Discover the best way to learn Latin, including the history of the Latin Language and how to get beyond Latin translations.Start free trial
Latin is a classical language that profoundly influenced many other languages in the Indo-European language family. While it is referred to as a “dead” language, Latin is far from extinct. Dead languages are defined as those that no longer represent the spoken language of a community, and while that’s definitely true of Latin, the language still enjoys robust usage throughout the world. Latin is taught in many educational institutions, and Ecclesiastical Latin remains the official language of the Holy See, or pope, of the Catholic Church.
While Latin has a limited reach as a spoken language, learning Latin can provide access to a wealth of classic literature. The language was widely used for several centuries as the lingua franca of theology, biology, science, medicine, and the law as well as the mother tongue of watershed works of literature like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the musings of Cicero. Today spoken Latin is confined to Catholic churches or within the walls of Vatican City in Rome. The seeds of the Latin language, however, have taken root in Romance languages Like Italian, Portuguese, French, and Spanish.
While learning Latin can have a reputation as a challenging endeavor, Rosetta Stone has made the language approachable by focusing on offering bite-sized Latin lessons that scale gradually. Rather than memorizing long lists of Latin roots and vocabulary, you’ll be learning Latin words in context within an immersive environment rich with the audio and visual cues that stimulate more in-depth learning.
The Origins and History of Latin
Latin was just one of many Italic languages spoken in central Italy around the 5th century BC. Because the Latin alphabet is adapted from the Etruscan alphabet, which was also derived from the Greek alphabet, you’ll find many commonalities between the writing systems. Latin became the language of the Rome Empire in both law and administration, and because literacy was commonplace in Rome, Latin became the everyday language of the Roman people. As the Roman empire expanded, the reach of the Latin language also extended across a wide swath of Europe and even into areas of North Africa and the Middle East.
Across much of Europe and especially the Mediterranean, the influence of Latin competed with that of Greek, and much of the educated populace of Rome spoke both. The classical Latin that was used in literature differed from spoken Latin, referred to as vulgar Latin and eventually, the language evolved and was absorbed into what we know as the modern Romance languages of today. When the Roman empire collapsed, Latin survived as a literary language in medieval times and continued to be used by Irish and Anglo-Saxon writers. By the 15th century, the influence of spoken Latin was waning, and by the mid-20th century, it had fallen almost entirely out of use except by the Catholic church and academics.
Should I Use a Latin Dictionary?
You might assume that because Latin is no longer a spoken language, learning Latin isn’t a useful endeavor but when it comes to this classical language, you couldn’t be farther from the truth. While it might be tempting to rely on translations or a Latin dictionary to decipher meaning, you’d miss much of the nuance and importance of both the language and its history.
Latin has a significant sphere of influence in science, religion, philosophy, law, and literature. Latin roots often determine scientific terminology and species naming conventions. Catholic mass is still given in Latin, and official documents of the Vatican and the Holy See use the language. Many of those who are considered the fathers of philosophy, like Immanuel Kant, not only wrote in Latin but employed Latin vocabulary to name concepts. If you work in law, you won’t be able to escape the influence of Latin in legal terms from habeas corpus to amicus curiae.
Rosetta Stone believes learning Latin is about the language, not just the words. While you can leverage stand-alone features like a Phrasebook for many of the languages Rosetta Stone offers, your Latin lessons are shaped by a concept called Dynamic Immersion®. This method means Latin vocabulary is taught in context and you’re encouraged to learn the Latin language as it would be used in practical situations.
The Latin Alphabet and Latin Script
The Latin alphabet forms the basis of many writing systems around the world. Derived from the Etruscan alphabet used by the Greeks and influenced by the Phoenician alphabet, you’ll find Latin script looks quite familiar. It’s the basis of the largest number of writing systems in the world, used by about 70% of the world’s population.
1. The Latin or Roman Alphabet is the basis for many other alphabets
The Latin alphabet used by the Romans has quite an origin story. Derived from a version of the Greek alphabet, the Latin script has roots that can be traced back to the Phoenician alphabet which in turn was influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphics. Most widely used as the writing system of Ancient Rome, the Latin alphabet has become the basis of Germanic and Romance language writing systems. Some may be surprised to hear the Latin alphabet is also used in China and by some Baltic and Slavic states.
2. Latin isn’t just the language of literature
Because the Latin alphabet was used for writing many Romance languages, you’ll find remnants of it sprinkled throughout history in both the arts and sciences. As colonialism spread European culture throughout the world, the Latin script came with it and eventually influenced the writing system of the indigenous American, Australian, and African languages. Its broad reach and influence has resulted in the Latin alphabet being used to develop a standard alphabet for other languages across the world.
3. The Latin alphabet has evolved
When referencing the Latin alphabet, be aware that the term refers not only to the alphabet that is used for Latin but also for the many other alphabets derived from the Latin script. The group of Latin script alphabets have a core set of letters and then variations that drop some sounds or add other letters, such as the Norwegian alphabet. The evolution of the Latin script has taken different paths depending on the language.
Getting Beyond Latin Translation
Why should language learners choose to learn Latin? Simply put, Latin is a gateway to other languages, and the applications are surprisingly wide given its reputation as a “dead” language. Understanding Latin is the key to unlocking many mysteries not just for scholars but for any learners eager to explore European history, literature, culture, and other languages.
Latin is the cornerstone of European civilization
Many consider the Roman empire as the cornerstone of European civilization. As such, the Latin language dominated the Middle Ages not only as the mother tongue of the Roman Catholic church but also as the language of scholarship, diplomacy, and philosophy in the Western world. Historians, art historians, archaeologists, and literary scholars will all find an intimate knowledge of the Latin language invaluable in their fields of interest.
Latin can help you learn other languages
As was stressed previously, Latin’s influence on the development of other languages, specifically Romance languages, can not be underestimated. While Latin grammar might be complicated, it also forces language learners to get a better understanding of the grammar of their own languages and a better grasp on writing and sentence structure. Once you’ve learned some of the language, you’ll find a complex web of vocabulary that previously escaped your understanding is now accessible through your knowledge of Latin roots.
Latin is the language of literature
Cicero. Catullus. Augustine. Ovid. All of these prominent figures in literature, science, and philosophy wrote primarily in Latin. You could certainly read a translation, but there is something to be said for being able to appreciate these works of literature in their original form with all the implied meanings and intricacies intact.
The Best Way to Learn Latin
As with any language, there are several different paths you can take in your language learning journey. While the success you’ll enjoy learning the language will mostly depend on the quality of your Latin lessons and the time you can commit to the challenge, there are a few things you can do to enrich your Latin practice. Here are a few tips for the best way to learn Latin and get the most out of your language lessons.
Learn Latin in context
To encourage a deeper level of learning that gets beyond memorization, you’ll want to learn Latin words and concepts in context. Immersive learning environments like the ones Rosetta Stone offers provide the kinds of audio and visual cues your brain needs to stimulate more advanced understanding.
Immerse yourself in Latin
Because the reach of Latin influence is so vast, it’s relatively easy to find ways to immerse yourself in the Latin language. For beginners, attending mass in Latin or listening to it on YouTube may be an interesting way to absorb the intonations of spoken Latin. For more advanced learners, hearing classic works as audiobooks in the original Latin can be a rewarding immersion experience.
Practice Latin daily
Your ability to learn Latin will be shaped by how much time you can spend reviewing lessons and practicing pronunciation. That’s why Rosetta Stone structures Latin lessons in bite-sized increments of ten minutes with progress that syncs across devices, letting you pick up your language learning exactly where you left off.
Read in Latin
You might be worried that reading in Latin involves delving into the complexities of philosophy or the complicated history of the ancient world. There are, however, several children’s books that have been translated into Latin, including Alice in Wonderland or Harry Potter, that you can cut your teeth on before moving onto more challenging literature.