RH] and [TH], which clarifies that consonants were softer in Latin than Greek); there was no U/V or I/J distinction and no [W]. Albeit with the notes above, it was largely written as spoken although already by 100BC [AE] and [OE] were merging even sometimes in educated speech to [E]. Some conservative orators, conversely, occasionally retained [O] where [U] was written (notably equus ‘horse’ was often pronounced as if *equos).
In ancient times, Latin was written only in capitals. An acute mark, now more commonly a horizontal accent mark (e.g. [Ā] above), was occasionally used to mark long vowels (or even in some instances consonants); long consonants were usually marked by doubling.
Vocabulary was inherited largely from Proto-Indo-European, likely with other additions from non-Indo-European languages spoken in the Italian peninsula. There were also significant borrowings from Greek.
- I ūnus, II duo, III trēs, IV quattuor; V quinque; VI sex; VII septem; VIII octō; IX novem; X decem;
- XI ūndecim; XVI sēdecim; XVII septendecim; XVIII duodēvīgintī; XX vīgintī; XI vīginti ūnus; C centum; M mille.
Note that although Latin allowed counting in standard tens (so 19/XIX could be decimnovem) the last two numbers in each ten were more commonly reverse-counted (thus ūndevīgintī, literally ‘one from twenty’); this applied all the way up (e.g. 99/XCIX was most commonly ūndēcentum). Later numbers could also be counted unit first (so 24/XXIV could be vīgintī quattuor or quattuor et vīgintī ‘four and twenty’).
Latin is renowned for its complex grammar, but in fact even two millennia ago it was no more complex than what went before and was in many ways as straightforward as many modern languages such as Russian or even German.
Nouns endings changed depending on grammatical case, of which there were in practice five plus vestiges of two more (down from Proto-Indo-European’s likely eight or nine); most nouns fell into one of five ‘declensions’ which dictated the pattern by which they did this. Nouns were also one of three genders, which dictated how adjective or determiner endings also changed to ‘agree’ with them. Thus ille puer ‘this boy’, illa puella ‘that girl’, illud vallum ‘this wall’, puer bonus ‘good boy’, puella bona ‘good girl’, vallum bonum ‘good wall’; but also illum puerum ‘that boy’ (accusative; direct object), illā puellā ‘(by) that girl’ (ablative), illī vallī ‘(to) that wall’ (dative); illōs puerōs ‘those boys’ (accusative), illārum puellārum ‘(of) those girls’ (genitive), etc; unfortunately adjective and noun endings do not always match so neatly (e.g. Italiā borealī ‘from Northern Italy’, ablative).
Verbs were marked for tense/aspect (ranging from pluperfect to future, we including conditional with different aspect), voice (active and medio-passive) and mood (indicative, subjunctive and imperative), mostly synthetically (i.e. by changing endings) with additional supine, gerunds (verbal and adjectival forms) and various infinitive markers coded for voice and tense. They typically fell into one of four classes, but common verbs were often irregular.
The basic regular verb endings in the present tense were familiar even to speakers of modern Latinate languages (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person; singular then plural):
- cantō, cantās, cantat; cantāmus, cantātis, cantant.
However, even a verb as simple as cantāre ‘to sing’ could have over 100 more different forms (more than twice as many as even the most verbally complex modern national language), among them cantābimus ‘we will sing’, cantābant ‘they were singing’, cantāvistis ‘you [plural] sang’, cantāverat ‘she had sung’, cantātur ‘it is sung’, cantābantur ‘they were sung’, cantābitur ‘it will be sung’, cantēs ‘you [singular] may sing’ [subjunctive], cantāremus ‘we may have been singing’, cantāverint ‘they may have sung’, cantāvissem ‘I may have sung before’, cantētur ‘it may be sung’, cantārentur ‘they may have been sung’ plus cantā ‘sing!’ [singular], cantātōte ‘you shall sing!’ [plural], cantātor ‘it shall be sung!’ and cantāre ‘to sing’, cantāvisse ‘to have sung’, cantārī ‘to be sung’ [all infinitives], cantandum ‘singing’ [gerund/noun], cantāns ‘singing’ [gerundive/adjective], cantātus ‘sung’ [past participle], , etc.
Adjectives also had their own three declensions; with the first two, regular adverbs were formed by the suffix –ē (vērē ‘truly, really’) and in the third by –iter (fortiter ‘strongly, bravely’); some were outright irregular (e.g. bene ‘well’).
Notably Latin lacked articles (particularly noteworthy as contemporary Greek had them) and, given its case endings already carried so much meaning, it made considerably less (and arguably more specific) use of prepositions than its daughter languages.
Latin word order was most often SOV but was much freer than in its daughter languages, with the predominant consideration not the parts of speech but the emphasis. Not only could clauses be ordered more or less as the speaker/author desired, but due to agreement of adjectives/determiners and nouns elements could even be separated – magnam vidi nocte in caelō stellam ‘I saw a big star in the sky by night’ / ‘Big was the star that I saw in the night sky’.
Classical Latin is, therefore, instantly recognisable and in some ways weirdly familiar, and yet at the same time utterly alien. The way words are marked and clauses are constructed requires an entirely different thought process from that used for the most widely spoken modern Western European languages; and the sound and rhythm of the language, particularly with its distinctive word stress and the frequency of long vowels and consonants, is wholly unfamiliar to modern ears.
The reason I had not included Classical Latin originally is that it is in character so different from any national Western European language we could want to learn today. What I referred to as Vulgar Latin (actually, to be precise, Late Latin) is the direct ancestor of Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian, not Classical Latin, and Late Latin just sounds that bit more familiar and obviously close to us in the modern day; therefore Late Latin is the more relevant to contemporary language learning, all other things being equal.
Of course, arguably, all other things are not equal. Unfamiliar though it looks and alien though it sounds, the echoes of Classical Latin are with us every hour of every day. Indeed, Classical Latin (with some neologisms) is perfectly capable of being used in the modern world, in speech as well as writing. Its study at once opens up a window to our heritage, but also to linguistics in general and thus to language learning of any kind. Learning Classical Latin is in some ways like getting to know a family member you have just met and didn’t previously know existed – sometimes it is bizarre and frustrating and yet there is this strand of familiarity which connects us in some ways to the ancients and in some ways to each other.
Classical Latin, of course, did not stop at one point in time as a language in spoken use, even if it did at a written classical language. Already in the Golden Age period it is apparent that [AE] and [OE] were levelling to merge with [E] and within a few centuries some speakers also merged [I] as well; there was also some confusion between [O] and [U] among uneducated speakers particularly in rural areas. In the centuries after, at least in common speech, the combination [AL] became vocalised (effectively as [AU]) and both merged with [O]. Generally speaking, the more common, rural form was the one taken by the legionaries ad Hispaniam, and thus became Spanish (cf. Spanish lengua ‘language’ and otro ‘other’, versus Italian lingua, altro – although these are tendencies, not universals). The case system also came under pressure both from the merger of vowel combinations and the elision of case endings (noted above), and so prepositions were notably more common even by Constantine’s time, often broadening their meaning (e.g. modern de/di derives from the Latin meaning ‘about, concerning’ but came to encompass ‘of, from’).
Across what was the Western Roman Empire, speakers of daughter dialects still regarded themselves to speak “Latin” at least until the end of the seventh century. However, by the middle of the eighth century in modern-day France it was becoming impossible for speakers of the local vernacular to understand even simple Church readings in Latin; by the ninth century diplomatic missions became difficult because Latin was pronounced so differently across the Continent; by the end of the first millennium no one anywhere (even in Italy itself) was in any doubt that the local vernacular speech constituted a different language from the Latin of the Church. The story of the modern “Romance Languages” had thus begun.
So, should Classical Latin be learned as a starting point to modern languages? Nōn necesse est per sē. Sed carpe diem. Quod erat dēmōnstrandum.
Pater noster quī es in caelīs, sanctificētur nōmen tuum; adveniat regnum tuum; fīat voluntās tua; sīcut in caelō et in terrā; pānem nostrum cotīdiānum dā nōbis hodiē; et dīmitte nōbis dēbita nostra; sīcut et nōs dīmittimus dēbitōribus nostrīs; et nē nōs indūcās in tentātiōnem; sed līberā nōs ā malō.