Background

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)

 

1) Latin is of the Indo-European family of languages, a group which spread rapidly across Europe and south into India some time after the last glaciation, retreated some 15,000 years ago. Indic, Iranian, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavonic as the major groups, and a number of other branches such as Armenian and Hittite, stem from the original, now lost, parent speech which we call Indo-European. In Europe only Basque, Etruscan, Hungarian and Finnish are of non-Indo European origin. For a full statement of this remarkable linguistic/historical event, I recommend the article Indo-European in the 11 th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (this classic edition from l910 is found in almost any good library collection) which states the evidence in some detail and with reasonable accuracy overall.

2) Latin is one of the numerous Indo-European dialects which had penetrated into Italy before 1200 B.C. It attained widespread use slowly with the spread of Roman military supremacy, and by 250 B.C. was the dominant tongue in Italy; by the time of Christ it was the lingua franca of the Western part of Europe, while the Near East, Greece and southern Italy with Sicily retained Greek as the primary language. Latin continued as the common language of Feudal Europe, and became the scholarly means of communication for most purposes through the 18 th century, after which the various European tongues asserted themselves. Writing in Latin has a long range, from early plays of Roman Comedy in rustic style about 200 B.C., through the Augustan period's great Classical artists, into the Church Fathers of the 4/ 5 th c. A.D., on to becomeing the lingua franca of the Renaissance, and even into a curious academic dialect called "Modern Latinity" in the post-Renaissance world.

By the 8 th c. A.D. Latin was becoming a "dead language", as the nascent forms of the Romanic (or Romance) Languages started to develop throughout Charlemagne's Empire. Latin remained then as the lingua franca for all legal, theological, scientific and international writing, and it was an important means of communication in written and spoken form for another thousand years, so the terms dead and alive don't seem particularly pertinent. In the 20 th. C. Latin is clearly "dead", but its literature in the original, and even in its weakened form in translation, is clearly alive and flourishing.



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