Latin nearly extinct

According to an article I found on the BBC today, the Papal Latinist, Father Reginald Foster, fears that Latin is likely to cease to be used in the Catholic church before long. This is mainly because priests no longer have to study Latin at seminaries and are unable to read important theological texts. When bishops receive their appointment letters or letters of congratulation, which are written on parchment in Latin, many of them write back asking for a translation.

In Italy most school children are taught Latin for at least four hours a week up to the age of 18, though Father Foster criticises the teaching methods used as old-fashioned – he thinks Latin should be taught as a living language. Elsewhere in Europe, few schools teach Latin any more.

This entry was posted in Language, Latin.

18 Responses to Latin nearly extinct

  1. Polly says:

    Hmmm…market dynamics or preservation of relic-languages? I don’t know. A part of me believes that if the only thing keeping a language alive is authoritarianism then maybe it should be allowed to requiem in pace
    But, then again, why let a perfectly good language with oodles of literature die? It’s always hard to let go of the past when it’s no longer relevant. But, what if it’s still necessary? This is why I have newspapers and credit card offers from 1998 stuck in the back of my closet.

  2. Nikki says:

    I have to wonder about the title of the post: What does “nearly extinct” really mean? Latin is already not a living language, it’s not being passed down from generation to generation, from parent to child. However, even if the Vatican no longer uses Latin, it won’t be forgotten for a long time: It lives on in the languages it evolved into, the naming of many things in science comes from Latin, it will be of interest to people who are interested in historical languages for a long time to come.

    I personally wish people would let Latin rest in peace and remember it for its glory days, instead of attempting to keep it alive or revive it against the will of evolution/the gods (delete as appropriate). Languages evolve over time and Latin became French, Spanish, Italian and all the other Romance languages. Trying to keep it alive is like trying to keep an old dying man alive because you think he used to be more impressive than his children have ever been.

    Hopefully nobody will bite my head off now. 😉

  3. Joseph Staleknight says:

    Well, “extinct” means it’s lost to study forever. “Dead” means it’s no longer part of everyday culture.

  4. Polly says:

    Nikki – gods/evolution/senior-euthanasia all in one post! you pretty much pressed all the big, shiny, red buttons you could find… 😀

    I agree. After all, what is evolution but (human) nature’s ” free market forces” acting to obliterate the old which is no longer adaptive in order to make room for the new? Sure it makes us a little sad when the last dodo bird ends up a l’orange, but that’s the process.

  5. Chibi says:

    I also agree with Polly and Nikki. I mean, there’s obviously some reason that Latin is not spoken by people anymore (outside the Vatican)…why should we try to rescue it when it was already extinct, anyway?

    Only exception: those endangered languages in Australia, Americas, etc. With these cases, I feel like the languages native to there were ripped from the people (or vice versa), and therefore, it isn’t right that these languages should prematurely become extinct.

  6. Ben L. says:

    Naturally we won’t decapitate you Nikki… just your ideas! (maybe) Classical Chinese (CC) occupies a place in some respects like that of Latin, especially as a source of word components for its progenitors and neighboring languages. But what a mess! The CC writing system really only expresses it’s own sound system (and that perhaps not too well- I don’t know); for other languages it is an unnecessary burden. That said, knowledge of CC can lead to some insight into modern word formation, much as Latin and Greek do for English. But in this respect, I agree with you Nikki: the rewards aren’t equal to the trouble.

    There may be, however, some compelling reasons to maintain (or revive) the ancient languages as living traditions. First, it gives entree into the largest bodies of ancient literature. Some of these languages are not far removed from the beginnings of history, others mark that beginning. What a loss of heritage it would be were we to relegate understanding of the ancient world to only the scholars. Of course, we can get a sense for these works in translation, but knowing the language- the greatest artifact of human culture- yields understanding that can be had in no other way.

    Second, let us examine briefly the problem of interlinguas: people create them- sometimes quite ingeniously- without considering how to popularize them (I’m sure they think about it, it just never seems to happen). Ancient languages come replete with some of the cache necessary to ease that process. Take for example modern Hebrew: that same cachet combined with political will and necessity to take what had been purely a literary language (and mostly liturgical at that) and revive it as a Jewish interlingua in the modern world. Of course, it’s not biblical Hebrew, but not language no matter how intact its tradition can avoid change. Language is always new. The point here is that to achieve the “escape velocity” for a language to come alive (have its own community of users), it seems likely to require that connection to the past. Ideally, it would at least give a leg up in accessing past literature as well.

    Finally, I think maintaining classical languages as living languages (forming societies, teaching them in schools, reading the classics aloud and creating new literary works) might help to ease some of the tensions that arise due to hyper-nationalism by providing a super-national referent or perhaps even a level playing field for communication.

  7. Ben L. says:

    Sorry, “progeny”, not “progenitors”.

  8. That’s pretty disturbing to me to read that even in the Catholic Church the study of the old languages is declining. It’s bad enough that Protestant laity aren’t encouraged to learn the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible, but to know that the problem is in Catholic scholarship as well…yikes. As any person who studies languages knows, things tend to get lost in the translation. While I don’t personally think the Latin Bible is the most accurate version–what about all of the important scholarly writings and commentaries? It seems like a lot of their meaning and expressiveness could be missed if the whole process has to be trusted to just a select few translators who do the modern-language editions of those works…

  9. Joseph Staleknight says:

    Wow. It seems as if though Latin IS falling into the “Endangered Languages” club.

    I think we should draw up a list of such languages, like we already have for endangered species!

  10. It is sad indeed – and this from a non-Catholic, a non-Christian in fact – that Latin survives (almost) merely as a language of literature, religious, classical and otherwise. Even Esperanto has native speakers, people who learn it (sometimes as their first language) at home from their parents.

    But does this mean we ought to teach Latin to kids when they are still learning to talk? Or when they are at school? I personally opt for the latter. It is regrettable that here in Brasil we do not have Latin classes in high school any more. I missed them by a narrow margin (I was born in 1952).

    At the very least, Latin should be taught as an intellectual exercise, to condition your mind for the learning of other languages – for no one will say plurilingualism isn’t useful these days! – more or less as Physics and Chemistry are taught no matter whether you will use them in your professional life or not.

    A bit of rambling, but there it is – I hope I have made my point clear… 😉

  11. Declan says:

    What I find sad is that for most the chance to learn Latin is gone. I had to go to a lot of effort and wait until I found to have any interaction with any little bit of Latin which I always wanted to learn and am in the process of doing. Equally so is true in most secondary schools in Ireland, except for very few private schools and not many at that.

  12. Nikki says:

    Polly: With regards to “But, then again, why let a perfectly good language with oodles of literature die?”, I think the language itself has already died out, but I don’t think it will disappear. Regardless of whether anyone speaks it as a modern language, there will be people who wish to be able to read Latin literature in Latin and they’ll continue to study it, there will be people with an interest in the history of Romance languages and they’ll continue to study it. In fact, there are more universities in the UK where you can study Latin than there are for Chinese, Japanese, Russian or Arabic.

    My main opposition to trying to revive Latin is that I don’t believe it can work. A living language will change and adapt with time. Even if we do revive Latin, it too will change and adapt (like it already did once) and people will still need to study traditional Latin to be able to understand the literature. If people would rather bring back traditional Latin to schools, I’m still not convinced. We don’t learn enough of a language in school to be able to read traditional literature in any language, people will still need to take the language further to be able to understand it properly, so it wouldn’t really change the situation at all.

  13. Polly says:

    BTW – it may be of interest to read Thomas Paine’s view of mandatory Greek and Latin in schools. It looks like he might have been one reluctant student. I think he hated learning foreign languages in general. In that regard he is surely the antithesis of everyone on this blog. But it was entertaining to read his POV. He sounded more like a complaining child than one of the “founding fathers” of the USA.

  14. BG says:

    I go to a private school in the US that has a requirement for at least one year of Latin, but people who want to, like me, can continue on up to Latin 4 or 5 and even take the AP. Our school also offers Ancient Greek as a sort of extra class that I take for fun. And this is all extra to the 3 years of a modern language requirement (German for me).

    As for speaking Latin in class, we do to some extent for things like “quid dixisti?”- what did you say? We also read the text aloud and I speak Latin with my friends that take Latin for the fun of it sometimes.

  15. renato says:

    Well, I really didn’t like at all, Niki’s first comment, based on that let us all speak only one alive language English, or Modern Chinese. I have been learning Latin, and I can tell you all an History. Until 1960, in Brazilian schools Latin was one of the subject, as Maths, Portuguese…. My mother didn’t studied at an Universisity, she stoped her studies at high school, bau all her generation knew much better Portuguese than my generation which went to the university, for only one reason. During 1960 decade, military governmet decieded to take off Latin from schools and put English, so, today, Brazilian speaks a vary bad Portuguese language and a worse English.
    When You personaly have a mother, she teachs you everything you need for live, but if your died when you borned, this knowledge is lost. The same thing happened with the lack of Latin at schools, because Latin is the mother of all Romance language, and was very important in the formation of many other languages in the world, including English.

  16. renato says:

    Comment II
    I have some Teach Yourself language books, from NTC Publishing. All of them are very good to learn a language, easy to understand, well done. The worst is the Latin. Very strong, no cartoons, nothing tighted to modern life. only the heavy Latin grammar with its grammatical cases and extracts of texts, as flying sentences as Clavdia puella est, Nautae in incola sunt. Why not make a creative books that atracts our attention, as the Danish, or Irish versions?

  17. BG says:

    Our class uses a somewhat attractive book: a partially historical (like historical fiction) storyline. It has stories which introduce grammar topics and then explanations afterwards. I also have a creative book at home (not part of class) called LINGVA LATINA: PER SE ILLUSTRATA by Hans Ørberg. It is entirely in Latin, including the grammar explanations and has a story about a typical Roman family living outside of Rome.

  18. evan says:

    There is still a lot of interest in Latin – the problem many have who have an interest in learning the language, is having no access to somewhere where it can be learned.

    The Latinum podcast provides online lessons in Latin for free, going down the “total immersion” route for language learning – ideally the student should Listen and ineract with the Latin audio conditioning material provided on the site for four hours a day. The grammar is introduced intuitively, so this course is light on the grammar, however, grammatical resources are provided for those students who want to learn some formal grammar along the way.

    The goal is to produce fluent speakers of Latin. Why? A fluent speaker of a language can better appreciate the books written in that language, as their language skills are more advanced. It is also a faster route into the language, than the old learn the language through its formal rules approach.
    Latin was never written to be read silently. The Romans intended their works to be read aloud.

    The website is

    It has only been online for a few weeks, current usage gives a projection of 20 000 file downloads for this month alone, June 2007. That is a lot of Latin.

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