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What is the Latin language?

There follows a short and very summary introduction to Latin as a language. Scrolling to the bottom of this page will take you to the menu for Accidence and Syntax.

Who spoke Latin?

The centre point of the Latin language was and is the city of Rome. But when we say, ’Latin was the language of the [Ancient] Romans’, what do we mean?

Latin was originally the language of Latium, the region around Rome. At first it was spoken only there, and states in other parts of what we call ‘Italy’ used local languages such as Oscan, Umbrian and Etruscan. But when the Romans conquered Italy, Latin became the other states’ official business language, and when non-Romans became eligible for citizenship and therefore could run for office in Rome, everyone started to use Latin.

Under what we call the Roman ‘Empire’ (for throughout their history the Romans used the same term, imperium Romanum, to refer to the ensemble of states subject to them) the use of Latin extended. Many of our most important Latin inscriptions were found in the provinces, which included Britannia (England and Wales), Hispania (Spain and Portugal), Gaul (France), Africa (North Africa including Egypt, Libya and Tunisia), Dacia (Eastern Europe), Macedonia (north Greece and the Balkans), Achaea (southern Greece), Syria, Judaea, Asia (i.e. Turkey, Lebanon) – and of course, Italy.

This meant that not only did many people whom we do not even call ‘Romans’ speak Latin, but many of the people we do call ‘Romans’ were not at the time considered Roman, even though they had Roman citizenship. The statesman Cicero was not Roman and spent his entire career defending himself against Romans who were jealous that he had succeeded. His contemporary Sallust was from Sabine territory and his ‘hero’ in his history of Roman affairs from 79 BC to around the 30s was a rebel Sabine general. A few generations later, increasing numbers of important officials were from outside Rome and even Italy: the orator and historian Tacitus was from Gaul, the novelist Apuleius was from Africa, and the emperor Hadrian was from Hispania.

 

Latin's relationship to other languages

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura [per]ché la diritta via era smarrita

Au milieu du chemin de notre vie  je me retrouvai par une  forêt obscure parce que la vie directe était perdue.

medio itinere nostrae vitae me trubavi in foresti silva obscura quod via directa erat marrita/perdita

Latin, along with Sanskrit and Greek, is a member of the Indo-European language family.

Mature Latin did not have much contact with Sanskrit. On the other hand, Greek was its model in many ways. Despite its imperial conquests, Latin in its time did not have the sophisticated reputation it enjoys today; it was always in the shadow of Greek. For all educated Roman citizens, and probably even the ordinary working Romans, the aim was to speak Greek, the international ‘lingua franca’ of the east, and the language of both the arts and sciences. Producing literature that ‘brought Latin up to the standard of Greek’ was a major concern for Roman writers.

Despite this status, Greek has always been quite an isolated language, and though it had many dialects its speakers were always more concerned with preserving and analysing their shared language and heritage than spreading it elsewhere. As such, though it may not seem so at first, the Greek language today is in many ways still the Greek language which the Romans so aspired to learn.

The relationship between Modern Greek and Ancient Greek is only slightly more distant than that between Modern English and the English of Shakespeare. We gain new words for new things, the grammar becomes simpler, the words we use most often change to make them easier to remember, and slang words especially depend very closely on trends of the time. A text written in ‘Greek spoken in the street’ and a formal Ancient Greek text seem much more different than a passage from a modern English poem and a play of Shakespeare; on the other hand, unlike in English, most modern Greek words – particularly nouns and adjectives – retain the meaning they had in Ancient Greek, and the thought process behind the construction of the language is almost identical. In certain registers it is possible to write a text in ‘Ancient’ and ‘Modern’ Greek with very little changes – the formal, ‘purist’ Modern Greek used in the Greek Orthodox Church would be understood by both an Ancient and Modern Greek.

Latin, on the other hand, spread like wildfire, so it has not been preserved as one language like Greek has. But what could be called ‘dialects’ of Latin are spoken all over the world, the product of different populations’ reception of the Latin language. These are called ‘Romance languages’. Around 93% of Italian words come from Latin, and 87% of French words.

What about English? 97% of the 100 most frequently used English words are Germanic in origin. But thanks to the influence of French, once you get past everyday speech, in fact our language is much more Latinate than at first it seems. A 1973 survey of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary showed that of 80,000 words, 25% were Germanic – while 28.3% were from French, 28.24% from Latin and 5.32% from Greek (although it is not clear whether Latin words derived from Greek are included under Latin or Greek). Since French is 87% derived from Latin, we can estimate from the 1973 data that at least 58% of English words derive directly or indirectly from Latin and Greek. Given the number of words being coined from those languages by both scientists and activists, it is likely that this has since risen.

Latin's relationship to Greek and Sanskrit

How is Latin structured in comparison with English?

How does Latin’s structure differ from that of English?

Latin is an inflected language: the form of a word changes depending on its function in the sentence. 

For verbs these changes are called ‘conjugations’. This word also refers to the category of verb. There are four principal patterns, or conjugations, which Latin verbs follow, and lots of irregular verbs.

Verbs are conjugated according to: 
- person (first, second or third)
- number (singular or plural)
- mood (indicative, subjunctive or imperative)
- voice (active or passive)
- tense (present, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, future, future perfect)

We have some small examples of conjugation in modern English but most verbs change very little. Another big difference is that we use ‘auxiliary verbs’ to form ‘compound tenses’ whereas in Latin, only perfect passives use an auxiliary verb; all other tenses are ‘simple tenses’ and all of the above features are communicated by the ending of the word (i.e. ‘I could hear’, ‘let’s go’ and ‘you will see’ are each one word in Latin).

For nouns, adjectives and pronouns the changes are called ‘declensions’. This word also refers to the category of noun – there are five ‘declensions’ or patterns according to which nouns change, and two for adjectives.

Nouns are declined according to number (singular or plural) and case, i.e. relation to other nouns in the sentence (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative or ablative).

Adjectives are also declined according to the gender of the noun they describe (masculine, feminine or neuter) (see below).

Pronouns are also declined according to person (first, second or third).

Only pronouns are declined in modern English. We have three cases, ‘nominative’, ‘accusative’ and ‘genitive’; the corresponding forms of the ‘personal pronoun’ in ‘third person singular masculine’, ‘third person singular feminine’ and ‘third person plural common’ are ‘he, him, his’, ‘she, her, her’, ‘they, them, their’.

If you don’t understand these terms, they are explained in more detail on the relevant pages.

Latin has no indefinite or definite article, i.e. no word for ‘a’ or ‘the’.


Latin has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.

 The Latin word genus which means ‘type/category’. We have three English words which come from genus: ‘genus’, the word itself, which means a classification in biology; ‘genre’ (from French ‘genre’), i.e. a category of artistic form; and ‘gender’ (which in French is likewise ‘genre’), which also had the principal meaning ‘type/category’ up until the 20th century.

The three grammatical genders in Latin are ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’ and ‘neuter’ (which literally means ‘neither’). Grammatical gender frequently corresponds to biological sex – the grammatical gender of the word for ‘man’ in Latin is masculine and that of the word for ‘woman’ is feminine, and this is carried over to titles opposed in terms of biological sex, such as ‘father/mother’, ‘master/mistress’, and animals which differ in function according to sex, e.g. ‘bull/cow’, ‘ram/ewe’. However, inanimate objects without a biological sex have grammatical gender too, and sometimes, even species which differ in biological sex share the same grammatical gender. The general word for ‘bird’ is grammatically feminine regardless of whether the bird in question is a male or female, while the word for ‘raven’ is masculine, and the word for ‘dog’ can have either gender depending on the sex of the dog in question.

Sometimes the gender of a word is related to its representation in myth and art. This can be very interesting – for example, the Latin word ‘virtus’ (courage, excellence, virtue) literally means ‘the quality of being a man’ but its grammatical gender is feminine. On the other hand it can cause problems in translation when a Greek myth embodies a word which has a different gender in Latin – for example, War in Greek is a (male) god and the word itself has masculine gender, but in Latin the word is neuter.

Sometimes, however, grammatical gender is completely irrelevant. There is no particular reason why a ‘book’, ‘harbour’ and ‘field’ should be masculine, while a ‘table’, ‘door’ and ‘hand’ are feminine. Some neuter words are not surprising: for example ‘duty’ (in the sense of a task to be carried out), ‘business engagement’ and ‘pledge’ are all neuter, and ‘deed’ in Latin literally means ‘thing (neuter) which was done’. But other neuter nouns could equally be any other gender, for example ‘sky’ and ‘seashore’.

You must remember a noun’s gender because any adjectives which are applied to it must agree with the noun. This concept is further explained on the relevant pages but you will have encountered it already if you have studied French, Spanish, Italian or German.

The above features lead to the biggest difference: the meaning of a sentence in Latin does not depend so heavily on the word order. While there was a ‘standard’ word order, changing the word order did not change the meaning of the sentence but rather which element of it was being emphasised.

This means that modern readers may have to read the entire sentence to understand its meaning, rather than picking up meaning as they read from start to end. This can be frustrating at first, especially because some Latin sentences are extremely long; however, Latin was very strict with its ‘sense’ units and ‘signposted’ the train of thought much more often than we do in English, so with a thorough knowledge of cases and declensions it is possible to work out the meaning logically.

On the other hand, changing word order in Latin poetry produces some effects that are not possible in English — or even in Ancient Greek. One of these is a bracketed structure in which a line is enclosed between a noun and its adjective: one of the lines in my Latin translation of Let it Go runs ‘posteram renuo immota gloriam’ (‘unmoved, I reject future glory’ where ‘future’ and ‘glory’ are the first and last words). Another is a chiastic arrangement of nouns and adjectives: a line from the pop version of the song runs ‘optatam cordi caelum dat apertum requiem’ (‘the open sky gives my heart the rest it has longed for’) which has the structure direct-object-adjective / indirect-object / subject / verb / subject-adjective / direct-object, i.e. longed-for (object) / to heart / sky (subject) / gives / open (subject) / rest (object).

Accidence

Pronunciation and Scansion

Nouns
Includes: cases & their usage; declensions;

Pronouns
Personal, reflexive, relative pronouns etc.

Verbs
Includes: tenses, voices & moods, and sequence of tenses; parts of a verb and conjugation of regular verbs; conjugation of deponent verbs; conjugation of irregular verbs; participles

Adjectives & Adverbs
Also includes comparative and superlative

Conjunctions & Prepositions
Includes prepositions and their meanings with cases

Gerund & Gerundive
Includes gerund as noun, gerundive of obligation etc.
(But for ad + gerundive as purpose, see Purpose Clauses below)

Conjunctions and Prepositions

Gerund and Gerundive

Syntax

Time Idioms

Subordinate Clauses
Includes: ‘cum’ + subjunctive and rules of sequence; ‘cum’ + indicative; clauses with ‘ubi’, ‘postquam’ etc; prepositional phrases e.g. ablative absolute; ‘dum’ meaning while

Purpose & Fearing Clauses
Includes: ‘ut’ + subjunctive; ‘qui’ + subjunctive; ‘ad’ + gerundive; ‘causa’ + genitive; fearing clauses using ‘timeo’ & ‘vereor’; ‘dum’ meaning until + subjunctive

Consecutive (Result) Clauses
Also includes generic subjunctive & doubt

Indirect Speech
Includes: indirect command, statement & question; accusative + infinitive; oratio obliqua; past jussive

Conditional Clauses