Latin Is Alive and Well and Living in Your Vocabulary

Latin Is Alive and Well and Living in Your Vocabulary

Galileo: The Starry MessengerHard to believe, but 2,600 years ago the notion of Latin as any kind of language—living or dead—was laughable. Barely anyone spoke it, other than a few people in Italy. For those who have never had a love of amo, amas, or amat, if the language had never gone beyond its hilltop Italian borders, that would have been just fine.

But if you speak English (or Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, or French), there’s Latin on your tongue. A dead language? You probably use its derivatives every day.

 

 

  • In the upcoming November elections, we’ll be voting for our favorite candidates. The word is from candidātus, literally translated as “men wearing white togas,” as contenders for political office did in Roman times. (Modern candidates, take note.)
  • Our online communities such as Facebook owe a debt to the comparably spelled Latin word for “fellowship.”
  • Those relics from an earlier music era, LPs—once considered dead, but now enjoying a revival—are now commonly referred to as vinyls. The word is from vīn, for “wine.”

When not in Rome…

There’s a reason why most of us are familiar with the phrase veni, vidi, vici. When Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.E.) and his Roman soldiers came, saw and conquered much of western Europe, they brought their language with them. The Romans were not about to learn the language of their conquests. Everybody would have to hew to the conquerors’ tongue.

It was not until the sixth and seventh centuries C.E. that Latin as a spoken language began to disappear. But it remained the written language of the learned in Europe long after that—the language of diplomacy, religion and science. “Science” is itself from scīre, to know. When Galileo published his startling discovery that the earth moved, his Starry Messenger (in picture) was written in the language of the learned, and was known as Sidereus nuncius.

Fast-forward to the mid-1700s and a small cadre of extremely bright men in a New World who were about to create something remarkable called a democracy. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were heavily influenced by the writings of such classicists as Cicero in formulating their ideas for a new republic (from rēs publica, entity + public). This so-called dead language is alive and well and living in our Constitution.

Finger tapping

The etymologies of at least half the words in the English language have been attributed to Latin. From animal to vehicle, amorous to vain, dental to dulcet, the list goes on, darn near ad infinitum.

Do you use a smartphone, tablet, or other digital device? “Digital” in English is based on digitus, or finger. Today we still get our digits out, as the old saying goes, to tap our fingers on the screens of our digital devices.

The one aspect of the language that would do well to die off when it comes to its place in English is in grammatical strictures such as never splitting an infinitive. The Romans were touchy about this, but that’s not the way that English rolls.

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About Mim Harrison

Mim Harrison is the author of three books on the English language, Wicked Good Words, Smart Words (both, Penguin/Perigee) and Words at Work (Walker Publishing). A longtime professional writer and editor, she is also a producer of specialty books that are published in cooperation with leading cultural institutions. Her interest in languages began during her misadventures as a college student abroad.

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