By Charlie Xu
Latin. The language of an ancient civilization long since gone. The language found in old, musty literary works, the crumbling churches of Europe, and on the seals of college campuses. The mysterious language spoken by so few, yet studied by so many.
And, according to some, a dead language.
But is Latin really deceased (derived from the Latin noun, decessus)?
In the strictest sense of a dead language, yes, since nobody speaks Latin as a first language. However, upon closer examination, it is quite easy to understand how integral Latin is in our daily lives.
Latin words are present in everyday language. The terms, “A.M.” and “P.M.”, stand for ante meridian (before noon), and post meridian (after noon). The ubiquitous abbreviation, “etc.”, stands for et cetera (and others). We use phrases like alter ego (other me), in memoriam (in memory), vice versa (position turned), bona fide (good faith), and many other Latin phrases in daily language. But Latin’s influence is not just limited to phrases and abbreviations. After all, about 70-80 percent of the words in our language are derived from Latin words. In addition, there are 333 words that are identical in both English and Latin. Ordinary words like animal, basis, character, diploma, educator, favor, genius, humor, idea, junior, labor, maximum, narrator, omen, prior, quota, ratio, senator, tutor, and victor straddle the line between our mother tongue and the ancient language of the Romans.
Latin has also had a great impact on English grammar. Latin is the reason why more than one “book” are called “books”, why the plural form of “octopus” is “octopi”, and why many of one “bacterium” are called “bacteria”. Latin is the foundation of our sentence structure. Why a subject acts upon a direct object with a verb. Why we have past, present, and future tense, and why we have first, second, and third person. Why our prepositions and conjunctions and infinitives look the way they do and serve the purposes that they serve in English. In fact, the words, “noun” (nomen), “verb” (verbum), “adjective” (adjectivus), “preposition” (praeposition), “conjunction” (conjunction), and “infinitive” (infinitivus) are all directly descended from Latin!
Furthermore, Latin is prevalent in a variety of fields. Our doctors treat our diseases, including aural, cervical, cardiac, ocular, hepatic, pulmonary, and renal ones. Dentists deal with dental problems, and neurologists and psychologists treat our cerebral and mental illnesses. Lawyers often use Latin words when arguing their case. During a pendente lite (case in progress), the prosecution would present their corpus delicti (the material evidence of a crime) and the modus operandi (the method of operation). Sometimes, this information is derived from a sub poena or from affidavits. Defense attorneys might argue that the prosecution has not fulfilled its onus probandi (burden of proof), or that the case is ultra vires (outside one’s jurisdiction). After both sides have spoken, the case will then be sub judice (pending judgment) by the jury.
Latin’s influence has not only been limited to just English. A group of languages called the Romance languages descended from Latin after the collapse of the Roman Empire. These languages include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Corsican, Sardinian, Galician, and Catalan, to name a few. Many of these languages possess masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns, a designation stemming straight from Latin. In addition, as with English, many of the words of these languages are very similar to Latin words. An evaluation of a single word can reveal the links between these languages and Latin. The Nominative (subject) masculine singular Latin word for “that” is ille. When compared to the equivalent forms for the word “the,” in the four major Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese), the results are quite astonishingly similar. In Spanish, “the” is el; in French, “the” is le; in Italian, “the” is il; and in Portuguese, “the” is o (illo is the Ablative (prepositional) form of ille).
And of course, we should not forget the countless students across the world who are learning to read, write, and yes, speak Latin.
So is Latin actually “dead?”
Perhaps, but its legacy has been far more influential and significant than its life, or the life of any language for that matter. Latin has pervaded almost every aspect of the English language and has proven itself to be enduring (indurare), vibrant (vibrare), and indomitable (indomitus) even in modern times.