Introduction to the Latin Language
In days gone by, if you wanted to study a language in high school or college, you got two choices: Latin or Greek. Today many people might question the value of studying Latin, but it’s good for a lot more than reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
In this discussion it must be pointed out that we are talking about learning classical Latin, which is a temporary outgrowth of the language that was spoken on the streets, usually called Vulgar Latin (not because it was rude, but because it was the common speech). This is the language that the classics were written in and the language from which much of our English vocabulary was taken.
Latin is an Indo-European language belonging to the Italic family. More importantly, Vulgar Latin is the mother of many languages spoken today, including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Rhaeto-Romance, Romanian, Sardinian, Langue d’Oc, and many others. Even English, which adopted at least 50% of its vocabulary from Latin either directly or through French, has been heavily influenced by the language.
Contrary to popular belief, Latin is not a dead language. There is a vibrant community of people who speak the language, although it is doubtful that there are any speakers of Latin who use the language exclusively. Latin is still used extensively in the Catholic Church, and there are some radio stations that have regular news service in Latin as well.
Aside from reading the classics in the original tongue, authors like Caesar, Ovid, Virgil, Cicero, and others—as well as ecclesiastical or renaissance art and science treatises—the greatest benefit of learning Latin would be the understanding it gives the learner of how language works. It provides a foundation for learning many other languages much more easily.
Latin is a complex language. For an English speaker, learning Latin (and be aware that you will be learning how to read and write the language, not how to speak it) is an exercise in patience and perseverance. That said, many people have done it, and many people continue to do so. It is merely a matter of diligent, regular study and practice.
Because English vocabulary contains so many words from Latin, a student will quickly begin to see relationships between the two languages. Here are a few examples:
Latin Meaning English
puer boy puerile
femina woman feminine
fungus mushroom fungus, fungal
herba grass herbal
amare love amorous
liber free liberal, liberty
sacer sacred sacrifice, sacristy
There are thousands of such words, and once a learner has recognized the patterns, many words can be learned much more easily. Conversely, one of the great benefits of learning Latin is being able to recognize and learn many words in English that were previously unfamiliar.
What are some of the challenges for an English speaker learning Latin?
- Latin nouns have three genders—masculine, feminine, and neuter. These must be learned by rote along with each noun.
- Latin has seven cases for its nouns, as opposed to the English two (nominative and oblique), and they are used regularly to affect meaning. Adjectives and nouns are inflected for case, gender, and number. Here is an example for the words “puer” (boy) and “bonus” (good) in the five most common cases. There are two cases that are less frequently used: the vocative (for direct address) and the locative (used with places).
Nominative puer bonus a good boy (subject)
Genitive pueri boni of a good boy
Dative puero bono to/for a good boy
Accusative puerum bonum a good boy (object)
Ablative cum puero bono with a good boy (or other prepositions)
Nominative pueri boni good boys (subject)
Genitive puerorum bonorum of good boys
Dative pueris bonis to/for good boys
Accusative pueros bonos good boys (object)
Ablative cum pueris bonis with good boys (or other prepositions)
Latin word order is very free. Because both verbs and nouns are highly inflected, words can come in various orders in the sentence depending on the emphasis you wish to give them or the scansion used in poetry.
- Puellae bellae cantant (The) beautiful girls are singing
- Cantant puellae bellae (The) beautiful girls are singing
- Cantant bellae puellae (The) beautiful girls are singing
- There are no definite or indefinite articles in Latin. Puer bonus can mean either “a good boy” or “the good boy”, depending on context.
- Latin verbs have tense, mood, voice, and aspect and are additionally inflected for person and number. There are four basic conjugation patterns, and many verbs are irregular.
People wonder how long it will take them to learn Latin. With most modern languages, a year should be enough to be able to communicate at a basic level, but with Latin there is no hard-and-fast rule because it is devilishly complex. Most high schools that teach Latin have four-year courses, and by the end of the fourth year students are expected to be able to read most of the classics without much difficulty—but this is with the aid of a teacher and still using a dictionary. Rather than worrying about how long it will take you, simply dive in, and if your goal is to dominate the language, take pleasure in each bit of progress you make.
Here are some examples of words in Latin:
horse: equus (classical), caballus (vulgar)
tea: unknown in ancient Rome
Some Latin sentences for comparison (it’s unlikely you will ever use these, but here they are):
Hello. Ave / Salve.
What is your name? Quod nomen tibi est?
My name is … Mihi nomen est …
Good morning. Salve.
Where is the toilet? Ubi est latrina?
I don’t understand. Non intellego.
In addition to being able to make sense of lawyer-speak (quid pro quo, habeas corpus, pro bono, nolo contendere, etc.), learning Latin will provide you with a key to a rich fount of literature, art, science, history, and music. In addition, you will learn more about your own language in the process than you perhaps ever wanted to know. Depending on your motivation and desire, it could become the study of a lifetime, one you will never regret having undertaken.
Are you Ready to Start?
If you're ready to start learning the Latin language, head over to the Latin for Beginners section.