Monday, June 4, 2012

Latin: Brushing Up on a Dead Language

People often take their language for granted. Only a few bother to learn the history behind their own mother tongue or what words and phrases in their language's vocabulary are actually words that come from another language. Take the English language for instance. There are many words used in the English language that are borrowed from such languages as German, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. These languages mentioned are all languages still spoken by millions, if not billions, of people today in various parts of the world.

Arms of the United States of America
(E Pluribus Unum) 

But there are also words in the English language that come from one of the so-called dead languages of the world – Latin. Without being aware of it, adult English speakers have been using Latin words for much of their lives. Latin gave rise to what is known as Romance Languages, a category where French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and many other related languages rose from.

It was in the Italian peninsula where Latin was first spoken. Latin was the language of the people of Latium (central western Italy), the language of Ancient Rome. The Roman conquest of lands near and far ensured the spread of Latin in its territories. Latin mixed with the local tongues and this gave birth to several Romance Languages. This language of the Ancient Roman Republic has undergone several incarnations throughout its history as a language. With the decline of the once mighty Roman Empire and the ascendance to power of other peoples and nations, the use of Latin was relegated to the sciences, religion and law.

Sundial with the motto "Carpe Diem"

Latin has not completely disappeared. It is still very much part of the human culture and communication even though no one really speaks Latin in ordinary conversations. Today, there exist organizations and individuals clamoring for the revival of this much revered dead language.

Where do you find Latin today?

The definition of "dead language" is a language that is no longer spoken in daily, ordinary communication but is still used in special circumstances. Latin falls into this category. Technically, there are no Latin speakers anymore but Latin is still widely used in several fields. Latin is not considered an extinct language because for a language to be classified as extinct it means that there is no one in the world that speaks that language anymore and that language is no longer in use anywhere.

Latin remains in the field of science, law and religion. In the various fields of science such as botany, zoology and medicine, Latin names continue to be used. The scientific names of plants, animals, and body parts, for example, are in Latin. This makes it easier for people of different languages involved in the sciences to understand what exactly is being referred to. To this day, Latin words are used when creating new words in the different branches of science.

If you speak legalese, then you should know a few Latin terms. Law today uses many Latin terms that were handed down from the Ancient Romans. The Ancient Romans were a powerful force at one time in history. These conquerors spoke Latin. And, as they took over nations, they "Latinized" the peoples they conquered. The legal system of the Ancient Romans has had great influence on the legal systems of the countries where they once ruled. So even if the Ancient Romans no longer ruled over these countries, their influence was still strong.

In some religions, Latin is considered as a sacred, liturgical or ecclesiastical language. In the Roman Catholic Church for instance, the use of Latin is extensive. Official documents of the Catholic Church are written in Latin. In some parts of the Catholic liturgy, Latin is still in use today. And there are members of the Christian clergy that speak Latin fluently.

Latin words in the English vocabulary

English is not a Romance language and not based on Latin. It is classified as a Germanic language. But this fact did not prevent authors (as well as church leaders, scholars and scientists) in the past from incorporating Latin words into the English dictionary. Of course not all the words that were borrowed from Latin stood the test of time. Here are just a few that did:

ad lib (according to one's wishes)
ad nauseam (to the point of sickness)
alias (another identity)
alibi (defense used to prove that a person was not in the location where a crime was committed)
gratis (no payment)
in vitro (inside a test tube)
memento (token)
memorandum (shortened to memo; written reminder or informal record)
modus operandi (method of working)
per annum (for each year)
post mortem (after death)
status quo (existing state)
vice versa (order is reversed)

The English language has also retained a few Latin abbreviations such as:

A.D. for anno domini (in the year of the Lord)
a.m. for ante meridiem (before noon)
c. for circa (about or approximately)
e.g. for exempli gratia (for example)
etc. for et cetera (and so forth)
i.e. for id est (that is)
n.b. for nota bene (note well)
p.m. for post meridiem (after noon)

Latin mottos throughout the globe

Organizations, states and countries all over the world have Latin mottos. Here are just a few of them:

Olympic Games: Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger)

Society of Jesus: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the greater glory of God)

Carmelites: Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum (With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts)

Harvard University: Veritas (truth)

Yale University: Lux et veritas (Light and truth)

Princeton University: Dei sub numine viget (Under God's power she flourishes)

U.S. Marine Corps: Semper Fidelis, sometimes shortened to Sepmer Fi (Always Faithful)

U.S. Coast Guard: Semper Paratus (Always Ready)

U.S. Navy: Non sibi sed patriae (Not self but country) unofficial motto

Canada: A Mari Usque Ad Mare (From Sea to Sea)

United States of America: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) traditional motto

Switzerland: Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro un (One for all, all for one) traditional motto

Latin in the contemporary world

In 1956, the Living Latin movement was born with the goal of teaching Latin for oral and written communication. A number of universities in the United States as well as in countries in Europe and elsewhere hold classes on the Latin language. The Internet is helping revive Latin through the sheer number of websites that incorporate Latin into their webpages.

Books written in Latin still exist today. There are books written in Latin with English translations within the pages of books. A number of well-loved children's books have been translated into Latin. Here are just some of them:

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)
Winnie Ille Pu (Wisdom of Pooh)
Cattus Petasatus (The Cat in the Hat)
Virent Ova! Viret Perna!! (Green Eggs and Ham)
Regulus (The Little Prince)
Asterix Legionarius (Asterix Leggionaire)

Writers of songs, books, articles and other forms of publication would time and again sprinkle Latin into their works. In Germany, a band called Ista keeps the Latin language alive by using it in their songs.

Latin is also part of cinema. Films like "The Passion of the Christ," "Sebastiane," "Exorcist" films, "The 13th Warrior," "Harry Potter" movies, and some television series like  "Karol: A Man Who Became Pope" incorporate dialogue in Latin. The dialogue in some movies are even purely Latin.

It is high time to brush up on Latin. After all, Latin words and phrases are still very relevant in the lives of people today. It may have been classified as a dead language but Latin still exists in the consciousness of men and women all over the world. Human communication, both oral and written, contains fragments of this ancient language. Discover more about Latin words and phrases through books, songs, films and other media. The materials are out there waiting for you. Latin will be within the human culture ad infinitum (to infinity).

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons Arms of the USA, Carpe Diem

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