An Introduction to a Brief History of the Latin Language
By John Garger
The Latin language has survived in one form or another for over 2,000 years. It is both the cognate and parent of many modern languages. Learn about the origin of Latin in this first article in a series of eight.
The influence of the Roman Empire throughout the world is undeniable. Art, poetry, music, and architecture have especially benefited from the ingenuity of a civilization that at one time spanned from Northern Africa to the waters of the British Isles. However, culture does not spread without communication, that necessary link to human exchange of knowledge called language. Like all languages, Latin’s life stretches beyond pre-history, its origins forever lost. What we do know about Latin survives to use in a sporadic collection of writings that only hint at the language’s rich history.
Throughout the early part of the first millennium B.C., the Italian peninsula was subject to a string of wars and conflicts where multiple cultures battled for supremacy. The ebb and tide of some factions’ strength made lasting impressions on the peninsula and influenced the beginnings of Roman history to the extent that Latin almost surely would have perished had certain powers not won out over their rivals.
The Italic family of the centum branch of Indo-European languages is where Latin finds a home, among a multitude of languages and dialects. Some of the modern Romance languages that owe their origin to Latin are French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. English, however, is often mistaken for a Romance language by beginning Latin students because of the huge number of words in English with direct and indirect Latin origins.
Although Latin scholars disagree on the beginning and ending dates for the different periods in the language’s history, Latin can be broken down into seven periods with approximate dates given below:
Old Latin (origin – 75 B.C.)
Classical Latin (75 B.C.E. – 200 A.D.)
Vulgar Latin (200 – 900)
Medieval Latin (900 – 1300)
Renaissance Latin (1300 to 1500)
New Latin (1500 – Present)
Contemporary Latin (1900 – Present)
The following articles present a brief history of the Latin language periods, providing a synopsis of cultural, grammatical, and style differences that mark each major division. In addition and where appropriate, it is indicated where Latin has had an influence on modern languages both subordinate and cognate to Latin.
It should be noted that most modern Latin courses are based on the classical period. This period is noted for its important works by Caesar, Cicero, Augustus and other prominent authors of the time. It may be interesting to the beginning student to witness the evolution of Latin though the classical period and beyond to gain a clearer perspective of the language. Students should especially take note of the cultural issues shaping the language.