The Pantheon and Colosseum, both monuments of Ancient Rome, are still standing. But an even more enduring Roman monument is the Latin language spoken and written far beyond the fall of Rome, into the middle ages, and on through the renaissance and early modern period. Today many ask if it’s still possible to speak Latin and if people do speak it.
Latin can be spoken and is spoken today, but this does not mean that it is used in the same manner as modern languages such as English or Spanish. Today, speaking Latin is mainly a tool for learning and teaching Latin. However, it is also used for enjoyment and by Latin learners, teachers, and some scholars in different countries as a lingua franca.
I started speaking Latin to learn to read Latin literature better, and now I use it in teaching and daily communication with fellow Latin teachers worldwide. Speaking a language that you are learning might seem natural, but this is not the case for Latin. Usually, students learn Latin by memorizing grammar and translating Latin literature using dictionaries and grammar. However, in recent decades, many teachers and learners have realized the benefits of using Latin actively in learning and teaching.
Many people, mostly Latin teachers and autodidacts, speak Latin daily inside and outside the classroom. For some examples of spoken Latin, you can watch the many videos in Latin on this site or in this playlist.
Is it possible to speak Latin?
To answer the question if it’s possible to speak Latin, we need first to look at what we mean by speaking Latin and what constitutes correct Latin. Let’s look at the common questions I get when I say that I speak Latin and teach others to do as well:
- How can we know how to speak Latin?
- What Latin do people speak?
- What is correct Latin, and how correct Latin can we speak?
- Is it possible to speak Latin fluently?
- What about pronunciation?
- What about new vocabulary?
- Why speak Latin?
How can we know how to speak Latin?
In comparison with modern languages, where you usually try to learn to speak as the natives do, this is not the case in Latin. It is not possible to speak Latin as a native Roman of, e.g., the time of Caesar.
Why is that?
First, there are no native speakers of Latin. Latin, the language spoken in Ancient Rome, developed and changed over time until it turned into different languages, e.g., French, Italian, and Spanish. Second, we do not have enough written evidence of the way people in Rome actually spoke, apart perhaps from graffiti and letters (e.g., the Vindolanda tablets). We also have some stylized renderings of “colloquial Latin” in literary works by Petronius and Plautus and Terence, but that is about as close we can get to seeing how Romans might have actually spoken Latin.
So what does “speak Latin” mean, if not the way the Romans spoke it everyday?
When Latin teachers say “speak Latin,” we usually mean “to speak in a manner conforming to the literary language of the great works of antiquity and beyond.” While we have very few texts showing the actual colloquial language of everyday life in Ancient Rome, we have a substantial amount of highly literary works of oratory, poetry, and history.
Indeed, Latin grammar books are largely based on the language used in the high literature of a rather small number of authors (e.g. Cicero, Vergil, Caesar, and Livy). This is not without cause, for instance, Cicero and Virgil were authors studied already in Roman schools, and were models of prose and poetry throughout the middle ages and the renaissance and beyond. (Of course, there were other models as well.) Furthermore, a large body of work from these authors is available to us, allowing scholars to get a clear picture of the grammar and syntax of the language they wrote in.
Learning to speak Latin is thus not unlike learning to speak English or French from reading a rather small part of the highest literature produced in those languages.
In essence, to speak Latin, most people will try as best they can to use the vocabulary, expressions, and grammar found in Latin literature from antiquity, but also beyond.
Learning to speak a language by analyzing high literature is of course very difficult.
Luckily, there are many grammars, textbooks, dictionaries, and courses that make learning to use Latin much easier than learning it from the study of only advanced literature.
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What Latin do people speak?
It depends on the purpose of speaking Latin.
Many, again, myself included, strive to speak in a manner similar to the writings of the classical authors, especially concerning grammar. Thanks to a great number of philological works on stylistics and commentaries, we know quite a lot about the minutiae of the language; there are even Latin synonym dictionaries.
However, despite the great advances offered by philological research over the centuries, there is always a sort of veil between the Latin of ancient literature and us: we just don’t know enough about the exact nuances, or connotations of words, what a slight shift in word order does to the tone or weight of the sentence. That being said, ample reading and philological study gets us very far in understanding and appreciating Latin literature.
What is correct Latin?
What constitutes correct or good Latin is a debate going back to antiquity: the models and stylistic ideals changed over time: e.g., some sought to imitate one or a select few authors, while others adopted a language based on the use of a wide array of authors, and even creating new words and constructions. The history of Latin is the history of deviation and course corrections towards a more or less classical Latin norm. However, since Latin is not only the language of Rome but the Middle Ages and beyond, correct Latin is, in a sense, that Latin used in the literature that has come down to us from history.
Today, most students of Latin learn to speak Latin to be able to read Latin literature better. It thus follows that people learn to use a form of Latin that is in line with usage in the literature they want to read.
A common stance today (and during the renaissance) is to imitate and emulate the great Roman authors, such as Cicero, Caesar, and Vergil: Their Latin is, in fact, the very image of correctness, since Latin grammars are largely derived from the use of, e.g., Cicero, Caesar, Vergil, and Livy. Furthermore, the sheer amount of writings produced by them that has come down to us makes this a possible study.
Some people want to take care not to use poetic language in more ordinary contexts for fear of eroding the poetic nuances of the words when they finally meet them in texts, others might want to use Latin exclusively of the classical period.
Nevertheless, the Latin of Augustine or Jerome is no less correct than that of Sallust or Livy, even though it is somewhat different.
A useful guiding line that I use is this: is the Latin we use today so lexically and syntactically different to not be understood at all by an educated Roman of the 1st-century A.D.? If the answer is yes, then I would say that the Latin is not “correct” as it does not serve the goal of learning to read classical literature well. Now, of course, the subject matter could render understanding difficult, but the language itself should not.
I myself use vocabulary and expressions from all of Roman antiquity and the grammar of the classical period, especially as codified in the works of Cicero and Caesar. Latin grammar changed only a little, but there are indeed changes, of which it is important to be mindful of since the meaning might be different depending on the century the construction is found in.
How “correct” Latin can we speak?
Depending on the amount of time and diligent work you spend on reading and studying literature and style, you can learn to speak a Latin that is very much in line with the literary works of classical Rome—however, in conversation, no one would speak using the long complex sentences of Cicero.
The Humanists of the Renaissance were able to learn to speak Latin well, and there is no reason that we cannot do this ourselves today.
We will however never be native speakers—even the best speakers would to a Roman probably sound like a talking book with a very eclectic vocabulary.
What about Latin words for new things?
When someone hears that I speak Latin, they often ask how I deal with concepts not known to the Romans.
This is much less of a problem than one might think.
Many “new things” are metaphors in modern languages in which common old words are used to describe a modern phenomenon, e.g., windows or a mouse on computers. And in speaking Latin, we can use the corresponding words fenestra (“window”) and mūs (“mouse”). Also, remember that, in Europe, Latin was the language of virtually all human innovation and discovery, in some domains, until the 19th century. Thus, in the creation of this vast literature, authors adopted the meaning of existing Latin words or invented new ones, e.g, bombarda (“cannon”), providing us with much of the vocabulary necessary to speak about the modern world while still keeping with the chain of Latin lexical development over the centuries.
Usually, the lack of words to describe modern phenomena is not really a great problem. For the common areas of conversation in Latin, e.g. language, literature, history, philosophy, as well as the perennial concerns of humans, such as love and friendship, the Latin vocabulary provided by the ancients as well as later authors is more than enough. Should the need arise to discuss something for which there is no Latin word, you can use circumlocutions, late words, or, like the Romans themselves, Ancient Greek words, or come up with a new word.
A much more common difficulty is rendering the modern words that have a rather vague passe-par-tout meaning e.g. “interesting” and “aspect”.
What about pronunciation?
We also need to address pronunciation; correctness in pronunciation is an entire science in itself, and we shall only briefly touch upon it.
One particularly recurring question is about the pronunciation of Latin. If there are no native speakers and, of course, no recordings of them speaking Latin, how can we know how they pronounced it? This requires a lengthy explanation, but to put it briefly, scholars have reconstructed what is deemed a probable pronunciation by analyzing a variety of evidence.
Important types of evidence used in this reconstruction are, for instance, the pronunciation of the modern languages sprung from Latin, ancient Roman writings about pronunciation, spelling in ancient graffiti and inscriptions, and how Latin words were written in other languages, e.g., in Greek. Using this information, scholars have reconstructed many aspects of what might have been the pronunciation of the 1st B.C. This restored pronunciation is referred to as the restored classical pronunciation. Some of its hallmarks are the hard C and the diphthongs ae and oe.
Suggested listening: Recordings of Latin texts in the restored classical pronunciation
Another aspect rarely taken into consideration is the vowel length. Latin of the classical period had long and short vowels, but few people who speak Latin try to use these. This is a shame since they are such an integral part of Latin—Latin poetry (and prose) is built on the interplay between short and long syllables, creating a wonderful rhythm, which the ancients praised highly.
However, even though I am a great enthusiast of using the restored classical pronunciation and rendering short and long vowels, pronunciation is a minor thing in the grand scheme of things. In the end, learning to speak Latin is a tool to understand Latin literature better, not to recreate the sound of everyday life in ancient Rome—even though that is very interesting.
Why speak Latin?
The last decade has seen a growth in interest in learning to speak Latin. The most common reason to learn this is to understand Latin better, to be able to read Latin texts with greater ease.
Others want to use Latin as an international language or speak for fun like constructed languages. These are rather few compared to those who want to use it as a didactic tool for Latin studies.
Many, myself included, speak Latin for didactic purposes: first, using Latin while teaching makes learning the language much easier and more engaging for students; second, knowing how to express yourself in Latin makes understanding written Latin immensely easier—when virtually every word and construction you read in a classical text is something you’d use every day in class, or with friends—you can start to read Latin as Latin rather than translating it to understand.
If you are comfortable expressing yourself in Latin, especially if your speech is closely modeled on the type of Latin you will read, it will make reading the source texts feel very familiar and much easier.
Many schools and universities have realized that teaching Latin using the language itself in class is very effective and enjoyable for students, leading to better results and lower dropout rates.
I saw an almost non-existing drop-off rate for students when I gave a course in spoken Latin at Stockholm University.
In the summer, many schools in Europe and the US in particular offer immersion courses in Latin, where people spend a week or more speaking only Latin and reading Latin literature.
Suggested reading: How to choose the best Latin immersion course
So, now you know: it is possible to speak Latin, and very well too, but only in a form based on the literary works of classical and later authors. A Roman who heard even the best Latin speakers would probably think they spoke quite oddly, or at the very least, very, very bookishly. But hey, books are great.