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Latin is an Indo-European language of the Italic language family. Its closest relative was Umbric, which is now extinct. Latin was the most widely spoken language in the Roman Empire, and is the language from which all the Romance languages are derived. These languages include Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, Italian, French and Catalan, among others. Latin may also refer to people who speak Romance languages (most commonly Spanish or Portuguese) in the Carribean and in Central or South America.

See also Latino about Americans of Hispanic or Latin American (usually Spanish-speaking) descent in the United States.


Latin Grammar

Latin grammar is marked by an extensive system of noun cases and verbal inflection. Like nouns, adjectives also decline and must agree with the nouns they modify in terms of gender, number and case. In addition, Latin also has the full range of other parts of speech, including adverbs and pronouns.


In Latin, noun cases are used to indicate the grammatical function of the noun within the sentence. By contrast, English and most modern Romance languages use the noun's position within the sentence to denote its grammatical function.

Nouns all have grammatical gender (either masculine, feminine or neuter). While nouns that correspond to people will generally match the logical gender (for example, puella, meaning "girl" is feminine, while puer, meaning "boy" is masculine), other nouns which do not have a natural gender will still have a grammatical gender (for example, arbor, meaning "tree" is feminine, portus, "harbor" is masculine, and bellum, "war" is neuter). Most neuter words end in -um or -e in the nominative case.

Each Latin noun falls into one of five declensions, which will determine the endings used to indicate case. Latin has six major grammatical cases as indicated below:

Case Grammatical Function Example Paradigm (1st Declension Singular)
Nominative Subject Puella
Vocative Object of Direct Address Puella
Accusative Direct Object; also used with certain prepositions, mostly concerning motion Puellam
Genitive Possessive; also used with certain prepositions; translated 'of the ...' Puellae
Dative Indirect Object; also used with certain prepositions; translated 'to/for the...' Puellae
Ablative Used with certain prepositions, mostly concerning location; also indicates agency in passive constructions; translated 'by/with/from the...' Puellā

Note that certain cases are identical to others (they may vary in other declensions); in situations where there is more than one possible case for a particular noun, the case must be determined from the context of the sentence. In Latin dictionaries, nouns listed will indicate the nominative and the genitive singular forms of the noun; this enables an experienced reader to determine the rest of that noun's declension, even if he or she has not encountered it before. Thus the noun in the example above would be listed puella, -ae in a Latin dictionary.


Verbal morphology distinguishes voice (active and passive), time (past, present, future), mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, infinitive), aspect (simple, perfective, imperfective), and person (first, second, and third person in singular and plural numbers). Time and aspect are normally combined into the verb's tense. Unlike English, which uses auxiliary verbs to create a wide variety of tenses, Latin just has six (four in the subjunctive mood).

Tense Time Aspect Grammatical Function Example Paradigm (3rd Conjugation, first person singular active indicative)
Present Present Simple or Imperfective Used to indicate both the present simple and present progressive. dico
Imperfect Past Imperfective Used to indicate ongoing actions in the past (which may or may not continue to the present). dicebam
Perfect Past Simple or Perfective Used to indicate both the past simple and specifically completed actions in the past. dixi
Pluperfect Past Perfective Used to indicate actions completed prior to other actions in the past. dixeram
Future Future Simple Used to indicate actions that will occur in the future. dicam
Future Perfect Future Perfective Used to indicate actions that are not complete now, but will be in the future. Usually this means actions that occur after the present but prior to other actions in the future tense. dixero

Like nouns, the morphology of verbs in Latin is mostly indicated by regular changes in how the verb is formed, rather than through the use of auxiliary verbs, as is common in English. Most verbs fall into one of four conjugations which determine the form and the endings used to indicate the various aspects of morphology. Unlike nouns however, there are a number of irregular verbs that do not fall into any conjugation.

Latin verbs in the dictionary customarily show their four principal parts, the first person singular present active, the infinitive, the first person singular perfect active, and the supine (a form of verbal noun). Thus, the verb meaning "to say" would be listed in the dictionary as dico, dicere, dixi, dictum. Using this information, an experienced Latinist can derive all of the other forms of the verb.

Latin verbs also have specialized forms including gerunds (verbal nouns mostly found only in earlier Latin), gerundives (verbal adjectives used to express necessity or obligation), participles, and others.


Because Latin is so highly inflected, in simple sentences, word order is irrelevant. Thus Canis puerum mordet (The dog bites the boy) has exactly the same meaning as Mordet canis puerum or Puerum mordet canis. Nevertheless, Latin did have the tendency to settle into customary word orders, generally with the verb at the end of the sentence.

When translating, it is always important to pay close attention to the words at the beginning and end of a sentence. This position connotes the importance of the word to the writer's thought, if not the actual meaning as in English.

Latin poetry, in particular, takes advantage of the flexibility of the word position in order to create pleasing minglings of grammatically unrelated words as word play or to provide secondary meanings. The flexibility of the word position also made it easier for Latin poets to conform to a particular metre. [Who says?]

Linguistic Descendants

The modern Romance languages are almost entirely descended from Vulgar Latin, which was Latin spoken by the common people in the later centuries of the Roman Empire. Changes from Classical to Vulgar Latin included the merger of long /e:/ and /o:/ with short /i/ and /u/, respectively, the loss of /h/ and the accusative nasalization, and the replacement of cases, tenses, and voices with periphrastic constructions (this change occurred across western Europe)[1]. Latin has also given us the alphabet used to write most Western European languages, including English.

Direct modern descendants of Latin include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Italian and a variety of less well known languages. Collectively, these are known as Romance languages. In addition, many other languages, such as English and German, have large numbers of Latin loanwords that have been absorbed into the language.

Latin was also the language used by educated elites throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Western Europe. Thus a wide variety of medieval literature, ranging from theological works to histories to scientific works to legal records to literature were all written in Latin, not the author's mother tongue. This had the advantage of facilitating communication between educated people throughout Europe.

Until 1962, Latin was the language in which all Roman Catholic masses were conducted. A number of Roman Catholics still conduct Mass in Latin, and Latin is still the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Phonologically, Latin is generally similar to other western languages of the Indo-European family.[Who says?]

Contemporary Latin Use

Much of the Latin read nowadays is literature written during the latter days of the Roman Republic and during the Roman Empire. In particular, the first century BC is considered a golden age of Latin literature, with such notable poets as Catullus, Horace and Virgil, historians such as Livy and other writers such as Cicero. Many other Roman writers outside of the first century BC, such as Plautus, Seneca, Juvenal and Tacitus, are important authors whose works continue to be influential in modern culture and literature. In addition to being enjoyed in their own right, they are also important for the study of Roman history and culture.

In addition, many of the Fathers of the Church, such as Augustine and Gregory the Great, wrote in Latin. One of the most important translations of the Bible was the Latin Vulgate by Jerome, which was completed in the fourth century AD and allowed the common people (Lat. vulgus) to understand the Bible in their native language instead of Hebrew or Greek.

Today, Latin remains the official language of the Catholic Church, although the Vatican II council removed the requirement for services to be conducted in Latin. Ecclesiastical Latin (aka "Church Latin"), as it is known, is pronounced similar to modern Italian as opposed to classic Roman pronunciation. In the main, however, Latin is not spoken anymore; and as such oral Latin is not taught in most schools; the emphasis is on reading and translation.

Latin was also very important in the development of law, both because of the highly influential Civil Code of Justinian and because of the use of Latin in the composition of the writs used in English Common Law. The persistence of Latin may be seen in legal terms such as "writ of certiorari" or "adjournment sine die".

Latin (along with Greek) is also used by scientists of all kinds, from biologists to chemists. Latin is particularly used when naming things such as biological species or chemical elements. Latin terms are also used extensively in medicine, reflecting the significance of medieval medical schools.

For many, however, the attractiveness of learning Latin comes from the fact that it is intellectually challenging; many of those who study the language will not enter a field directly related to it.

Further reading

  • John F. Collins, A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin, Catholic University of America Press (1985), ISBN 0-8132-0667-7 An introductory Latin text based mainly on medieval ecclesiastical sources.
  • Nicholas Ostler, Ad Infinitum: a Biography of Latin, Walker and Company, New York (2007) ISBN 0-8027-1515-X A history of the Latin language.
  • Bob Moore and Maxine Moore, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins: a Comprehensive Guide to the Classical Origins of English Words, Barnes and Noble, Inc, New York (2000) ISBN 0-7607-2082-7


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