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Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

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:

  1. How can we know how to speak Latin?
  2. What Latin do peo­ple speak?
  3. What is cor­rect Latin, and how cor­rect Latin can we speak?
  4. Is it pos­si­ble to speak Latin fluently?
  5. What about pronunciation?
  6. What about new vocabulary?
  7. Why speak Latin?
Tibul­lus at Deli­a’s house, by Lawrence Alma-Tade­ma, 1866.

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.

Wood writing tablet from Vindolanda with a party invitation written in ink, in two hands, from Claudia Severa to Lepidina.
Vin­dolan­da tablet 291 with a par­ty invi­ta­tion writ­ten in ink, in two hands, from Clau­dia Sev­era to Lepidina.

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.

A 3rd-century Tunisian mosaic of Virgil seated between the muses Clio and Melpomene.
A 3rd-cen­tu­ry Tunisian (from Hadrume­tum) mosa­ic of Vir­gil seat­ed between the mus­es Clio and Melpomene. Bar­do Nation­al Museum.

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.

What Latin do people speak?

It depends on the pur­pose of speak­ing Latin. 

White marble statue of a veiled vestal, by Raffaelle Monti, 1847.
The Veiled Vestal, by Raf­faelle Mon­ti, 1847.

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.

Copper engraving print of Saint Jerome in his study accompanied by his dog and his lion. By Albrecht Dürer, 1514.
Saint Jerome in his study, or, Hierony­mus im Gehäus, by Albrecht Dür­er 1514.

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. 

Daniel as a talk­ing book?

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. 

Image of arms showing blood vessels to demonstrate how the valves and arteries are interconnected and how the valves in the veins allow blood to flow back toward the heart, from Wiliam Harvey's “Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus”, 1628.
Image of arms show­ing blood ves­sels to demon­strate how the valves and arter­ies are inter­con­nect­ed and how the valves in the veins allow blood to flow back toward the heart, from William Harvey’s Exerci­ta­tio anatom­i­ca de motu cordis et san­gui­nis in ani­mal­ibus, 1628.

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.

Group of Latin student in talking in a circle on a porch.

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.

Daniel Pettersson

Daniel Pettersson

Teacher and author Daniel Pettersson, M.A., is co-founder of Latinitium and is currently teaching Latin at Stockholm University, where he is also working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Humanist Colloquia. Daniel believes in the importance of Latin literature in the modern world and that you can teach yourself Latin with the right motivation, method, and material.
Written by Daniel Pettersson

Written by Daniel Pettersson

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