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How Latin outlived the Romans

Latin was of course spoken by the Romans – a people who dominated the planet for much of the classical period. Classical Latin has survived through the literary works of scholarly Romans such as Virgil and Cicero and subsequently today you may find yourself casually using a Latin word or phrase without even realising its significance; after more than 1,000 years, the influence of the Romans is still seen not only culturally but also linguistically. How did Latin outlive the people who spoke it?

The evolution of Latin: Veni, Vidi, Vici

At its peak the Roman Empire stretched across the whole of Europe, to Africa, and what was then known as Asia Minor. As a result, Latin was brought into contact with many other languages, resulting in several dialects and variations. The decimation of the Roman Empire by barbarian hordes encouraged the evolution of such dialects of vulgar Latin (as distinct from the classical Latin of the upper classes and scholarly Romans) into our modern Romance languages such as French and Italian. Ultimately, it is clear that Latin isn’t dead – because languages do not live and die, but rather evolve and disperse their influence into ‘new’ languages.

Vivat Latin! The language lives on

Latin also clung on through the institutions set up by the Romans (often via the Greeks). Their words remain in biology in the naming of a species such as Canis lupus familiaris (the domesticated dog), in Law (e.g. in loco parentis), Medicine (e.g. post-mortem), Christianity (e.g. Agnus Dei), and commonly used initialisms such as e.g. which stands for exempli gratia (‘for the sake of example’) and i.e. or id est (‘that is’) – such was the influence of Roman society on the world. Indeed many of our months of the year are named after Roman gods or deified emperors, e.g. the month of March for Mars, the god of war, and August for Augustus Caesar.

Studying Latin: amo, amas, amat, et cetera…

Due to the prolific literary creations of the Romans, their languages are still studied today. However, many of those who have been induced to learn the language at school may now find themselves only able to profess their love of nothing in particular – amo, amas, amat (I love, you love, he/she/it loves) – or that Caecilius est in horto (Caecilius is in the garden), which even has various Facebook groups dedicated to it.

Tempus fugit, so carpe diem

Latin survives not only through derivatives in modern languages, or through archaic tomes, but in everyday speech. Indeed, you may be surprised how much a Roman from AD 100 would understand, if you happened across one…

You will be able to explain to your passing Roman (let’s call him Flavius) that after studying Latin ad nauseam, you thought ‘carpe diem!’, and decided in a rather ad hoc fashion to time travel to Rome circa AD 100. You explain that you came from 2011 Anno Domini, travelling incognito to avoid any comments on your futuristic haircut, and stressed how all of this was completely bona fide. Flavius decides your presence might upset the status quo and tries to have you arrested. Guards swiftly arrive but fearing you possess some kind of magic due to your mobile phone suddenly blasting out the classic tune ‘Istanbul, not Constantinople’ (which ironically are both incorrect in AD 100) decide to drag you straight to the emperor. You repeat your explanation verbatim – that de facto you are from the 21st century et cetera. Ergo Caesar, confused by your clear insanity, sends you to the Colosseum where you are matched versus two lions, four gladiators, and a sizeable bear. You strike a deal quid pro quo with the bear and are surprisingly triumphant. You inform the bloodthirsty crowds that tempus fugit and summon your time machine. Back on terra firma you decide you rather like the Romans, and vice versa, and vow to return to Rome three times per annum. To this day, a statue commemorating your victory stands in situ at the Colosseum in Rome.

(I never claimed that what you said would make much sense.)

Vescere bracis meis! (Eat my shorts)

In addition to peppering your daily conversation with Latin, you may want to translate some modern ideas and catchphrases into Latin, in order to sound ridiculously educated (or perhaps just ridiculous). There are thousands of websites dedicated to this, such as this one from the BBC, which offers these, and many other useful phrases:

  • Re vera, potas bene – Say, you sure are drinking a lot
  • Noli me vocare. Ego te vocabo – Don’t call me. I’ll call you.
  • Canis meus id comedit – My dog ate it
  • Recedite, plebes! Gero rem imperialem – Stand aside, little people! I am here on official business
  • Non sum pisces – I am not a fish.

When you do use these phrases, remember to explain why you are doing it: Vah! Denuone latine loquebar? Me ineptum. Interdum modo elabitur (‘Oh! Was I speaking Latin again? Silly me. Sometimes it just sort of slips out’).

So, as you can see, Latin lives on. It may be out of common usage as a vernacular language but through both its impact on modern languages, its direct and extensive borrowings into English and other languages, and its survival as an unspoken language in literary tomes, Latin is perhaps the most influential human language ever to have existed. Discuss.

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