A Brief History of the Latin Language: Renaissance Latin
After the Fall of Rome...
The fall of the Roman Empire would normally have spelled doom for Latin as a spoken language had it not been for the wide-spread use of the language during Rome’s dominance throughout Europe. Previous periods in Latin history saw the language move from a universal language of poetry and prose to a fragmented remnant as regional dialects changed from Latin to the various Romance languages.
During the period from about 1300 to 1500 A.D., much of Europe was in the Renaissance period which predicated a cultural explosion of art, literature, architecture, and politics that hadn’t been seen on the continent since the Romans themselves built the great city of Rome in ancient times. The people of Europe looked to the classics in admiration of “real” culture from their heritage and embraced a new outlook based on age-old authors from both Greek and Roman influences.
The humanist movement during this time was led by the cry of the people “ad fontes”, a Latin phrase literally translated as “to the fountain” but metaphorically meaning “to the source.” Greek and Roman literature were held in high regard as original works of genius. The praise for such authors as Cicero and Virgil resurrected the Classical Latin style in lieu of the then-envisioned vulgarity that Latin had come to represent.
The humanists called for a fundamental approach to the classics, insisting that the grammar, lexicon, and orthography be restored to Classical Latin standards. Diphthongs by this time had been eliminated from Latin; the –ae so often used in the first declension of Classical Latin was replaced at an earlier time simply with –e so that, for example, Classical feminae was written as femine. The letters t and c, through dialectic palatalization had become indistinguishable homophones and it was suggested by great authors of the time that current Latin pronunciation be replaced by Classical Latin pronunciation in both meter and tone.
The humanist movement in Latin’s Classical revival is largely responsible for the teaching of Classical Latin today, rather than a version from any of the other periods in the language’s history. Scholars and educators during the Renaissance embraced these changes and passed them on to their own students, imbuing them with a sense of aristocracy by reviving the Greek and Roman classics as they were originally written and recited.
The Renaissance period set the groundwork for Latin as the international language for those subjects important enough to warrant its sophistication. The resurgence of interest in the Classical period led to the survival of ancient Latin into the latter two periods in the language’s history. That Latin today is associated with scholarship and education is the direct result of the Renaissance humanist movement.