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Why Is Latin a Dead Language?

Ellen Gutoskey
Recognize any terms?
Recognize any terms? / (Latin) gashgeron/iStock via Getty Images; (Background) Justin Dodd
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Calling a language “dead” seems more like an insult than a simple categorical designation—as though it’s less important than its living counterparts.

And if we’re talking about a language specifically as a way to have a conversation, a dead one is less important. As Babbel explains, a dead language is any language that’s “no longer the native language of a community of people.” That definition may vary slightly depending on your source: According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a language is also sometimes considered dead if it’s no longer anyone’s main language or just not “used for ordinary communication.”

Latin checks all these boxes. It used to be spoken in Ancient Rome, and eventually evolved into the Romance languages after the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s not necessarily that nobody can speak Latin today, or even that they don’t—it’s more that nobody needs to use Latin to say something like “Where’s the bathroom?” for lack of another option.

But just because Latin is technically dead doesn’t mean it’s gone. For one thing, plenty of people study it, from high schoolers with an interest in etymology to classics scholars who prefer to read Virgil’s Aeneid in its purest form. Because Latin is still studied and spoken in some contexts, it’s not considered an extinct language, or one that has no remaining speakers at all.

Even people who don’t study or speak Latin still use parts of the language. Scientists, for example, give Latin names to newly discovered species—though some Latinized terms, like the Taylor Swift-inspired swiftae in Nannaria swiftae, definitely weren’t around in Julius Caesar’s day. Vatican City actually still counts Latin as one of its two official languages (along with Italian). And that’s not to mention all the Latin terms that regularly crop up in English: legal jargon like habeas corpus, journalistic customs like sic, and general expressions like mea culpa and quid pro quo.

[h/t Babbel]

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