The paper is devoted to the clarification of a topical issue of a contemporary society regarding whether Latin is a dead language or not. The central statement of the research is focused on proving the fact that although the language lacks some attributes of the natural speech, it is still a significant communicative tool in the worldwide scholastic and scholarly level. This problem cannot be disregarded. Indeed, a number of findings that derived from the academic literature on the given topic evidence that Latin died together with the Roman Empire fall. However, substantial proofs also contribute to understanding that Latin has simply modified its form and influence on the world of science, humanities, and medicine. Moreover, many advantages and disadvantages, and even threatening facts, have been found during exploration. In any case, the question is still arguable in its various aspects. No clear answer can be found.
Is Latin a Dead Language?
A contemporary linguist Martin Newman (2014) has aptly emphasized, “Latin is concise, precise, and elegant, and has for many centuries remained uncorrupted by colloquialism. It is the eternal language.” (p. 16) Irregardless of that this belief has been prevailing in scholastic and scientific dimensions of humanities, medicine, and law for about two millenniums. It is one of the most debatable issues in the modern times. In particular, such scholars as Figueiredo, Moore, and Smith (2010) within the disciplines dominated by Latin terminology (e.g. medicine, jurisprudence, botany, and etc.) intensively argue about this approach as obsolete. Additionally, Mareckova, Simon, and Cerveny (2002) underline that each nation has developed a set of nation-specific terms appropriate for the outdated Latin ones. Moreover, intellectuals worldwide call studying a dead language at educational establishments as unnecessary. Refering to Latin as dead means that this system of communication exists in a writing form only since the Fall of Rome. There is no nation in the world that speaks this language orally as the one’s native. What is more, due to its long-time existence in writing exclusively, Latin is pronounced differently in a variety of countries globally.
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Therefore, the paper argues that although Latin lacks some attributes of natural languages, it is still a significant communicative tool in the worldwide scholastic and scholarly levels, and this issue cannot be disregarded. In this case, a number of questions arise in the scope of this research devoted to the clarification whether Latin is a dead language or not. For example, it is interesting how this means of communication may affect the contemporary world. It is not clear whether it is needed to support Latin as a generally accepted pattern prior to all other widespread languages, which are spoken internationally, and thus, being alive. Moreover, one should discuss an issue how different scholars consider this controversy and how the situation can be solved.
In order to highlight the aforementioned research questions and provide a thorough discussion on the topic, the paper is divided into three sections. The first one deals with argumentation concerning why Latin is proved to be dead. The next part of the research considers some opinions asserting that it is still vital for the world of science. Afterwards, a critical evaluation of both viewpoints follows. In addition, the conclusion summarizes the most salient issues regarded in the paper.
First and foremost, Latin is believed to be dead due to the fact that no nation in the world speaks it orally. This argument has been a centerpiece of reasoning of Helmu Lüdtke among other scholars. He has proposed this criterion as definitive death of a language (Leonardt, 2009, p. 153). Undoubtedly, since the times of antiquity, when all resources to the existence of the Roman Empire had expired, only written texts became a primary source and continuity of Latin as a communicative system. Speech and writing are the main criteria which make it possible to define a complex of letters and sounds and other interrelated attributes as a language. Furthermore, these characteristics have to be specified in accordance with a certain area or country. In this regard, Latin has used to be a language of the state that does not exist anymore. Apart from that, there are neither peoples nor ethnic groups within the territory of the ex-Roman Empire who would have communicated in Latin. It follows that this language is inevitably dead.
Latin is an artificial transnational communication tool used as a substitute when no other options are available, though even Latin-speaking individuals often do not understand each others’ pronunciation. The analyzed international language can be found a useful means of understanding the people of different origins. However, due to that, no one has heard Latin in original, the comprehension of this language is distorted. To be more precise, individuals around the globe pronounce Latin words differently. In this way, it is hard to disregard the ratio by Jespersen (2007) that has outlined three primary components evidencing that this language is unnatural for the current times.
These are such attributes as:
drawing upon the fact that Latin had been dominant for centuries for only highly educated individuals, it was created by a group of people, i.e. scientists, from a variety of disciplines. This statement rejects a general rule claiming that not elites but masses should create the language. Hence, Latin is artificial at the given stage of the language development, while other communication systems are natural or national;
as it has been previously stressed, a language is to be limited by national borders. This process is a proof of its natural existence. Since Latin has no nation to be spoken by, it is unnatural or artificial, and, thus, not alive;
Latin is used as a substitute for national languages whenever these are not capable to serve as a means for communication (Jespersen, 2007, p. 11). It also can be compared to Esperanto, which has been artificially developed for the same purpose.
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Therefore, the above-indicated points also prove that the Latin language is unnatural.
Owing to that the language is alive when it constantly evolves and absorbs the new phenomena, proving it is being up-to-date, Latin cannot be called alive. This feature is another vital characteristic of any living communication system, which should not be omitted. Indeed, the fact that “linguistic change is initiated by speakers not by languages” is irrefutable (Townend, 2008, p. 70). The fact that evidences that Latin has been static since the times of its widespread use in the post-antique times, can be explained in the following way. The language, which is taught in educational institutions today, used to be Classical (colloquial) Latin, i.e. the language of the upper-class Roman people (Rizal et al., 2013, p. 51). It was appropriate for religious tractates and scientific sources among others written with educative purposes. Particularly, many scholars and thinkers had been inspired by works by Cicero and wrote their own creations, interpreting the language of this philosopher. What is more, Beecroft (2013) has stressed that the modern Latin literature, in general, must be understood as “explicitly transnational project composed in all the great nations of Europe and as the home in London, Vienna, or Rome as it is in Paris” (p. 4). On the other hand, Vulgar Latin (i.e. common for masses) was absolutely different form as that of the upper-class language, as proved by Adams (2013, p. 13). Whereas it is the language that is commonly used by the population has to be a basis for any language, Latin has been artificial since its conceptualization in the modern sense. Apart from that, it has been a privilege of intelligence rather than a means to communicate within masses. As a result, this factor has not given this system a chance to evolve as any other language. It is being enriched by cultural achievements of a nation, as a whole.
Latin cannot be dead since it is the foundation of a great number of other languages within many linguistic dimensions. To put it in other words, Latin roots can be traced throughout numerous languages of both Latin and non-Latin origins. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin developed into Romance, and then into separate Romance languages (Wright, 2004, p. 3). For example, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese are those with specifically Latin implications, its direct heirs. On the other hand, its long-lasting influence into the evolution of other, non-related languages is also evident. To illustrate, English originated from the German family of languages. Nonetheless, as evidenced by Hull, Perkins, and Barr (2002), “more than half English words are derived from Latin words” (Introduction, para. 3). Apart from borrowing of the Latin vocabulary, languages have adopted its grammar rules among other issues (despite not some of them were unsuitable for them since there were no similar phenomena in this or another language). It had been generally accepted for ages that the Latin grammar was a perfect example to follow. What is more, sometimes Latin and grammar are even considered synonymous (Leonhardt, 2009). Thus, it is possible to assume that Latin has simply modified into a great number of its nation-specific forms throughout the world. Consequently, it cannot be regarded dead since it operates globally to some extent.
The communicative system under consideration is a terminological centerpiece of a huge part of academic disciplines, which are crucial for functioning of the society, as a whole. To be more precise, Latin terms are widely used within “academics, science, social science and humanities.” (Rizal et al., 2013, p. 51) For instance, botany and zoology operate such terms as Narcisus sylvestris and Hippopotamus amphibious to refer to a daffodil and hippopotamus, etc. Moreover, Latin is a primary terminological component of medicine (Mareckova, Simon & Cerveny, 2002, p. 851). To give an example, Salmonella entritidis is a scientific name for Salmonella food poison. Meanwhile Treponema palledum is syphilis, to list a few. Of course, ordinary people prefer to use generally accepted and nation-specific names rather than academic terms. However, in the international level, this phenomenon ensures understanding between multinational representatives of the same professions. Therefore, Latin still is the “a practical and highly important means of communication between educated people.” (Jespersen, 2007, p. 24) What is more, it can even be stresses that it is the international language of professionalism. It has been used through the centuries to forward professional experience from one generation of scholars to another.
Knowing Latin provides individuals with an opportunity to better understand the ones’ own language in retrospective. Learners of Latin often argue that it has a complicated grammar structure. It is hard to be understood at all. Nevertheless, theorists emphasize the fact that “having a critical and historical knowledge of one’s own language that comes through the study of Latin is plainly useful.” (Moore, 2003) Specifically, complexity of Latin assists learners in realizing vital components of their native language whereas they learn the former by distinguishing similar characteristics in their mother tongue. This interlinked approach to learning foreign (Latin) alongside with native languages is a way to continuity of the former as well.
Responding to the Counter-Argument
Despite that many scholars, such as Janoff (2014), have put an accent on the Latin potential role in a scholastic success (p. 259), this issue is arguable and often even refuted by some stakeholders. For instance, the researcher has explored the experience of one Brooklyn school. It incorporated Latin into its curriculum as a sole foreign language. As a result, the institution has been issued in a court by parents, who did not wish that their children would be too concentrated on studying the language which no one actually was speaking. Consequently, the school has faced high turnover rates among both students and teachers. Thus, the contemporary scholastic importance of Latin may be either exaggerated or approached in a wrong way.
Undoubtedly, Latin is a terminological basis for a range of academic sciences, but this issue has been also acutely disputed during the last few decades. For example, botanic nomenclature requires that a diagnosis of all plants (their description) should be written in Latin (Figueiredo, Moore & Smith, 2010, p. 617). However, contemporary scholars propose that this requirement has to be removed, whereas each country worldwide has its own, nation-specific equivalents for all the plants and other species. Thus, there is no need to use hardly understandable words to name some things that have ordinary correspondences within a particular language. The same concern is related to medical or other terms. In terms of the international understanding between representatives of these disciplines, the question is still arguable.
Apart from that, Latin implications throughout other languages are the threats to their self-sufficiency and functioning, in general. Following Whalen and Simons (2012), “languages composed of endangered languages are endangered themselves.” (p. 155). In this regard, while Latin is proved to be dead at all (since there is no nation, which uses it as a mother tongue), it may result into the same destiny of any language that is intertwined with it historically or in any other way. To provide an illustration, these languages are endangered by universalism and a potential loss of their specific traits due to the dominance of Latin otherness within their structures. Particularly, it can be evidenced on the example of the English language, which today is often referred to as the second Latin language. Moreover, this problem increasingly attracts the interest of many scholars, such as Wright (2014) as well as Whalen and Simons (2012). Basically, the researchers do not refute Latin as the language in its entirety. In any case, they underline that the academic world does not have to be obsessed by all-embracing Latinization idea. However, it has to focus on the development of live languages. Shakespeare and Aristotle died long ago, but their works make the significance of their figures immortal through the lens of time. As a consequence, a scientific approach to studying Latin has to be changed.
Therefore, the paper has considered whether Latin is a dead language or not. Regardless of that set of convincing arguments, both supporting and refuting, have been reasoned, there may not be a firm answer to this question for now. Hence, although Latin lacks some attributes of the natural language, it is still a significant communicative tool in the worldwide scholastic and scholarly levels. This issue cannot be disregarded. Certainly, there are no contemporary etalons that would make it possible to hear the original Latin speech. In this way, no pronunciation samples are available for learners to ensure a proper audio representation of this communicative system orally. What is more, this aspect is one of the main arguments confirming that Latin is rather dead than alive. Nonetheless, it remains a major communicative instrument for the highly educated individuals. Thus, its primary characteristic as the language of science and the intellectual elite is performed globally. It is traced through the ages. On the other hand, more and more scholars support an idea that the requirement regarding a mandatory usage of Latin nomenclature in medicine, jurisprudence, botany, and other sciences has to be cancelled. Figueiredo, Moore, and Smith (2010) among others advocate for national terms appropriate for the Latin ones that should be used to ensure some understanding among the representatives of one nation and do not make any confusions. However, the question concerning the transnational understanding among professionals is still disputable. Apart from that, Whalen and Simons (2012) have put an emphasis on the fact that the too fixed attention on the language that has not been originally spoken for about two millenniums endangers other languages being related to it. Their arguments may be true, to some extent. Namely, an excessive concentration on the ancient system of communication can simply leave no time for the evolution and enhancement of the one’s own language and caring about its self-sufficiency.