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To What Extent Can Latin Be Considered a Living Language, and Should It Be Taught in Schools?

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Published: 9th Dec 2019

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To what extend can Latin be considered a living language, and should it be taught in schools?


The purpose of this essay is to discuss whether Latin can be considered a dead or living language, given its use in modern British and European society. This essay will also discuss whether Latin should be taught as a subject in both primary and secondary schools in the United Kingdom.

Key definitions for this topic include the term ‘language’, which can be defined as ‘a communication of meaning in any way’ (Dictionary.com, 2018), ‘dead language’ which can be defined as ‘the process or phenomenon whereby a language, usually that of a cultural minority, disappears or falls into disuse’ (Oxforddictionaries.com, 2018), and ‘Latin’, which is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the language of ancient Rome and its empire, widely used historically as the language of scholarship and administration’ (Oxforddictionaries.com, 2018).

The Latin language was introduced in the area of the River Tiber, which runs through Rome, at around the same time as the founding of that city in 753 BC (Mark, 2008). It spread to the rest of Italy by 100 BC, before extending further with the expansion of the Western Roman Empire, which covered a vast area reaching as far as Mesopotamia in Asia Minor, North Africa, and Great Britain. Latin was the language of the ruling class and administration, and at least a working knowledge of it was required by those who interacted with them (Hallen, 1999).

Usage of Latin declined after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD (Mark, 2011), and was impacted by reforms during the Carolingian Renaissance and by the widespread introduction of the printing press. The language continued to be used within the Roman Catholic Church, but even there has experienced decline over time. I will consider whether these factors are sufficient to label the language as dead, or whether considerations such as the influence of Latin on modern languages, the use of Ecclesiastical Latin, and Latin terminology within disciplines such as botany, taxonomy, medicine and law are sufficient for it to be considered a living language, even into the modern day. In these sections of my essay, my key resources will be ‘Empire of the Word’ by Nicholas Ostler, BBC online articles, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, amongst others.

Latin once was the universal academic language across Europe, but now is taught in only a minority of schools in the UK and is seen as being a niche subject. Decline in the number of teachers means there is a risk that it may in the future cease to be taught in state schools.  Arguments in favour of allowing this decline to continue centre around the difficulty to achieve high grades in this subject and resourcing, as well as its relevance to modern day life. Countering this are the benefits of a broad education, and Latin’s cross-curricular nature and historical significance. Arguments can also be made both for and against the role of learning Latin in supporting the study of other modern languages. The key sources for these sections will be articles from the BBC and the Guardian, and the study ‘In Search of The Benefits of Learning Latin’ (Haag and Stern, 2000).

Latin is dead

The so-called death of Latin took place over an extended period of time where its use lessened, and the language changed, particularly with the development of Vulgar Latin (a simplified form of the language used for everyday speech).  The many dialects of Vulgar Latin eventually became mutually unintelligible, and these later became separate languages in their own right, known as the Romance languages. This death can be categorised roughly into two key stages: as the scholar Nicholas Ostler (2005) puts it, the first death, up to the end of the first millennium AD, and the second death, up to the 1600s.

Many events and changes led to the first death of Latin, the key events being the end of the Western Roman Empire, and the influence of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance. Chronologically, the beginning of the end for Latin was the fall of the Western Roman Empire, around 476AD (Mark, 2011) (the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire, spoke Greek, and flourished until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 – History.com, 2010). After this, the Roman army and administration ceased to be involved  in the more distant regions of the western Roman territories, and as a result the Latin language had less influence, as fewer people were speaking it in its ‘proper’ form. This led to more distinct regional dialects of spoken Latin. As there was also less need for travel and communication between regions, it became easier for the dialects to become mutually unintelligible, which is thought to have happened as early as the sixth century (Suzdaltsev, 2016), although some sources claim it to be later, for example Thompson suggests it was as late as the ninth century (2015). However, at this time, a more classical form of Latin, Ecclesiastical Latin, was still preserved through the Roman Catholic church, despite its role as a spoken language being diluted.

The Carolingian Renaissance was inspired by the Christian Western Roman Empire of the fourth century, and lasted from the late eighth century AD to the ninth century. In this period, Charlemagne ruled as King, and later Emperor, of the Germanic Frankish tribe, between 768 to 814AD. He introduced many reforms to Medieval Europe, especially regarding the revival of education and learning. These reforms included the standardisation of Latin, with the help of the scholar Alcuin of York (735 – 804 AD) (Ritchie, 2011), which set out specific, regular rules as to the spelling and pronunciation of the language. As a consequence of this, however, Latin then differed phonetically from the vernacular versions of Latin that the people spoke, making it appear to native speakers as a separate and distinct language. This concept of Latin as a foreign language was detrimental to the language, as it meant that the ability to speak it became essential to fewer people, and the variation between it and the spoken vernacular varieties widened, encouraging the birth of the Romance languages, such as Spanish and French (Ostler, 2005).

Furthermore, the standardisations during the reign of Charlemagne created issues within the Roman Catholic Church.  As spoken Latin became less commonly understood parishioners in church services were unable to understand the priests, who delivered services in Ecclesiastical Latin. As a result of this, some religious councils, e.g. the Council of Tours, France, and the Council of Mainz, Germany, made new rules in 813 AD that allowed some services to be delivered in local Romance or Germanic languages, in order to maintain the understanding of parishioners (Posner and Sala, 2016). However, all important and official documents at this time were still written in Latin.

Evidence of the first surviving writing in a Romance language dates to 842AD. The Strasbourg Oaths (Kate Wiles, 2017), were spoken by two grandsons of Charlemagne, Charles and Louis, pledging loyalty to each other against their other brother, Lothar, and later transcribed. These oaths were spoken in the vernacular languages of the brothers’ armies, so that they could be understood by all present, rather than in Latin, which was still the standard written language of the Empire. After the Strasbourg Oaths, an increasing number of texts were written in languages that were not Latin. In the twelfth and thirteen centuries, poetry began being written in local Romance and vernacular languages, especially in regions where Latin wasn’t imposed strongly, such as Italy, Northern France and Catalonia. At this time, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri recognised Latin as being an older form of the Romance languages, and in England, the favoured language of administration was Anglo-Norman French by the 12th century, although this was not the case for the whole of the former Empire (Heys, 2001). By the thirteenth century, the Latin language had become a form of communication only ever used in the written form, for official documents, by the most well-educated members of society, rather than being a spoken language of the people, a major sign of decline in a language (Ostler, 2005).

The second death of Latin, which began around the fifteenth century, according to Ostler (2005), was started primarily by the impact of the printing press, which is credited as being invented by Johannes Gutenberg between 1440 and 1450 (Palermo, 2017). The printing press meant that there was greater competition between Latin and the Romance languages, as decisions had to be made about which language to print texts in. Initially, most books were produced in Latin, as it was an international language, and could be understood by educated people over a wider geographical area, regardless of their local vernacular or Romance language, but over time more books were produced in local languages, as they were understood more widely as literacy rates increased, allowing for wider readership and increased sales, a case of supply and demand. An example of this is the Bible. The first Latin language Bible was produced around the year 1450 by Gutenberg, and after that many more classical works were available in the Latin language. However, Martin Luther, who was famously excommunicated in 1521 after releasing his ’95 Theses’ in 1517, began to distribute German language versions of the Bible in 1534, as he believed people should be able to read the Bible in their own language (BBC, c2014). After the publication of vernacular Bibles, Latin stopped being considered the lingua franca of Western Europe, and hence this was a most significant event in its demise. The last major work published exclusively in Latin, Newton’s Principia, was published in 1678. Since then, even the world of science has preferred local languages, in order to keep in touch with society. (Ostler, 2005)

Nowadays, it is thought that the complexity of Classical Latin also played a large part in its downfall (Suzdaltsev). It was highly inflected, so nearly every word could be modified in a number of different ways to alter the meaning, making it very difficult for less well-educated people to learn it. It is thought that Vulgar Latin, which was spoken more commonly and used in less official circumstances, stayed alive for longer as it was less complex and more widely understood. Vulgar Latin was less inflected and had less syllables, making it easier to use. There is even evidence of letters sent by Cicero, a renowned writer of Classical Latin during the so-called Golden Age of the language (100BC – 400AD – Hallen, 1999), which were written in Vulgar rather than Classical Latin, implying that Classical Latin was so complex that it was unused in most contexts, even at the height of the Western Roman Empire (Gill, 2017).

Latin has now almost entirely stopped being used even for religious purposes. The Catholic Church ceased the use of Latin as their liturgical language during the Second Vatican Council, of 1962-65, significantly reducing the main survival of the use of spoken Latin into the modern period (Huizing, 2008).

Latin is alive

It can, however, be argued that Latin remains alive to this day. A dead language can be defined as a language which nobody speaks any more (Crystal, 2000), which is not the case for Latin, as although it may not be spoken by a whole country of people or a regional or ethnic group within a population, there are still people who can and do speak Latin. An example of this is Latin language lessons in schools.

Latin can also be said to be kept alive through its influence on the development of other languages, such as English and the Romance Languages. The Latin language has had an immense impact on modern languages, especially those originating from regions which were previously a part of the Roman Empire. Many words in the English language have roots in the classical languages – dictionary.com claims that as much as 80% of words in the dictionary are derived from Latin, and approximately 10% are directly taken from Latin, without an intermediary language, such as French (2015). Examples of loanwords (defined as ‘words adopted by the speakers of one language from another language’ – Kemmer, 2017) from Latin are audio, from audire, ‘to hear’, video, from videre, ‘to see’, and circa, from circa, ‘about’. Some phrases are also borrowed directly, such as alter ego, which is translated as ‘another I’ and used in English to mean a person’s alternative personality, and vice versa, translated to ‘with places exchanged’ and used in English to mean ‘in reverse order’ (Thompson, 2017).

As well as English, Latin also had major impacts on the Romance languages, as they all developed from Vulgar Latin dialects into separate languages. The Romance languages include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian, among others, and have great overlap with Latin and each other, indeed aboutworldlanguages.com claims that 40% of words in Romance language’s vocabulary have Latin roots (2013). For example, the word for the number ‘one’ in all Romance languages are remarkably similar to the Latin word, unus. In French, it is un, in Spanish uno, in Portuguese um, and in Italian uno. As the root of all these languages is Latin, it can be argued that Latin did not die out, as much as evolved into separate languages. This suggests that the language is not dead, as it lives on through its many daughter languages.

Latin is also kept alive in its ecclesiastical form in the Catholic Church, where it is still used for some masses, such as the Tridentine mass, despite the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Reuters.com, 2011). Although the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) allowed mass to be conducted in the vernacular language of the congregation, it also introduced a new canon law in 1965 which meant that trainee priests had to have a substantial understanding of Ecclesiastical Latin, in order to understand any Latin resources and documents (Peters, 2016). Ecclesiastical Latin is very similar to Classical Latin in most respects (Thompson, 2015), although pronunciation may vary between the two, and Ecclesiastical Latin has some additions to its vocabulary that were not used in Classical Latin (Degert, 2017). Furthermore, as of its founding in 1929, Ecclesiastical Latin is an official language of the Vatican City, along with Italian, French, and German, (Vaticanstate.va, c2007). This makes it the only country globally to still have Latin as an official language, keeping this dialect of Latin firmly alive. Indeed, even Pope Francis has regularly tweeted in Latin since his appointment in 2013 (Francis, 2018).

The Latin language also continues to be used into the modern day in other contexts, such as in botany, taxonomy (the classification of living organisms), medicine and law. In terms of botany and taxonomy, all living organisms have Latin names (scientific names) in addition to their common names in order to avoid confusion and to help with accurate identification of the organism in question (Gray, 2018). The scientific name is made up of two names in a system called binomial nomenclature. The first name describes the genus (species and family) of that specific organism, and the second is the name of that particular plant or animal. This is necessary as, particularly in botany, the common name of a plant may be used for many different plants, or for different plants in different areas, so the scientific name is necessary as only one unique plant species is allowed to have its specific name, so that the plant can be universally identified. The use of Latin in this context is important, as it can be understood globally, and does not favour people who speak a specific language.

Latin is also used in the context of law, as much of the legal language used in European countries is closely linked to the language, as many legal concepts have a latin name attached to them. It has been used as a legal language since the beginning of the Western Roman Empire, and has not stopped being used in this context since. Even newly introduced aspects of law gain a Latin name, an example being ‘Societas Europaea’, meaning a public company registered within the European Union. This phrase came into use in 2004. Legal latin is important as it allows for legal discourse to be concise, without retracting from the meaning – often translations of Latin into modern languages can as much as double the length of the original text (Ristikivi, 2005).

The Latin language became the dominant language in medicine, taking over from Greek in the fourth century AD, as the Roman Empire expanded. Although older medical vocabulary was still Greek based, all vocabulary introduced after this time, such as in the fields of anatomy and physiology, was based purely on Latin vocabulary. In the fifteenth century, the introduction of the printing press allowed standardisation of the medical Latin nomenclature across Europe. This continued, and to this day the majority of modern medical technology is still introduced with a Latin name, and along with the continued use of older Latin names, in this way preserving the language (Forsius, 2010).

Latin could also be considered to be alive through literature. Many Roman poets and playwrights who wrote in the language are still considered some of the best writers in history, with many of their surviving works being sold and studied to this day in the original Latin as well as in translation. Some recognisable Latin poets and writers include Ovid, Virgil, Plautus and Cicero (Paolo et al, 2016), who wrote major works such as Metamorphoses and the Aeneid. Their works are constantly being studied and analysed, with new translations and interpretations being produced regularly, so the language cannot die as it is being revived constantly in this way.

Unlike most other language deaths, there is no definite point at which Latin can be said to have died bringing into question whether it can actually be called dead at all. For example, the death of Chief Marie Smith Jones in January 2008 signified the death of the Eyak language of southern Alaska (Abley, 2008), as the last living speaker of the language had died. However, in the case of Latin, the language has continued to survive through education, religion, and literature so that there has never been this definite point of death, and as people continue to use and engage with the language and the languages derived from it, it cannot be said to have died.

Latin should be taught

Latin has been taught in schools for thousands of years, from schools in Ancient Rome during the Empire to modern day secondary schools and universities. However, the teaching of Latin overall has been in decline for many years, with more Latin teachers leaving the profession than joining it, and the numbers of people entered for GCSE and A-Level exams decreasing annually (BBC, 2008). Despite this, it is thought that this trend has changed in recent years, thanks to recent government pushes to revive the language.

One such push is the University of Cambridge Schools Classics Project (CSCP), which was introduced in 2000 to encourage the wider teaching of Latin in state schools, especially non-selective schools, by creating software which allows non-specialist teachers to teach the subject. According to The Independent, this project has led to an increase from 100 non-selective state schools teaching Latin to over 600 presently, over 500 additional schools since the project began (Garner, 2014). This confirms that the lack of specialist teachers is not a reason for the subject to stop being taught entirely, as it is evident that it can survive and thrive with fewer teachers.

There are also many benefits for pupils who learn Latin. One benefit is that, unlike modern foreign languages (MFLs) taught at GCSE, Latin GCSE requires the learning of set texts of literature. These texts are works by some classic writers, such as Ovid and Virgil, and include both poetry and prose, so offer pupils a deeper cultural and historical understanding of the language, history, and philosophy, that they otherwise may not receive (Classics for All, 2015). Mary Beard, a renowned classicist, argued that learning Latin and other classical language ‘opens up the cultures of our past’ (Nunn, 2016) in a way that most other subjects may not, and that ‘the central point of learning Latin is to be able to read some of the extraordinary literature written a couple of millennia ago’ (Beard, 2006).

Another benefit of teaching Latin is the impact it has on the pupils’ understanding of the English language, especially grammar. The Latin Programme was set up in 2007 to provide disadvantaged children in London primary schools with Latin lessons, as a way to help improve their literacy skills as well as understand to learn the language. It has been successful in improving the literacy of these children. 100% of pupils who had received three years of Latin lessons left Year 6 having achieved a Level 4 or above in reading, and 71% of these pupils said that it helped them get better results in literacy (The Latin Programme, 2013). The Ofsted inspection report at St Vincent de Paul Primary School, a state school which teaches all pupils Latin from Year 4 (Good Schools Guide, 2016) reported that ‘The teaching of Latin in the school is greatly benefiting pupils’ understanding of English grammar and, in 2013, Year 6 pupils achieved well above the national average on the grammar, spelling and punctuation test.’ (Classics for All, 2015).

Additionally, it is thought that learning Latin can help with the learning of other languages. Having learnt one additional language gives people a better understanding of their own style of language learning, and so they will find picking up another language easier (Hammond, 2013). Furthermore, as the Romance languages all evolved from the Latin language, up to 90% of their lexeis is derived from Latin words, and their grammar is closely linked, from the inflection of nouns to verb conjugation to grammatical gender (Mueller, c2018), so knowledge of the common Latin root likely to be useful to study of these languages. Conversely, Latin can be taught as an alternative to a modern language, as it may be easier for those who struggle with the speaking and listening aspects of the MFL exams, as there is no aspect of this on Latin exams, as the language is no longer spoken by a specific group of people or a country. In addition to this, the syllabus for Latin may be considered more interesting of that of a MFL, as it doesn’t have to cover mundane day to day things associated with life in a modern foreign country.  Rather than having to learn how to order at a restaurant, which although practical can be boring, pupils can learn the language through Roman mythology and history, which may be more engaging and rewarding.

As discussed further below, one argument for the discontinuation of the teaching of Latin is that it is a difficult language with some of the hardest exams of any subject, especially at GCSE. However, this is not a reason to give up on the subject, as GCSE specifications are updated and changed regularly, so to lose the learning of a whole language because of its relative difficulty is ridiculous. It also provides an opportunity for students to stretch their learning ability and to prove themselves and their ability. Furthermore, if Latin was not taught in schools for this reason, it would be far more difficult for those pupils interested in studying Classics at a university level to do so, likely lessening the number of people applying for these courses, as well as impeding people from learning more about classical civilisation, history, and literature.

Latin shouldn’t be taught

Those who argue that Latin should not be taught in schools, give a number of reasons, among them the fact that it’s difficult, not practical, dying out, archaic and not relevant to modern society.  In addition, it is understaffed and not a subject of choice for many pupils, which causes issues when it comes to teaching and can lead head teachers to feel that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.  In today’s educational system where schools run to tight budgets, it can be uneconomic to teach if insufficient pupils chose to take the subject to make up a full class.

According to the BBC, on average 72 Latin teachers retire annually, while only 30 are trained each year, due to the lack of Classics postgraduate teacher training courses in the UK (2008). This means regardless of views on whether or not it should stop being taught, it is likely to become impractical to teach it in the future due to a lack of resources. Bob Lister, classics lecturer at Cambridge University until 2008, is quoted to have said “unless someone at a senior level comes up with serious ways of supporting Latin, I fear that within the next generation it will pretty much disappear” (BBC, 2008).

It seems that teaching of Latin is already set up to fail in schools as exams are far more difficult than any other subjects available at GCSE. A study by Durham University in 2006 of the results of 600,000 students found that Latin is the hardest subject at this level to achieve a C grade or above in, averaging at one grade harder than other subjects (Middleton, 2015). As the exams are so difficult, schools are less likely to want to offer the subject, as poor grades reflect badly on them (BBC, 2008), especially in terms of league tables, which are seen as being important in maintaining standards across schools (BBC, 2017) but can also be misleading if the context of the data is not fully understood. Schools are also less likely to enter pupils for difficult exams in which they are likely to achieve moderate grades when they could excel in other subjects and get higher grades overall, potentially impacting their post-16 studies, as well as their options for higher education. If Latin isn’t taught in secondary schools, pupils with an interest can still study the language outside of school, at places such as the JACT Latin Camp. Those interested in studying Classics at university are still able to with no prior knowledge of the languages, so will not be restricted.

The difficulty of the subject also creates an elitist atmosphere within the teaching of Latin, as public schools and grammar schools are more likely to offer the subject than state schools, as a consequence of history and tradition and the fact that they often have more resources to offer to help achieve higher grades. In 2000, only 37% of entrants for GCSE latin were from state schools, including grammar schools (BBC, 2008), and although this number is increasing, it is still comparatively low. This could give the impression that encouraging teaching of this subject encourages social elitism and class division, so should not be supported in order to maintain a fairer society.

Furthermore, it can be argued that teaching Latin takes up time and money that could be used for more practical MFLs, such as French or German, which can be used outside of school, and improve employability prospects for students. Jobseekers who can speak a foreign language are more likely to get the job, according to 43% of 500 employers surveyed by the National Centre for Languages (Personnel Today, 2010). Latin does not have this benefit, as it is not a language used for communication commonly anymore.

A common argument in favour of the teaching of Latin is that it is beneficial when learning other foreign languages, especially Romance languages, as discussed above. However, there is some evidence that this may be false. A study was conducted by Haag and Stern in 2000 to find out whether learning French or Latin as a second language was more helpful to prepare students for learning Spanish. This study found that more grammatical errors were found among those who had Latin as a second language than among those who studied French instead, which may be because the grammar of Romance languages are more similar to each other than to Latin, so the learning of Latin may mislead learners more than it helps them (Haag and Stern, 2003). This suggests that it is better to learn modern languages, as they are more useful in both the workplace and as a springboard for leaning further modern languages.

While it is argued that knowledge of Latin opens up a world of classical literature in its original language, which otherwise would be inaccessible, this is true of any language, old or modern. It is far more simple to read a translation than learn a whole language in order to understand the original, and there is no reason to believe that reading a good translation means something is lost from a text. Also, to be sufficiently competent to read a classical text in the original Latin requires the reader to be nearly fluent, something unlikely to be achieved through school Latin lessons alone.


To conclude, it is certainly true that Latin is no longer a language regularly spoken in the modern world.  The complexity of Classical Latin which led to the development of a more accessible Vulgar Latin and regional diversification into multiple vernacular languages after the fall of the Western Roman Empire resulted in the spoken language becoming largely confined to the educated elite for use in the administration of secular and religious society.  As literacy rates rose, and with the development of the printing press in the early modern period, the language was also superseded in its written form by the vernacular.  Apart from the Vatican State, in which it is a minority language, Latin is not the official language of any modern country or ethnic group in society, and it’s use even within the Catholic Church, while enduring, is now relatively limited.

However, this does not mean that it has no relevance to the modern world, as its legacy lives on through the inheritance it has passed on both to the English language and the Romance Languages that developed from the common root of Latin.  Its importance to the common history and culture of the western world continues to be reflected in these languages and also in the wealth of classical literature which is still widely studied and translated.  Latin also provides a common platform with which to share accurate naming conventions in the fields of botany and taxonomy and still has an important role to play in the language of medicine and the law.  As such, it has an ongoing role in modern society, so should not be considered to be dead.

While the study of Latin today is becoming less common, it should not be allowed to die out for practical reasons such as the declining number of subject teachers or limited financial resources.  The view that studying certain subjects is only for the elite is only reinforced if opportunities are taken away from state school pupils.  If exams in this subject are more difficult that some others this should be adjusted through the marking schemes rather than being used as an excuse to withdraw support from the teaching of Latin.  While it should never be compulsory to learn Latin, the widening rather than narrowing of educational opportunities, including the studying of a range of subjects, which may not all be directly relevant to a future career, is important for the development of well-balanced individuals, so should be encouraged. This is a choice that should continue to be made available through investment in a variety of subjects, including Latin, and adequate resourcing of its teaching.


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