Here Lies the Language of the Romans
By Joshua Martin
About the Author
Salve! My name is Josh Martin. I live in Dallas, Texas, and I can’t imagine life without literature. My favourite author is Larry McMurtry, but I love many others as well. My greatest interests lie in the Humanities and I plan on living to learn more about them.
R.I.P. Latin—or so many believe. When I’m asked about my favorite subject in school by my peers and I say “Latin,” their responses usually consist of concealed laughter or remarks about how Latin is no longer a useful skill. I am here to say that, although referred to as a “dead” language, the Roman tongue has not perished. Visible in phrases such as “Rest in Peace” (“requiescat in pace”), the words of an ancient civilization have evolved into the Romance languages and pervade English itself, constituting over half of its vocabulary. Latin does not symbolize the death of a nation’s culture but exemplifies its dissemination across the globe. However, Latin poses a question: why does this language, which is not spoken in its original form by any society today, concern the modern world?
To gauge the significance of the language, we must look to the direct systematic study of Latin literature. Ancient Latin poetry and prose is scrutinized in its original form and is included in a plethora of ancient languages studied in the fields of philology, philosophy, classics, history, literature, geography, and so on—these disciplines compose the Humanities (from Latin “hūmānitās,” contrived by the Roman orator Cicero). But what is the purpose of studying Latin? People in the United States, like me, study Latin in part because of its influence on the upbringing of our own society. The education of the founding fathers consisted of almost entirely Latin and Greek. The existence of the language in the atmosphere of that time period is seen in literary allusions made by the spearheads of the American Revolution. For example, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay used the pseudonym “Publius” as the public author of the Federalist Papers in an effort to foster support for the ratification of the Constitution; the name “Publius” is a reference to Publius Valerius Publicola, a Roman aristocrat who helped overthrow the monarchy and establish the Republic. John Adams referred to his wife, Abigail, as “Portia” and she responded to him as “Brutus,” implicating their perceived roles in overthrowing a corrupt government. The motto for the new country was decidedly “e pluribus unum,” or, “out of many, one.” The classical education that the founding fathers received formed their perspective on the tyrannical British government and fomented a desire to form a republic just as the Romans did thousands of years before. So those old guys knew a lot of Latin. But what parts of it did they read and why? Latin was the language spoken by numerous political, philosophical, and historical figures of ancient Rome. Virtually all of these people in the Roman Republic and Empire wrote in the official language of the state (or else they wrote in Greek). The architects of the United States were accustomed to reading the prose of Cicero and Caesar, the poetry of Virgil and Horace, the histories of Pliny and Tacitus, the philosophies of Seneca the Younger, and so on. Writing on existence, nature, and government, these authors influenced later thinkers and politicians. John Adams stated that “Among the ancients there are two illustrious examples of the epistolary style, Cicero and Pliny, whose letters present you with models of fine writing, which have borne the criticism of almost two thousand years.” By reading these authors, our founding fathers looked back to see how the Romans fixed the problems of their society in an attempt to find a compromise to solve their own. We do the same today. That is what the Humanities are for—looking back into the past and finding answers for today’s affairs. As Cicero said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
Latin has not only been analyzed directly in its purest form; it has morphed into the modern vernacular of the Romance languages. The most widely spoken of these languages are Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. When people say that Latin is a dead language, they forget that the Romance languages are simply evolved versions of Vulgar Latin (post-classical Roman dialect). While imperial powers of the ancient world tended to allow conquered lands to retain their own tongues, the Romans attempted to force Latin onto their subjects, especially for the purpose of governance; this ensured the survival of the language through generations of assimilated peoples. The actions that the Romans were capable of taking to acquire territory was not optimal to its original proprietors; however, if the goal was to encompass an enormous variety of cultures under one spoken language, the Romans succeeded. The Latin that was spoken in the farther reaches of the empire was known as Vulgar, while the interior of the nation communicated more often under High Latin. Although Vulgar Latin lived on, embedded in the vernacular we now know as the Romance languages, the High Latin of the classical period had been separated from it and dissipated over the years to come. But Latin is still Latin: just because Vulgar and High Latin differed in spelling and grammar, the origins of both were the same. Latin, in its archaic, classical, and vulgar forms, did not perish but has continuously transformed and evolved with the cultures that spoke it.
We’ve seen that Latin is visible in the Romance languages and that its prose and poetry is important to study to understand history and the progression of Roman civilization into succeeding cultures. However, what we have not addressed is how Latin has penetrated the English language. After all, English isn’t a Romance language, so how could Latin apply to it? Like I said about how Latin embedded itself into the history of the U.S., it also exists in its speech. The words of this language exude the values of the Roman Republic. The word “republic” itself is derived from “rēs pūblica” (“public matter”), a phrase merged by James Madison to renew its meaning and set the basis for the ideals of the newly established United States. But the words of colonial America are not the only examples of Latin influence on common English speech. More than sixty percent of polysyllabic words originate from Latin, meaning that the language would provide a solid foundation for learning the English vocabulary. People may argue that learning Latin is not as useful a hobby as, say, Spanish, French, Mandarin, etc. due to the reality that the modern world requires modes of communication provided for by the latter options. I disagree. If one is interested in learning any of the Romance languages, and especially if they are looking to learn multiple, Latin is without question the best place to start. It is the common ancestor of languages spoken by over a billion people and, as their basis, serves to teach a large portion of their core vocabulary and grammar. Even if your desire is to pursue a non-Romantic language, learning Latin is useful for historical knowledge-building and the advancement of your own language’s skills. If you want to be able to speak Spanish, French, Italian, or Mandarin, Basque, Nahuatl, and so on, I encourage you to consider Latin as your starting point.
Adams, J. N. Social Variation and the Latin Language. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Cothran, Martin. “The Classical Education of the Founding Fathers.” Memoria Press, 15 Apr. 2007, www.memoriapress.com/articles/classical-education-founding-fathers/.
McWhorter, John. “Language Evolution: How One Language Became Five Languages.” The Great Courses Daily, 26 Aug. 2019, www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/language-evolution-one-language-became-five-languages/.
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