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Why did Latin Become a Dead Language?

By Ken Black
Updated May 23, 2024
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Calling Latin dead language is a matter of semantics. There are those who would suggest Latin is not dead, that it lives on in everyday language used by billions of people across the globe. Others argue that because there are routine updates to Latin published by the Roman Catholic Church, it is still alive and developing.

However, Latin is no longer used, on a daily basis, by the vast majority of people outside of specific religious settings, where tradition dictates its use. It is no longer anyone's native language. While its use is still taught, Latin is no longer considered to be a developing language to the degree of most modern languages.

The reasons for Latin dying out are numerous. Perhaps the most significant one has to do with the decline of the Roman Empire. During the Roman time period, language was standardized to a greater extent. Just as learning English is vital to those living in the United States today, to really succeed during the Roman times, one needed to learn Latin.

Because Rome was the most powerful political entity in the western world at the time, most of those who had any ambition to thrive within its vast system had a desire to learn Latin. As a result, the language spread rapidly. However, that rapid expansion would eventually begin to plateau and finally decline.

Latin continued to be used during the Medieval time period. Throughout Europe, it remained the language of choice. However, with nothing to unite the continent, there was no need for a uniform language. So slowly, over a period of hundreds of years, Latin began to change as different regions developed their own dialects and idiosyncrasies.

Eventually, these dialects would become unique enough to be named their own languages. Today, we know them as the Romance languages. The most commonly spoken and recognizable of these related languages are: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French. Romansh, a little-spoken language used in a very small part of Switzerland, may be the modern language that most closely resembles classical Latin.

Though not directly related to the Romance languages, Latin still has had an effect on many other languages. English, for example, which is not one of the Romance languages but a Germanic one, can trace nearly two-thirds of its words back to Latin roots. In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, Latin is also used in the science and mathematic communities extensively.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1000311 — On Aug 17, 2018

Romance languages are the evolutionary forms of Latin, whether the formal Latin of Cicero or the so-called Vulgar Latin (meaning common spoken form). The article is totally wrong to state that Romance languages are not directly related to Latin - they are the successors. Latin was always evolving. The verb conjugational system was still intact as late as 500 AD but the vocabulary and pronunciation had changed more like today's Italian and Spanish. By 700 AD people had to learn it as a second language. Latin was dead as a spoken mother-tongue. Instead there is proto-Romance the mother of all the modern Latin-derived languages. See Vulgar Latin by Joszef Herman.

By anon998547 — On Jul 01, 2017

I have a one-word answer to the question: illiteracy.

Who still uses it? The Catholic church. Why? Because they kept reading and writing. Latin didn't evolve for them because it was written in ink for their referral.

The Middle Ages are called dark because literacy mostly vanished, with only the church to keep it alive. The Dark Ages came, and by the time they left, Latin had evolved into something else.

When I visited European monasteries, the monks showed visitors beautiful paintings of biblical scenes which were used to teach the Bible without having to read. So even though people attended church and learned the Bible, they could do so without being literate.

In fact, they became quite skilled at teaching using that and other methods. It's a shame they didn't put all that ingenuity into keeping literacy alive, but when survival becomes a struggle the luxuries fall away. And I imagine reading must have seemed an unnecessary waste of time under those conditions.

By anon981892 — On Dec 15, 2014

I studied Latin for four years in high school, and now I can roughly translate at least five other languages because of it. Italian is about the closest modern language to original Latin, followed closely by Portuguese. Latin may be dead in the sense of how many people are walking around speaking and writing it daily, but it is not dead in the sense of understanding how all language works. I probably knew more about Latin grammar rules than English back when I was in Latin IV class.

By anon325054 — On Mar 13, 2013

"Does anyone else notice that the article does not actually tell about the decline of the usage of Latin language but tells about the emergence of Romance languages?"

That's because there never was any decline in the usage of Latin. People never stopped speaking Latin and all of a sudden came up with an entirely different language to speak. The Italians didn't just wake up one day and say "Mama mia! We speaka Italian!" It happened gradually over the centuries.

Think of this in evolutionary terms. There is no exact copy of the first mammalian-like creature walking around today. But that's not because it went extinct, it was wildly successful, having a ridiculous number of child species that now dominate the world. This is much different than the passenger pigeon, which just died out, and has no modern species can call its ancestor.

By anon325053 — On Mar 13, 2013

Latin is "dead" in the same way that Ancient Greek, Old English, or Classical Chinese is - the language evolved into what we speak now over a period of time. It always bemuses me to see people bemoan poor, dead Latin, that people just stopped speaking one day. They don't do this for either of the other two ancient languages I mentioned.

I think there is some confusion, just because there isn't a modern language called "Latin", with the ancient form being "old latin", it's just given a name all on its own. But this is because it was so wildly successful that we'd have to call it "Old Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Aragonese, Aromanian, Arpitan, Asturian, Catalan, Corsican, Emiliano-Romagnolo, Friulan, Galician, Ladino, Leonese, Lombard, Mirandese, Neapolitan, Occitan, Piedmontese, Romansh, Sardinian, Sicilian, Venetian and Walloon".

Please, people, there are languages much more deserving of your pity out there. Latin isn't any more "dead" in the sense of total language death than Greek is dead because people stopped speaking Ancient Greek.

By anon316110 — On Jan 27, 2013

When the Roman Empire fell apart, much of Europe (western and southern Europe in particular where Latin was introduced) went into a long period of decline. 500-700 years of economic, social and political upheaval, devastating plagues and isolation lasted until the Renaissance.

The Romans conquered lands that were populated by tribes of people with their own distinct languages and cultures. These conquered peoples incorporated Latin and formed distinct dialects with a mixture of their own tribal tongues. The evolutionary results were French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. They are very similar, yet distinct languages in their own right. The one common element that remained in the collapse of Rome was the spread of Christianity. The Catholic church preserved the Latin language during this period of time through tradition and strict doctrine. However, most people were not involved in church hierarchy or the nobility and were usually illiterate with little or no education.

Latin, outside of religious ceremony, had no practical application. Because the church controlled formal education and the preservation of antiquity during the dark ages, math and science found Latin. The modern reasoning for using Latin in scientific fields is uniformity in names or terminology. It's similar to why the metric system is preferred in science.

By anon282682 — On Jul 31, 2012

Does anyone else notice that the article does not actually tell about the decline of the usage of Latin language but tells about the emergence of Romance languages?

By Jagannatha — On Apr 13, 2012

After reading the article, I guess that there are some attempts to write books/articles/ poems in Latin in modern days. If so, please inform me if this is so.

By anon259780 — On Apr 08, 2012

@anon176508: The Philippines have been a colony of Spain for three centuries. Over time, the Spanish taught by Spaniards and friars evolved due to other cultural influences, such as the language Chinese, since China traded with the Philippines way before its colonization, and English, because the U.S was one of the last colonizers to handle it.

As such, the accepted grammatical standards of Spanish have diminished, resulting in the dilution of the already-loose language with one of its local dialects, but the vast majority of its roots can still be seen until today.

By anon176508 — On May 16, 2011

Without having studied Latin, a native English speaker cannot understand Latin. In here it says two-thirds of English has its roots on Latin. England became a global power without using Latin.

So why do the Filipinos in the USA claim that they can understand and easily learn to speak Spanish because their national language is near Spanish (one of the Roman languages). I speak Spanish well enough to know that their national language is not that near to any Romance languages.

By anon162673 — On Mar 24, 2011

Haha, typical. I am an American, and trust me, I know we have our share of problems, but that doesn't mean the rest of the world isn't just as ugly. I have traveled extensively throughout the world over the past 30 years and have come to realize no one country or government is to blame for anything. Humans are evil in their core. So stop being ignorant and try looking in the mirror before pointing fingers.

By anon158820 — On Mar 08, 2011

Well done, I agree.

By virtz — On Aug 01, 2010

I think the reason the Latin language died out is that it was a material language, language of science. People speak a language to express their feelings, thoughts in the first place, not the science facts. There is no sensitivity in Latin language. That is why nobody used/s it.

I gave this some thought after one American dude was complaining about football rules in the World Cup 2010, saying that the judges are bad, not counting the goals, and that there should be new rules created, goals should be re-counted even after the game. I was frankly shocked.

I wanted to say, "Please leave football alone. It's the last thing in the world you didn't touch and you didn't mess up with your cruel-propaganda politics, force and money". But, I didn't say anything as there is no benefit of it. So, the reason I tell this is that Americans, like Romans, are the nation who always want to materialize everything in the world. That is why the world doesn't get their soft-hand-egg game, and this is the reason why they hate football, which is fine and nobody blames them for that. Just stop changing the world. Relax. There are about 250 countries in the world, and they will figure it out themselves.

Sorry if I touched anybody's feelings.

By anon72187 — On Mar 22, 2010

Wow. i learn new things every day. Thanks.

By anon62048 — On Jan 24, 2010

Concise and helpful.

By anon46527 — On Sep 26, 2009

Well-written and believable. thanks.

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