Life's Little Mysteries

Is Latin a dead language?

Bronze statue of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius in Hesse, Germany.
Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, whose statue stands here in Hesse, Germany, might struggle to understand Latin in its modern form. (Image credit: Martin Moxter via Getty Images)

The Latin language used to be spoken all over the Roman Empire. But no country officially speaks it now, at least not in its classic form. So, did Latin really peter out when the Roman Empire ceased to exist? 

Rome used to be one of the largest empires in the world, but gradually Rome's sway over its colonies dwindled until it completely lost control. Despite this, Latin continued to be the lingua franca throughout much of Europe hundreds of years after that happened. The answer to the question of when Latin, ancient Rome's language, died is a complicated one. There's no date in the annals of history to mark the end of Latin as a spoken language, and some would argue that's because it never really died.

The Vatican may still deliver some masses in Latin, but virtually no one in Italy is using Latin on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, this doesn't equate to the death of Latin, said Tim Pulju, a senior lecturer in linguistics and classics at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Related: Why did Rome fall?

"Latin didn't really stop being spoken," Pulju told Live Science. "It continued to be spoken natively by people in Italy, Gaul, Spain and elsewhere, but like all living languages, it changed over time." 

Crucially, the alterations to Latin were particular to the many different regions of the old Roman Empire, and over time these differences grew to create entirely new but closely related languages. "They gradually added up over the centuries, so that eventually Latin developed into a variety of languages distinct from one another, and also distinct from classical Latin," Pulju said. Those new languages are what we now refer to as the Romance languages, which include French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. 

Such linguistic evolutions happen with every language. Take English, for example. "English has been spoken in England for over a millennium, but it has changed over time, as is obvious if you compare present-day English to Elizabethan English, as seen in Shakespeare," Pulju said. "Elizabethan English, from about four centuries ago, is still mostly comprehensible to us, but Chaucer's English, dating from the 14th century, is much less so. And the English of 'Beowulf,' from about the year 1000, is so different from modern English [it's] not comprehensible to us today." But no one would say English is a dead language — it simply changed very gradually over a long period of time.

The only difference between English and Latin is that old English developed into modern English and modern English alone, whereas classical Latin diversified and gave rise to a number of different languages. That's why people tend to think, perhaps erroneously, of Latin as an extinct language.

Languages can go extinct, though; sometimes native speakers of a language all die, or over time their first language switches until eventually there are no fluent speakers left. 

This happened with the Etruscan language, originally spoken in what is modern day Tuscany in Italy. "After the Romans conquered Etruria, succeeding generations of Etruscans continued to speak Etruscan for hundreds of years, but some Etruscans, naturally, learned Latin as a second language; moreover, many children grew up bilingual in Etruscan and Latin," Pulju said. "Eventually, the social advantages of speaking Latin and having an identity as a Roman outweighed those of speaking and being Etruscan, so that over the generations, fewer and fewer children learned Etruscan." The end result is that the Etruscan language simply died.

Dying languages aren't just an ancient phenomenon, either. "It's also happening to Indigenous languages in numerous places around the world today," Pulju said. The Middle East is something of a hotspot for dying languages, which can happen when there is societal stigma attached to speaking a non-mainstream language, the language not being taught in schools and more brutal measures are taken, such as ethnic cleansing and violence perpetrated against minorities. UNESCO estimates that at least half of the world's 7,000 languages spoken today will be extinct before the end of this century.

So, when did Latin die? It didn't, it simply evolved. 

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:36 p.m. EDT on June 2 to correct the photo caption. The statue depicts Antoninus Pius, not Emperor Augustus as was previously stated. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Benjamin Plackett
Live Science Contributor

Benjamin is a freelance science journalist with nearly a decade of experience, based in Australia. His writing has featured in Live Science, Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Associated Press, USA Today, Wired, Engadget, Chemical & Engineering News, among others. Benjamin has a bachelor's degree in biology from Imperial College, London, and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University along with an advanced certificate in science, health and environmental reporting.