Short History of the Latin Language

(The following text is part of the Author’s Introduction for Church Latin for Beginners; an elementary course of exercises in ecclesiastical Latin by J. E. Lowe. London: Burns & Oates; Washbourne, 1923.)

1. There was once a language called Indo-European.* It is now lost; but we know more or less what it was like from a comparison of the daughter languages of which Indo-European was the mother. Two of these languages were Greek and Latin, which exhibit as many curious similarities and differences as we should expect to find between two sisters.**

*Also known as Indo-Germanic and Aryan.

**For example, where Latin has an initial s, Greek has an aspirated vowel—e.g., the Latin for six is sex, the Greek, (hex); cf. English sextant and hexagon. Again, where Latin has the voiced labial (b), Greek has the unvoiced (p): thus, Latin sub (under) = Greek viro (hupo); Latin expello (expel) = Greek (ekballo), etc.

2. Latin was the language spoken by the Latins, who were the inhabitants of Latium, a province of Italy of which Rome was the capital. In very early days Italy was made up of several different states, which were always at war with one another; each state spoke its own dialect or patois. Gradually the Romans gained the upper hand in Italy, and imposed the Roman or Latin dialect upon the tribes they conquered. Thus Latin became the language of all Italy, and finally of the Roman provinces, such as Gaul, Spain, Africa, and Asia Minor.

3. In its early stages the Latin language was heavy, clumsy, and uncouth. There are some curious examples of this old Latin (it is called prisca latinitas) still to be seen on ancient statues, tombstones, etc. Greece was far ahead of Italy in learning and culture.

4. About the middle of the third century B.C., a Greek named Livius Andronicus was taken prisoner in war, and brought to Rome to act as tutor to the children of some of the leading men there. This Livius Andronicus, although he was a Greek, was the first to attempt any serious composition in Latin. He translated several plays from the Greek, as well as the Homeric poem, the Odyssey.

5. Under the influence of Andronicus, a literary circle was formed at Rome, and gradually plays, poems, and prose works were produced in Latin, but always modelled on Greek originals.* In the hands of this literary circle the Latin language soon became less clumsy and uncouth, as each new writer aimed at greater refinement and polish. But the mass of the Roman people cared more about fighting and farming than about literature, and continued to speak the old rough Latin.

*Satire was the only kind of writing which was essentially a Roman production.

6. Thus it came about that from the time of Livius Andronicus, two kinds of Latin existed side by side: the Latin of the literary and cultured classes, called sermo urbanus, or the language of the town, and the Latin of the ordinary people, called sermo vulgaris.

7. The first century B.C. is known as the Golden Age of Latin Literature. In this period Cicero, orator, statesman and philosopher, brought literary Latin to its zenith, and developed a prose style which became at once the envy and despair of all subsequent Latin authors. No writing, either before or since, has had such a powerful and lasting influence upon the prose style of the literature of Western Europe. The greatest poet of the Golden Age was Vergil, author of the Aeneid, an epic poem which became the Bible, as it were, of the pagan Romans. To this age belong, also, the poets Horace, Propertius, and Ovid, the historian Livy, and the famous general Julius Caesar, who has left us Commentaries on his two great wars.

8. The Golden Age, which ended, roughly, with the death of the Emperor Augustus in A.D. 14, gave place to what is known as the Silver Age. In this period the literature lacked both deep feeling and spontaneity; style developed at the expense of matter, and a brilliant artificiality replaced the purity of the Golden Age.

9. By the second century a new influence had crept in: it had become fashionable to talk Greek. Even the children of the upper classes learnt to chatter it with their Greek nurses. Thus literary Latin began to die out, though the mass of the people still continued to use the sermo vulgaris.

10. It is this sermo vulgaris which finally developed into the different European dialects which we now call Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Roumanian, and so on. For example, the literary Latin word for a horse is equus; but the common word was “caballus,” from which, we get caballo in Spanish, cavallo in Italian and Portuguese, cheval in French, cal in Roumanian, and such derivatives as cavalry, cavalier, cavalcade, etc., in English. These different dialects were known as the Romance (or Roman) languages, and a romance was originally merely a story written in one of these dialects.

11. The language of the early Church was Greek; thus we find that the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers were all in Greek and not Latin. It is in Africa that Ecclesiastical or Church Latin first developed. The inhabitants of that country had learnt to speak the sermo vulgaris, or common Latin; they did not understand Greek. About A.D. 160 Tertullian was born at Carthage, and was converted to Christianity about the year 197. He first wrote in Greek, but soon abandoned it in favour of Latin, in order that he might be understood by the common people. His Latin is a mixture of the literary Latin, which was taught in the schools, and the sermo vulgaris. He coined a great many new words.

12. By the third century a Latin translation of the Bible was in circulation, and St. Augustine tells us that everybody who possessed a Greek manuscript tried his hand at turning it into Latin. Thus the need for one authoritative Latin version became imperative.

13. Towards the end of the fourth century Pope Damasus commissioned St. Jerome, the leading scholar of the day, to bring out a new Latin edition of the Bible. This was the famous Vulgate, which was finished in the year 405. It marked the end of ancient Latin, and the complete establishment of mediaeval Latin. From this time onward Latin became the universal language not only of the Church, but also of the State. Scholars of all nationalities could meet and converse without difficulty, since in Latin they had a common language. Thus we find, for example, Erasmus coming to England at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and finding a place at once in the friendship of such men as More, Colet, Grocin, and Charnock, though he knew no word of English.*

* Erasmus held the living of Aldington in Kent, but resigned it in 1512 because he could not discharge the duties of a parish priest, owing to his inability to speak the language.

14. The Latin which is taught in schools to-day is the literary Latin of the Golden Age: we call it Classical Latin. Ecclesiastical Latin differs from it chiefly in being much nearer to the sermo vulgaris, and is, therefore, not so artificially refined and polished as the sermo urbanus. But by the end of the fifth century “the Latin speech that was rhetorical, unsympathetic, and hard, had been softened by emotion, lifted on the wings of prophecy, made something with a soul in it, and a sacred tongue.”*

*Canon Barry, “The Holy Latin Tongue.” The Dublin Review, April, 1906.

15. The chief writers of Ecclesiastical Latin are Tertullian (second century), St. Cyprian (third century), Lactantius and St.Ambrose (fourth century), St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Leo the Great (fifth century), the Venerable Bede (eighth century), St. Bernard (twelfth century), St. Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century), and Thomas a Kempis (fifteenth century).

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(End of selection by J. E. Lowe)

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