Latin language, member of the Italic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. Latin was first encountered in ancient times as the language of Latium, the region of central Italy in which Rome is located (see Italic languages). Roman conquests later spread Latin throughout Italy and the vast Roman Empire. Numerous documents, such as Latin inscriptions and literary works, furnish much information about the language, as do the comments of ancient scholars and various related dialects and languages. After the ancient Romans began to develop a literature (in the 3d cent. BC), a gap emerged between literary, or classical, Latin and Vulgar Latin, which was the popular (spoken) form of the language. This division had become considerable by the beginning of the Roman Empire. It is especially from Vulgar Latin, carried by the soldiers and colonists of Rome throughout the Roman Empire, that the modern Romance languages are descended.
Classical Latin, distinguished by its formality and elegance, was greatly influenced in vocabulary, grammar, and style by Greek. By the end of the Roman Republic (1st cent. BC) classical Latin had become a suitable medium for the greatest poetry and prose of the day. Grammatically, classical Latin featured five declensions and six cases in its inflection of the noun; there was no definite article. Noun subclassifications included three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and two numbers (singular and plural). Verb inflection was highly developed, expressing tense, mood, voice, person, and number. Latin is written in the Roman alphabet, which was apparently derived from the Etruscan alphabet. The latter, in turn, was adapted from the Greek alphabet (see Greek language).
Vulgar Latin differed from classical Latin in its increased use of prepositions, its less frequent employment of inflection, its greater regularity of word order, and, to some extent, in its vocabulary. Classical Latin was more formal and elegant stylistically. With the triumph of Christianity in the 4th cent. AD, Vulgar Latin grew in literary significance, as evidenced by the Vulgate, St. Jerome's translation of the Bible into Vulgar Latin. The new religion stressed equality before God, and its advocates tried to reach as many in the empire as possible through the everyday speech of the common people.
Latin in the Modern World
Latin survives as the official tongue of Vatican City and as the official language of communication of the Roman Catholic Church. Until the 1960s, it was also the language of the Roman Catholic liturgy and is still so used under certain conditions. During the Middle Ages it flourished as the language of the universities, scholars, and writers. It was the language of diplomacy in Europe as late as the 17th cent. and was still widely used in scholarly writing in the 19th cent. Today, although the language has a diminished role in the school curriculum, Latin roots continue to serve as a major source for the derivation of new terms in the sciences and technologies.
See C. D. Buck, Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (3d ed. 1948); E. Pulgram, The Tongues of Italy: Prehistory and History (1958); A. M. Gessman, The Tongue of the Romans (1970); R. S. Conway, The Making of Latin (1983); L. R. Palmer, The Latin Language (new ed. 1988).