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A Brief History of the Latin Language: Modern Latin

By John Garger

Modern Latin is a collection of previous Latin periods, but mainly concentrates on the Classical period materials that have survived to modern times. Most are only used for traditional or educational purposes.

Latin has existed and evolved over the past three millennia from a language spoken by the most powerful civilization of Europe and a universal diplomatic language. During this history, Latin was the language of the ancient Romans, gave rise to the Romance languages, and served as an official language of religion and science. Today, Latin is still taught but its students are dwindling. Some believe that Latin has finally reached an end as a useful part of education. However, others have taken steps to reverse the direction Latin seems to be taking.

Modern Latin has existed from about the early part of the twentieth century to the present. The previous Latin period saw the language reduced to an anachronism useful only for traditional conventions and as a tool for learning about the Romans. The Latin taught in schools today has been funneled down to the Classical period with little attention given to the teaching of earlier or later Latin forms. Still, Latin persists as a symbol of scholarship, science, and theology.

One aspect of Modern Latin instruction has to do with whether to include pronunciation as a pedagogical requirement. Unlike other languages such as French, Spanish, and Italian, Latin instruction focuses mainly on translation of written texts into a native language. Little attention is given to the listening and speaking aspect of language acquisition, which compounds the belief that Latin is not a useful language for communication but serves only as a tool for studying Roman culture and literature.

Some initiatives such as the Living Latin movement have attempted to bring Latin back as both a spoken language and a language with modern application. For example, the Societas Circulorum Latinorum is an international organization for the preservation of Latin as a spoken language. In addition, some popular books have been translated into Latin. Alexander Lenard’s translation of Winnie ille Pu (Winnie the Pooh) and Peter Needham’s translation of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) have inspired students of Latin to see the language as alive rather than as a relic of the past.

In no other time in history has Latin seen so few speakers than in Modern Latin. Some who see the value of the language hold on for traditional reasons, but also as homage to a part of European culture that shaped the continent and beyond. The future of Latin is uncertain. Some believe that the learning of language skills should revolve around more practical languages that have marketable applications. Latin certainly does not fit the bill as practical save for a few professions such as anthropology and archaeology. Nevertheless, movements underway in the Modern Latin period may be the only link between the ancient language and future generations.