Latin is an ancient Indo-European language originally spoken in Latium, the region immediately surrounding Rome.
Latin gained wide currency, especially in Europe, as the formal language of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, and, after Rome’s conversion to Christianity, of the Roman Catholic Church (although by the time of widespread Christian conversion in Europe, Latin had already become more a language of the Church and of scholars, rather than of the common people). Principally through the influence of the Church, it also became the primary language of later medieval European scholars and philosophers. As an inflectional and synthetic language, Latin relies very little on word order, conveying syntax through a systemic system of affixes attached to word stems. The Latin alphabet, derived from that of the Etruscans and Greeks (each of those themselves derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet), remains the most widely used alphabet in the world.
Although now widely considered a dead language, with few fluent speakers and no native ones, Latin has had a significant influence on many other languages still thriving today, including English, and continues to be an important source of vocabulary for science, academia, and law; it is also used by the Catholic Church, and still evolving, making it technically still alive. Romance languages (Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Romansh, Spanish and other regional languages or dialects from the same area) are descended from Vulgar Latin, and many words adapted from Latin are found in other modern languages—including English, where from Latin roughly half of its vocabulary is derived, directly or indirectly. This is part of its legacy as the lingua franca of the Western world for over a thousand years.
The Roman Rite of the Roman Catholic Church has Latin as its official language, and had it as its primary liturgical language until just after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, when the various vernacular languages of its members were allowed in the liturgy. Latin remains the official language of Vatican City. Classical Latin, the literary language of the late Republic and early Empire, is taught in many primary, grammar, and secondary schools throughout the world, often combined with Greek as the study of Classics, although its role in the syllabus has diminished considerably since the early 20th century.
Latin is a member of the Italic languages, and the Latin alphabet is based on the Old Italic alphabet, which is in turn derived from the Greek alphabet. Latin was first brought to the Italian peninsula in the 9th or 8th century BC by migrants from the north, who settled in the Latium region, around the River Tiber, where the Roman civilization first developed. Latin was influenced by the Celtic dialects and the non-Indo-European Etruscan language of northern Italy.
Although surviving Roman literature consists almost entirely of Classical Latin, an artificial and highly stylized literary language whose Golden Age spanned from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD (encompassing the greatest Roman prose writers and poets like Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Livy, and Caesar, among others), the actual spoken language of the Western Roman Empire was Vulgar Latin, which significantly differed from Classical Latin in grammar, vocabulary, and (eventually) pronunciation.
Interestingly, while Latin long remained the legal and governmental language of the entire Roman Empire, Greek came to be the language most often used among the well-educated elite—as much of the literature and philosophy studied by upper-class Romans had been produced by Greek (usually Athenian) authors. In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which became the Byzantine Empire after the final split of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in 395, Greek eventually supplanted Latin as the legal and governmental language, in keeping with the fact that it had long been the spoken language of most Eastern citizens (of all classes).
The language of Rome has had a profound impact on later cultures, as demonstrated by this Latin Bible from 1407
The expansion of the Roman Empire spread Latin throughout Europe, and, eventually, Vulgar Latin began to dialectize, based on the location of its various speakers. Vulgar Latin gradually evolved into a number of distinct Romance languages; a process well underway by the 9th century. These were for many centuries only oral languages, Latin still being used for writing.
For example, Latin was still the official language of Portugal in 1296, after which it was replaced by Portuguese. Many of these “daughter” languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, and Romanian, flourished, the differences between them growing greater and more formal over time. Out of the Romance languages, Italian is generally considered the purest descendant of Latin in terms of vocabulary, though Romanian more closely preserves the Classical declension system, and Sardinian is the most conservative in terms of phonology.
Classical Latin and the Romance languages differ in a number of ways, and some of these differences have been used in attempts to reconstruct Vulgar Latin. For example, the Romance languages have distinctive stress on certain syllables, whereas Latin had distinctive length of vowels. In Italian and Sardo logudorese, there is distinctive length of consonants and stress, in Spanish only distinctive stress, and in French length and stress are no longer distinctive. Another major distinction between Romance and Latin is that all Romance languages, excluding Romanian, have lost their case endings in most words, except for some pronouns. Romanian exhibits a direct case (nominative/accusative), an indirect case (dative/genitive), and a vocative, but linguists have said that the case endings are a Balkan innovation. Also the Romans wrote their Latin words in one long sentence without any spaces. There has also been a major Latin influence in English. English is Germanic in grammar, Romance in vocabulary, with Greek influence. Sixty percent of the English vocabulary has its roots in Latin. In the medieval period, much of this borrowing occurred through ecclesiastical usage established by Saint Augustine of Canterbury in the 6th Century, or indirectly after the Norman Conquest—through the Anglo-Norman language.
English grammar remains independent of Latin grammar, even though prescriptive grammarians in English have been heavily influenced by Latin (Grammar by Frank Palmer). Attempts to “prohibit” split infinitives, which do not exist in Latin, have been met with resistance from those who believe splitting infinitives occasionally improves the clarity of English.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, English writers cobbled together huge numbers of new words from Latin and Greek roots. These words were dubbed “inkhorn” or “inkpot” words, as if they had spilled from a pot of ink. Many of these words were used once by the author and then forgotten, but some were so useful that they survived. Imbibe, extrapolate, dormant and employer are all inkhorn terms created from Latin words. Many of the most common polysyllabic “English” words are simply adapted Latin forms, in a large number of cases adapted by way of Old French.
Latin is currently spoken fluently by over a million people. Latin mottoes are used as guidelines by many organizations.