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General Overview

Origin and History

Latin (Lingua Latina) is a lanfuage of the Indo-European family that appeared in Italy in the mid 2nd millenium BC. Formerly it was argued that together with the other Indo-European languages of ancient Italy (Faliscan, Osco-Umbrian and Venetic) Latin forms a separate Italic linguistic group, but now this view is not held anymore, though considerable mutual influences are not excluded.

The later colloquial form of Latin (the so called Proto-Romance or Vulgar Latin) became ancestral to the modern Romance languages.

The long history of Latin may be divided into 9 periods:

  1. Preliterary period (till 240 BC). In this period Latin was spoken by small groups of people living along the lower Tiber River.  The Etruscan variant of the Western Greek alphabet was adopted in the 7th century BC. The language is known from some inscriptions.
  2. Old period (240-100 BC). With the increase of Roman political power Latin language spread throughout Italy.

  3. Authors: the comedian writers Plautus and Terentius.
  4. Classical period (100-14 BC). Roman power encompassed all the Mediterranean bassin. The language became standardized in grammar and vocabulary. Sometimes it is called the Golden Latin. During this period there were at least three types of Latin in use:
    1. Classical written Latin,
    2. Classical oratorical Latin,
    3. and the ordinary colloquial Latin used by the average speaker of the language.
    Authors: the prosaic writers Caesar, Cicero and Sallustius, the poets Catullus, Vergil, Horatius and Ovidius.
  5. Postclassical period (14 BC - 200 AD). In this period the ordinary colloquial Latin became the predominant language in most of western and southern Europe and the central and western Mediterranean coastal regions of Africa. The written language, sometimes called the Silver Latin, admits some syntactical deviations as compared with the severe rules of Classical Latin.

  6. Authors: Tacitus.
  7. Late period (200-600 AD). Spoken Latin continued to change, and it diverged more and more from the Classical norms in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, becoming finally a different language, technically known as Proto-Romance or Vulgar Latin. It gradually evolved into the modern Romance languages and dialects. The written language, for its part, remained much more conservative in trying to preserve and sustain the Classical grammar and vocabulary. Thus it gradually became a practically dead language.

  8. Authors: St. Jerome and St. Augustine wrote good literary Late Latin.
  9. Medieval period (600-1300). Latin was used as an official written language in all West-European countries. Its vocabulary absorbed a lot of words from the local languages in order to meet the changed intellectual and social conditions.

  10. Authors: mediaeval chroniclers and theologians as the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, Saxo Grammaticus, John of Salisbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, Pierre de Abellard etc. etc.
  11. Renaissance period (1300-1600). The humanists tried to revive the grammar and the vocabulary of the Classical Latin language.

  12. Authors: Thomas More, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Giordano Bruno, Tomaso Campanella, Nicolaus Copernicus, some works of Dante Alighieri, Petrarca, Boccaccio.
  13. New period (1600-1900). In this period Latin was gradually replaced in literature and administration by the modern national languages. It was used as an international diplomatic language till the 18th century and as a teaching language in the European universities till the late 19th century. A lot of scientists and philosophers continued publishing their works in Latn.

  14. Authors: Hugo Grotius, Benedict de Spinoza, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Isac Newton, Carolus Linnaeus, Mikhail Lomonosov, Immanuel Kant, Leonard Euler etc.
  15. Contemporary period (since 1900). Latin remained the official language of the Catholic church, though it was replaced in lithurgy by the modern spoken languages. Together with Greek, it is the main source for creating scientific terms.

Latin had five simple vowels (a, e, i, o, u), that could be short or long. There were two diphthongs (au and eu) and two digraphs (ae and oe) that developed from old diphthongs. As the other old Indo-European languages Latin used the vowel gradation (ablaut). The Latin vowels could, moreover, change in dependence of the position or the type of the syllable (open or close). (See the Table of the Vowel Changes.)

Early Latin had a stress accent on the first syllable of a word, in contrast to the Latin of the republican and imperial periods, in which the accent fell on either the next or second to the last syllable of a word.

Consonants could be voiced (b, d, g) and voiceless (p, t, c or k); there were also two labiovelar (qu and gu), one sibilant (s) and two aspirated (f and h) consonants and four liquid sounds (l, m, n, r). The consonant system was marked by assimilations, dissimilations, rotacism, and metathesis.

In the late period c and g before e and i (y) were palatalized; i before vowels developed in [j] (as y in English yet) and subsequently became affricate (as j in English jet); in the same position u became first [w] and then [v]. This sounds were used in the Mediaeval pronunciation of Latin.


Latin kept distinct most of the declensional classes inherited from Indo-European. In the Classical period it had six cases in the declension of nouns and adjectives (nominative, vocative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative), with traces of a locative case in some declensional classes of nouns. Except for the i-stem and consonant stem declensional classes, which it combines into one group (listed in grammar books as the third declension). The pronouns had a declension pattern of their own.

Numerals had declensions only for 1, 2, 3, 20. There were cardinal (unus), ordinal (primus), adverbial (semel) and partitive (singuli) numerals.

The verb had three imperfective (present, imperfect and future) and three perfective (past simple, pluperfect and future perfect) tenses, and also subjunctive and imperative moods. Two systems of verb endings were used for imperfective and perfective tenses. The imperfective tenses formed synthetic passive voice (cf. amat (he) loves with amatur (he) is loved), while the perfective had analytical passive with the auxiliary esse to be (cf. amatus est (he) was loved). There were used also some active analytical constructions (cf. amaturus est (he) must love).

Verbal substantives were of great importance: there were 3 kinds of participles (present, perfect and future), 6 infinitives, 2 supines, the gerund and the gerundive.

The prepositions were used with ablative and accusative cases. There was a great variety of conjunctions reflecting the complicated structure of the Latin syntax. Latin had preserved a lot of emphatic and demonstrative particles that were lost in the most modern Indo-European languages.

The syntax followed the Subject-Object-Verb pattern, though the case system admitted the word order to be rather flexible. Latin used specific infinitive (Nominative with Infiinitive and Accusative with Infinitive) and participial (Absolute Ablative) constructions.

Some particular features of the Latin syntax system can be seen even in the modern Romance languages: the adjective follows its noun, sequence of tenses is widely used, etc.

Word building

Latin had a perfectly functionning derivational mechanism. By adding suffixes and prefixes to the roots there were produced thousand of new words, as:

con-stitu-t-io etc.

Analysis of the Old Latin vocabulary shows considerable traces of non-Indo-European origin. The cognate Italic languages have contributed only small number of words.

The most important lexical influence on Latin was that of Greek. To transliterate the numerous borrowings the Romans of the Classical period had to introduce into their alphabet the Greek letters Y and Z and to adopt the digraphs ch, ph, rh- and th. The Christians, for their part, introduced also a lot of new Greek words with the aim to avoid the usage of the old pagan terminology.

Vocabulary of the late and mediaeval period was enriched by Germanic loan-words, concerning mainly warfare and the new socio-economic order (such as feudum, allodium etc.). During the Middle ages some Arabic words (as algebra, cifra, zenith, zephirum etc.) were borrowed in the scientific language.


The modern Romance languages, spoken now by more than 800,000,000 people all over the world, developed from the colloquial Latin of various parts of the ancient Roman Empire.

The long and wide use of Latin for scholarly and literary purposes left its influence on all the European languages, both in the West and in the East. The modern languages absorbed thousands of Latin words of all kind, but especially in the field of science. English, whose vocabulary consiststs of up to 2/3 of Latin words, is a real champion amongst them.

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