The Language of an Empire: How Latin Changed the World

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

Since you are seeing this post and able to thus far read it, we shall assume that you have mastered some modern language skill set. Language is the foundation in which any culture or society is built.

Try to imagine living in a society that lacks language in any form: written, verbal, or sign. It is basically impossible to communicate in any sort of way. Western European languages owe their shared alphabet to the Romans.

Today we are going to journey back and see how this shared alphabet and language of Latin helped same the modern world!

Apices from the shrine of the Augustales at Herculaneum
Dedication stone from the shrine of the Augustales at Herculaneum.

Originally spoken in Latium, Latin is a language that has been passed down through various forms. The Romans developed a script for representing the Latin language in order to create a distinctive writing system that drew heavily on the model of Etruscan and Greek alphabets.

The Roman (Latin) alphabet was employed in a wide range of situations, from literary and documentary purposes to graffiti. At the height of the Roman Empire its influence was felt in almost every aspect of life from technology to government.

The Roman Empire during its greatest extent in 117 AD, during the time of Emperor Trajan.

Nations under the rule of Rome often were less developed and therefore adopted Latin phraseology in some specialized areas, such as science, technology, medicine, and law. For example, the Linnaean system of plant and animal classification was heavily influenced by Historia Naturalis, an encyclopedia of people, places, plants, animals, and things published by Pliny the Elder.

Medicine in Ancient Rome has been recorded in the works of such physicians as Galen. It has established that today’s medical terminology is primarily derived from Latin and Greek words, the Greek being filtered through the Latin.

Roman engineering had the same effect on scientific terminology as a whole. Roman law principles have survived partly in a long list of Latin legal terms.

Roman Republic during the 2nd Century BC, Latin was not likely spoken outside of the green areas.

The earliest known form of Latin is Vetus Latina was spoken from the Roman Kingdom to the middle of the Republic. This has been attested both in inscriptions and in some of the earliest extant Latin literary works, such as the comedies of Plautus and Terence.

During this period, the Latin alphabet was devised from the Etruscan alphabet. The writing style later changed from an initial right-to-left (boustrophedon) to left-to-right script which is still in use today.

Philological analysis of Vetus Latina works indicates that a spoken language (sermo vulgi) existed at the same time as the literate Latinitas. This informal language was rarely written, so philologists have been left with only individual words and phrases cited by Classical authors, as well as those found as graffiti.

Roman Graffiti
Ancient Roman graffiti

As sermo vulgaris was free to develop on its own, there is no reason to suppose that the speech was uniform over time or location. Romanized European populations developed their own dialects of the language.

Despite dialect variation the languages of Hispania (Spain & Portugal), Gallia (France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy), and Italia (Italy) there remained a remarkable unity in form and development. This was also assisted by the stabilizing influence of their common Roman Catholic culture.

Fall of the Western Roman Empire with the sack of Rome.

It was not until the Moorish Conquest of Spain in 711 AD cut off communications between the major Romance regions that the languages began to diverge seriously. The Decline of the Roman Empire meant the rise in numerous successor states.

In areas that had formed part of the Roman Empire, the use of the Roman alphabet continued, as did the use of the Latin language. A great example is how the Germanic people adopted Latin as a language more suitable to legal and other more formal forms of expression.

This situation brought about Latinitas Serior. This language was more in line with the everyday speech due to a decline in education. Because of a desire to spread the word to the masses many Christian writings of the time were done in Late Latin.

It is interesting to note that areas outside the boundaries of the Empire did not really appear to use of the Roman alphabet until after the Empire’s collapse. So in areas like Britannia, the Roman alphabet was introduced, or reintroduced, by Christian missionaries over the course of the first millennium AD.

The Roman alphabet that was introduced into early Anglo-Saxon England, along with Christianity, appears to have included both majuscule (upper/capital) and minuscule (lower) letter cases. These had been used for different purposes in Roman writing, with majuscules appearing in inscriptions and minuscules in handwriting.

Latin Alphabet
Latin Alphabet

In the early Middle Ages, we begin to see the combination of minuscule and majuscule forms within handwritten documents, with majuscules being used to signal textual features such as the start of sections. This is the starting point for the use of majuscules to signal the beginnings of sentences that is the norm in Western European languages today.

Latina Mediaevalis is the written Latin used when no corresponding Latin vernacular existed. Without the institutions of the Roman Empire that had supported its uniformity, Medieval Latin lost its linguistic cohesion.

The spoken language had developed into the various developing Romance languages. This Latin spread into lands that had never spoken Latin, such as the Germanic and Slavic nations. It became useful for international communication between the member states of the Sacrum Romanum Imperium and its allies.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

The Renaissance briefly reinforced the position of Latin as a spoken language, through its adoption by the Renaissance Humanists. Often led by members of the clergy, they strove to preserve what they could of this dwindling language and attempted to restore Latin to what it had been.

They corrected Medieval Latin out of existence no later than the 15th Century and replaced it with more formally correct versions. Scholars of the rising universities assisted in attempting to discover what the classical language had been in various works of literature.

Battle of Hastings, part of the Norman conquest of England.

Over the succeeding centuries of the Middle Ages, much borrowing from Latin occurred directly through ecclesiastical usage in the 6th Century, or indirectly after the Norman Conquest of England through the Anglo-Norman language. From the 16th to the 18th Centuries, English writers created inkhorn terms from Latin and Greek words.

Many of the most common polysyllabic English words are of Latin origin, through the medium of Old French.

During the Early Modern Age, Latin still was the most important language of culture in Europe. Until the end of the 17th Century the majority of books and almost all diplomatic documents were written in Latin.

A number of historical phases of the language have been recognized, each distinguished by subtle differences in vocabulary, usage, spelling, morphology and syntax. Different scholars emphasize different features and as a result, the list has variants and alternative names.

Roman Catholic Church - Vatican
Vatican City (Rome), home of the Roman Catholic Church.

In addition to the historical phases, Ecclesiastical Latin refers to the styles used by the writers of the Roman Catholic Church from Late Antiquity onward. Many international auxiliary languages have been heavily influenced by Latin.

Interlingua is sometimes considered a simplified, modern version of the language, with a sizable number of followers also. Latino sine Flexione, popular in the early 20th century, is Latin with its inflections and other grammatical changes stripped away.

The works of several hundred ancient authors who wrote in Latin have survived in whole or in part, as the subject matter of the field of Classics. Their works were published in manuscript form before the invention of printing and now exist in carefully annotated printed editions such as the Loeb Classical Library, published by Harvard University Press, or the Oxford Classical Texts.

Cattus PetasatusLatin translations of modern literature such as The Cat in the Hat, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Paddington Bear, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Winnie-the-Pooh are intended to garner popular interest in the language. Additional resources include phrasebooks for everyday phrases and concepts in Latin, such as Meissner’s Latin Phrasebook.

The largest organization that retains Latin in official and quasi-official contexts is the

Tridentine Mass
Tridentine Mass

Catholic Church. Latin remains the language of the Roman Rite and the Tridentine Mass, while the Mass of Paul VI is usually celebrated in the local language and/or parts are in Latin.

Latin is the official language of the Sancta Sedes and its public journal, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, and also the working language of the Roman Rota. The Vatican City is also home to the world’s only ATM that gives instructions in Latin.

Confoederatio Helvetica Coins
Confoederatio Helvetica Coins

Confoederatio Helvetica is the full Latin name of Switzerland. The nation adopts the Latin short name Helvetia on coins and stamps, since there is no room to use all of the nation’s 4 official languages. For a similar reason Switzerland adopted the international vehicle and internet code CH.

Semper Fidelis
Semper Fidelis – Motto of the Unites States Marine Corps

Many organizations in America today have Latin mottos, such as Semper paratus, (United States Coast Guard) and Semper fidelis (United States Marine Corps). Several of the states also have Latin mottos: Alabama – Audemus jura nostra defendere; Connecticut – Qui transtulit sustinet; District of Columbia – Justitia Omnibus; North Carolina – Esse quam videri; Mississippi – Virtute et armis; and Virginia – Sic semper tyrannis.

Virtute et Armis
Virtute et Armis – State Seal of Mississippi

There are many websites and forums maintained in Latin by enthusiasts such as Vicipaedia Latina which has more than 100,000 articles written in Latin, along with Google Translate adding Latin to the list of languages. Latin was a language that began in the central of the Mediterranean and ending up spreading throughout an empire.

It was the foundation for the language in which this article was written. We are glad that Latin originally started in our favorite place, and that it is making a comeback into modern society.

We will do our best to help make Latin popular once again. We hope you enjoyed today’s linguistic journey and look forward to having you join us again.

While we help spread the word, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Allen, William Sidney (2004). Vox Latina – a Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22049-1.

Baldi, Philip (2002). The foundations of Latin. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Buck, Carl Darling (1904). A grammar of Oscan and Umbrian, with a collection of inscriptions and a glossary. Boston: Ginn & Company.

Clark, Victor Selden (1900). Studies in the Latin of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Lancaster: The New Era Printing Company.

Herman, József; Wright, Roger (Translator) (2000). Vulgar Latin. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-02000-8.

O’Sullivan, Deirdre (2015). England In The Time Of King Richard III. University of Leicester.