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New Latin in a Brief History of the Latin Language

By John Garger

The New Latin period marked a time when cultural changes were pushing Latin out of academia in favor of vernacular languages. Consequently, Latin suffered from its disuse.

The New Latin period (1500 – 1900 A.D.) changed Latin from the universal language of education and theology to an anachronism of Latin in the Bible from Wikimedia Commons the times. The fall of the Roman Empire centuries earlier should have wiped clean the influence of Latin in modern culture. However, movements in previous periods kept Latin alive for much longer than the demise of its homeland.

New Latin (or Neo-Latin) is the name generally given to the language that survived the Renaissance period a few centuries earlier. New technologies, such as the printing press, invented during this period gave rise to the spread of new ideas and education that sparked one of the largest cultural revolutions in European history. However, these changes also brought about movements to switch communication from the archaic Latin language to vernaculars which by now had developed from Latin into their own distinct languages. French, Spanish, Italian and the other Romance languages now enjoyed their own grammar, lexicon, and pronunciation that set them apart from their ancient mother.

Throughout the early part of the New Latin period, Latin endured as the language of choice for law, education, and religion. It also continued to serve as the medium through which diplomacy and negotiation were enabled. Whereas French and English were popular languages of the learned, only Latin remained as the true standard through which all communication could flow on most of the continent. Latin continued to be a school subject as kin to the necessity of mathematics, reading, and writing.

The decline of Latin as a universal language is evidenced in the movements toward encouraging national languages. France’s dominance of Europe in the early eighteenth century led French to replace Latin as a universal language of diplomacy. Consequently, the reduction of printed Latin texts and a general disinterest in the language led Latin to fall into virtual obscurity.

The effects of this obscurity are still felt today as fewer and fewer Latin language courses are offered in Western education. To some, it has been reduced to a curiosity only kept alive by tradition in classics departments of higher education institutions or as a tool of anthropology. In addition, the rise of the British Empire during the latter part of the new Latin period pronounced English as the dominant language throughout the West. Latin’s divergence in grammatical construction from English made the language seem unnecessarily difficult to learn as a means of serious communication.

Evidence that English overtook Latin exists in the following poignant example. The works of Sir Isaac Newton are perhaps the most important scientific writings ever written. When Newton published the first edition of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687, the books were available only in Latin. In 1704, Newton’s Opticks was published in English. In such a short time, English had overtaken Latin such that Newton began his publishing career in Latin and ended it in English.

By the late nineteenth century, Latin was used only by a few branches of science and even then only to coincide with the tradition of scientific nomenclature (e.g. anatomy). For traditional reasons also, the Roman Catholic Church continued to celebrate mass in Latin even though the congregation was largely unable to understand the language. By this time, it seemed that Latin had finally expired as a useful language to learn for communication purposes.