In the 5th century BC, Latin was just one of many Italic languages spoken in
central Italy. Latin was the language of the area known as Latium (modern
Lazio), and Rome was one of the towns of Latium. The earliest known
inscriptions in Latin date from the 6th century BC and were written
using an alphabet adapted from the Etruscan alphabet.
Rome gradually expanded its influence over other parts of Italy and then
over other parts of Europe. Eventually the Roman Empire stretched across
a wide swathe of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Latin was
used throughout the empire as the language of law, administration and increasingly as
the language of everyday life. Literacy was common among Roman citizens
and the works of great Latin authors were read by many.
Meanwhile in the eastern Mediterranean, Greek remained the lingua franca
and well-educated Romans were familiar with both languages. In fact
the earliest surviving examples of Latin literature are Latin translations
of Greek plays, and Cato's farming manual, which dates from 150 BC.
The language used in much early Latin literature, classical Latin,
differed in many ways from colloquial spoken Latin, known as vulgar Latin, though
some writers, including Cicero and Petronius, used vulgar Latin
in their work. Over the centuries the spoken varieties of Latin continued
to move away from the literary standard and eventually evolved into
the modern Italic/Romance languages (Italian,
Even after the collapse of the western Roman Empire in 476 AD, Latin
continued to be used as a literary language throughout western and central
Europe. An enormous quantity of medieval Latin literature was produced
in a variety of different styles ranging from the scholarly works of
Irish and Anglo-Saxon writers to simple tales and sermons for a wider
During the 15th century, Latin began to lose its dominant position
as the main language of scholarship and religion throughout Europe.
It was largely replaced by written versions of the vernacular languages
of Europe, many of which are descendants of Latin or have been heavily
influenced by it.
Modern Latin was used by the Roman Catholic Church until the mid 20th
century and is still used to some extent, particularly in the Vatican
City, where it is one of the official languages. Latin terminology is
used extensively by biologists, palaeontologists and other scientists
to name species and specimens, and also by doctors and lawyers.
The Romans used just 23 letters to write Latin:
There were no lower case letters, I and V
could be used as both vowels and consonants, and K, X,
Y and Z were used only for writing words
of Greek origin.
The letters J, U and W
were added to the alphabet at a later stage to write languages other than Latin.
J is a variant of I and was first used
during the 16th century by Petrus Ramus.
U is a variant of V. In Latin the /u/ sound
was written with the letter v, e.g. IVLIVS (Julius).
W was originally a doubled v (vv) and was first used
by scribes writing Old English during the 7th century AD, however the
Runic letter Wynn (Ƿ) was more commonly used to write the /w/ sound.
After the Norman Conquest the letter W became more popular and had
replaced Wynn by 1300.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
ALPHABETUM - a Unicode font
specifically designed for ancient scripts, including classical
& medieval Latin, ancient Greek, Etruscan, Oscan, Umbrian,
Faliscan, Messapic, Picene, Iberian, Celtiberian, Gothic, Runic,
Old & Middle English, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Old Nordic, Ogham,
Kharosthi, Glagolitic, Old Cyrillic, Phoenician, Avestan, Ugaritic,
Linear B, Anatolian scripts, Coptic, Cypriot, Brahmi, Old Persian cuneiform: