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LATIN. Latin continued to be taught, studied, and even spoken in the early modern period. Knowledge of Latin was a sign of social prestige. It was the international language used to conduct the day-to-day business of church and state. It was, above all, the language of the educated and governing classes. University courses were taught in Latin, scholars wrote in Latin, and most official correspondence was conducted in Latin.

Latin remained a living language throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. Medieval Latin, however, differed considerably from the language spoken within the Roman Empire. New words had filtered their way into the language to meet the needs of political, ecclesiastical, and academic institutions, which were almost entirely medieval products. Words had changed meaning over the centuries, some of the grammatical rules had been altered, vernacular words had crept in, and spelling and pronunciation were inconsistent. Efforts were made by humanist scholars to stress the importance of classical Roman authors, particularly Cicero, Virgil, and Horace, as models for their own writings. Medieval Latin was considered by many humanists to be barbarous in comparison with the elegance of classical Latin. Not all scholars agreed, however. Many expressed their concern that an emphasis on the beauty of pagan classical Latin would corrupt the church and its theology.

Lorenzo Valla's (14071457) ambitious Elegantiae linguae latinae libri sex (printed 1471; Six books of the elegances of the Latin language) was a widely circulated work that proposed such reforms. Valla, like Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536), never advocated a slavish imitation of the classical authors. Other humanists, however, were proponents of Ciceronianism, the view that Cicero, considered by many to be the best Latin author of the classical world, should be the model for contemporary Latin usage. This meant that Ciceronians would only use words and constructions found in Cicero's writings. This movement was especially popular in Rome since Ciceronian language lent the majesty and authority of imperial Rome to the ideology and theology of the Renaissance papacy.

New Latin grammars were written with the hope of replacing the popular medieval grammars, such as the Doctrinale (c. 1199) of Alexander de Villa Dei, but this did not achieve wide success until the second half of the sixteenth century. Likewise, medieval spellings of certain words continued to be used into the sixteenth century despite efforts to restore the classical spelling. Latin pronunciation, too, varied significantly from region to region, as speakers tended to follow the norms of their mother tongue. Therefore, when Englishmen, Germans, and Italians were in the same room, they spoke Latin to each other, but with such different pronunciations that they sometimes could not be understood. The Italian pronunciation was most widely accepted because many people studied Latin in Italy, where they acquired this pronunciation.

By the seventeenth century, however, the attempts by humanists to restore classical Latin became overshadowed by the rise of the vernacular languages and the discoveries of the scientific revolution. Many European vernacular languages, such as French, English, and Italian, were highly developed and had become classical languages in their own right by this time. Each could boast of their own great writers, such as Dante (12651321) and Shakespeare (15641616). Furthermore, people still had to come up with new words to describe the new discoveries in science and technology that surpassed those of the Romans. Although scholars of the scientific revolution were trained in classical Latin, the number of academic works written in the vernacular began to increase rapidly. For example, Galileo Galilei (15641642) published some of his scientific results in Italian, Isaac Newton (16421727) in English, and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) in French. It took a long time before Latin was altogether replaced by the vernacular languages. In the early modern period, the choice of Latin still offered a writer several advantages. First, a work in Latin reached a broader audience since Latin was an international language. Second, Latin offered a more stable and standardized medium, while the vernacular languages were in a state of flux and changing rapidly. As society changed, the need for knowing Latin declined, and by the nineteenth century the vernacular languages had all but taken over.

See also Classicism ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Humanists and Humanism .


Benner, Margareta, and Emin Tengström. On the Interpretation of Learned Neo-Latin. Göteborg, 1977.

Grafton, Anthony. "The New Science and the Traditions of Humanism." In The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, edited by Jill Kraye, pp. 203223. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Jensen, Kristian. "The Humanist Reform of Latin Teaching." In The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, edited by Jill Kraye, pp. 6381. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

The Right Way of Speaking Latin and Greek: A Dialogue. In Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 26. Edited by Maurice Pope. Toronto, 1985.

Tunberg, Terence. "Neo-Latin Literature and Language." In Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, edited by Paul F. Grendler et al. Vol. 4, pp. 289294. New York, 1999.

Milton Kooistra


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LATIN The classical and cultural language of Western Europe, a member of the INDO-EUROPEAN language family, and the precursor of the ROMANCE LANGUAGES. Particularly since the Renaissance, Latin has also been the scholarly and literary seed-corn for the VERNACULAR European languages. English has proved to be the most receptive among the GERMANIC LANGUAGES to direct as well as indirect Latin influence.

Nature and influence

Latin is a highly inflected language noted for conciseness of expression: for example, the one word amābunt translates the three English words they will love, while its passive form amābuntur translates they will be loved. For centuries, formal education in the British Isles has been closely associated with the teaching and learning of Latin. Especially in England, this training was provided in grammar schools, in which the term grammar was virtually synonymous with Latin. Such institutions in the 16c bear close comparison with 19–20c English-medium schools in such countries as India and Nigeria, and with contemporary grammar-based ways of teaching English in such countries as Japan and Korea. Both the terms and the style of the traditional grammatical study of English derive from Latin, and the formal analysis of English grammar widely taught until recent decades owes much to a Latin grammatical model derived in its turn from a GREEK model.

Latin and English

In the 4c, St Jerome's Vulgate Bible became the model for Christian writing in Latin. This model was further developed by St Augustine of Hippo (4–5c), a teacher of RHETORIC, in works like Civitas Dei (The City of God). His example was followed in England by such scholars as Aldhelm (7c), Bede (7–8c), Alcuin (8–9c), and AELFRIC (10–11c), while the translations from Latin into OLD ENGLISH by King ALFRED of Wessex (9c) laid the foundation of early English prose writing. The fluid interplay of languages in Britain during the Middle Ages is illustrated by three events in the 12c, all associated with the cycle of mythic and legendary material known as the Matter of Britain. First, the Oxford cleric Galfridus Monemutensis (Geoffrey of Monmouth), an Englishman with Welsh and Breton connections, wrote the Latin prose work Historia regum Britanniae (History of the kings of Britain, c.1135). He claimed that he translated this work from a very old book ‘in the British tongue’: that is, in a form of Celtic similar to Welsh. The History begins with the settlement in Britain of a great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas, whose name was Brutus and who purportedly gave his name to the island. It ends with the legendary King Arthur, a Celtic hero adopted by the Anglo-Normans. The History was then translated into FRENCH, and further romanticized, as the Roman de Brut (1155) by Wace, an Anglo-Norman from Jersey in the CHANNEL ISLANDS. This work then served as the source for the Brut, an alliterative poem in the late 12c by the Worcestershire priest Layamon, in what is now called MIDDLE ENGLISH.

Latin continued to be the primary language of scholarship until the end of the 17c. Such scholars as William Camden wrote by preference in Latin, considering that to use English was to write in sand, and for major contributors to the canon of English literature, such as John Milton, Latin was an essential professional tool. In the late 17c, Sir Isaac Newton chosen Latin as the medium for Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical principles of natural philosophy), better known as the Principia (1687), and this work was not translated into English until 1729. He chose Latin to ensure that the Principia would be widely read, but later wrote Opticks in English, its date of publication (1704) marking the point at which significant scholarly work began to appear in English first and, in due course, without any translation into Latin. Because of familiarity with the Classics, however, writers continued to evoke in English the images and phrases of ancient Rome, often only slightly adapted, and to allude fluently to topics that, until well into the 20c, their readership could generally grasp without editorial help. In addition, numerous Latin quotations and tags have enjoyed an extended life in English to the present day.

Latin in English

A large part of the lexicon of Latin has entered English in two major waves: mainly religious vocabulary from the time of Old English until the Reformation, and mainly scientific, scholarly, and legal vocabulary (slightly different in English and Scottish law), from the Middle Ages onwards. In the 17c, such makers of English dictionaries as John Bullokar deliberately converted Latin words into English, building on the already strong French component of the vocabulary so as to create a Latinate register of education and refinement. In it, words like fraternity and feline were set lexically and stylistically ‘above’ words like brotherhood and cat. These lexicographers' methods were straightforward: they turned the endings of Latin words into Anglo-French endings, a practice that has continued with minor modifications ever since: thus, alacritas became French-like alacritie (later alacrity), catalogus (Greek in origin) became catalogue (later catalog in AmE), incantatio became incantation, onerosus became onerous, puerilis became puerile, and ruminare (through its past participle ruminatus) became ruminate.

Many Latin-derived words in English occur in ‘families’. For example, from the verb cantare/cantatum (to sing) come such words as cant, canticle, cantor, descant, incantation, accent, incentive, precentor, recant (with enchant, enchantment through French, and cantata, canto through Italian). From monēre/monitum (to warn) come monitor, admonish, admonition, admonitory, premonition. From agere/actum (to do, act) come agent, agency, agile, agility, agitate, act, actor, action, enact, exact, inaction, inactivity. From currere/cursum (to run) come current, currency, cursive, cursor, cursory, concur, incur, excursion, occurrence, precursor, recurrent. From claudere/clausum (to close, with the forms -clud-/-clus-after a prefix) come clause, include, exclude, preclude, seclusive, conclusion. From dominus/domini (master) and dominare/dominatum (to master) come dominion, dominate, domination, dominie, domineering (through French and Dutch), domain (through French). From caput/capitis (head) come capital, capitalism, capitalize, decapitate, decapitation (and through French cattle, chapter, chattel, chief). From avidus/avidi (greedy) come avid, avidity; from rigidus/rigidi (stiff) come rigid, rigidity, from audax/audacis (bold) come audacious, audacity; from ferox/ferocis (fierce) come ferocious, ferocity.

In addition, many words that in Latin actually perform grammatical functions have been turned into nouns in English: caveat (beware) as a synonym for a warning, floruit (he/she flourished) to mark the period when someone was in his or her prime (usually when precise birth and death dates are not known), imprimatur (let it be printed) for someone's approval of a published text, quorum (of whom) the minimum number of people necessary for a committee or similar meeting, tandem (at length) for a bicycle built for two. Similarly, many phrases and sentences of Latin are perpetuated as tags and mottoes: ad astra per aspera to the stars through hardships (the motto of the US state of Kansas), per ardua ad astra through difficulties to the stars (the motto of the Royal Air Force); habeas corpus you may have the body (a technical term in law); ipse dixit he said it himself (as a sometimes caustic comment); non sequitur it does not follow (a name for a certain kind of logical FALLACY). Further phrases have been abbreviated, and are part of the currency of everyday life, including writing: AD (for anno Domini in the year of the Lord, as part of calendar dating), a.m. (for ante meridiem before midday), p.m. (post meridiem after midday), e.g. (exempli gratia for the sake of example), i.e. (id est that is).

Currently, continuing a process of de-Latinization that has gathered momentum since the 18c (mainly because of the spread of LITERACY beyond the schools where Latin was a core subject), there is a tendency to translate such expressions into English (time flies rather than tempus fugit; don't despair, don't give up rather than nil desperandum), and to make Latin words more conventionally English: the plurals cactuses and referendums rather than cacti and referenda. In the train of such changes, and because the influence of Latin is still tenacious, there is often uncertainty and friction regarding usage: for example, in such vexed issues as the use of data and media as singular or plural nouns. See BORROWING, CLASSICAL ENDING, DERIVATION, HISTORY OF ENGLISH, LATINATE, LATINISM, LATIN TAG, NEO-LATIN.


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Lat·in / ˈlatn/ • n. 1. the language of ancient Rome and its empire, widely used historically as a language of scholarship and administration.2. a native or inhabitant of a country whose language developed from Latin, esp. a Latin American. ∎  music of a kind originating in Latin America, characterized by dance rhythms and extensive use of indigenous percussive instruments.• adj. of, relating to, or in the Latin language: Latin poetry. ∎  of or relating to the countries or peoples using languages, esp. Spanish, that developed from Latin. ∎  of, relating to, or characteristic of Latin American music or dance: snapping his fingers to a Latin beat. ∎  of or relating to the Western or Roman Catholic Church (as historically using Latin for its rites): the Latin patriarch of Antioch. ∎ hist. of or relating to ancient Latium or its inhabitants.DERIVATIVES: Lat·in·ism / -ˌizəm/ n. Lat·in·ist / -ist/ n.


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Latin the language of ancient Rome and its empire, widely used historically as a language of scholarship and administration.

Latin is a member of the Italic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. After the decline of the Roman Empire it continued to be a medium of communication among educated people throughout the Middle Ages in Europe and elsewhere, and remained the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church until the reforms of the second Vatican Council (1962–5); it is still used for scientific names in biology and astronomy. The Romance languages are derived from it.
Latin Church the Christian Church which originated in the Western Roman Empire, giving allegiance to the Pope of Rome, and historically using Latin for the liturgy; the Roman Catholic Church as distinguished from Orthodox and Uniate Churches.
Latin cross a plain cross in which the vertical part below the horizontal is longer than the other three parts.
Latin square an arrangement of letters or symbols that each occur n times, in a square array of n2 compartments so that no letter appears twice in the same row or column.


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Latin Language of ancient Rome, the Roman Empire, and of educated medieval European society. It belongs to the family of Indo-European languages. Its earliest written records are inscriptions and legal formulas of the late 6th century bc. As Rome extended its rule throughout Italy, Latin gained supremacy. The richest phase of Latin literature was the Augustan age (43 bc–ad 14). Spoken Latin was used throughout the Roman Empire. It eventually broke up into numerous dialects, which formed the basis of the Romance languages. Latin remained the language of the Church, science, medicine, law, education, and most written transactions in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. It was still used in some scholarly and diplomatic circles in the 19th century, and the Roman Catholic mass was in Latin until the 1960s.


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Latin pert. to Latium or the ancient Romans; sb. the Latin language. XIII. —(O)F. latin or L. Latīnus, f. Latium designation of the portion of Italy which included Rome. In OE. the learned form latin occurs occas.; the pop. repr. was lǣden Latin, language, ME. leden speech, utterance.
So Latinist XVI. —medL. Latinista. Latinity XVII. — L.

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