History and Literature

The Ancient Language of Learning and Science

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


Writ­ten by Hans Aili, Pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Latin, Stock­holm University.

Pos­sess­ing a com­pen­dious knowl­edge of the phys­i­cal world was eas­i­er in the old days than it is today. Not so very long ago, all human knowl­edge could be housed with­in the brain of one sin­gle human being. All this knowl­edge, more­over, was expressed in one sin­gle language. 

It is true that a great deal of this ancient fund of knowl­edge has since been proved faulty and that we have nowa­days pro­gressed much fur­ther along the path of sci­ence. This does not change the sim­ple fact that Sci­ence pos­sessed this sin­gle, all-embrac­ing lan­guage capa­ble of express­ing every­thing, in prose as well as in poet­ry, and that all bud­ding sci­en­tists learned this lan­guage from first grade at school, read it, wrote in it, gain­ing famil­iar­i­ty and flu­en­cy until they could use it in con­ver­sa­tion and cor­re­spon­dence with all the oth­ers who had pro­gressed along the same road – and that meant every man and woman of cul­ture and learn­ing from the whole of Europe and most of the world, irre­spec­tive of their nation­al­i­ty – Ger­man, Ital­ian, French­man, Eng­lish­man, Scot or Swede (and many others).

This lan­guage was Latin, which, besides its own vocab­u­lary, pos­sessed a rich hoard of words, culled from the Greek and trans­formed to fit their new environment.

A state­ment like this is true but restrict­ed by one impor­tant fac­tor: Latin was a lan­guage of writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture. When spo­ken and heard, it offered unex­pect­ed pit­falls. When the Swedish nat­u­ral­ist, Carl Lin­naeus, vis­it­ed Eng­land in the mid­dle of the 1730s, he met and con­versed with Sir Hans Sloane and oth­er illu­mi­nar­ies of the Roy­al Soci­ety, but com­plained after­wards that Sir Hans did not know Latin. Lin­naeus, for his part, had no Eng­lish. His reac­tion was almost cer­tain­ly wrong – it is not very like­ly that Sloane’s Latin was defi­cient. The real prob­lem prob­a­bly was that Latin is pro­nounced in one way in Eng­land and in quite a dif­fer­ent way in Swe­den. Every mod­ern nation has its own rules for pro­nounc­ing Latin, and when we speak Latin, each accord­ing to our own nation­al rules, we find every­body else impos­si­ble to under­stand, at the best, or incred­i­bly fun­ny, at the worst. And they, of course, think the same about us!

Lin­naeus, how­ev­er, lived dur­ing a peri­od that strad­dled a great divid­ing line in time: after the year 1750 the ver­nac­u­lar lan­guages (Eng­lish, French, Ger­man, Ital­ian, Por­tuguese, and Span­ish, and all oth­ers) start­ed an irrev­o­ca­ble process where­by they took over as the lan­guages of Sci­ence and Learn­ing. The med­ical pro­fes­sion resist­ed longest – it is easy to find dis­ser­ta­tions in Med­i­cine, writ­ten in Latin, and dat­ing from the mid­dle of the 1800s. For the med­ical pro­fes­sion, it was very impor­tant to pos­sess one, sin­gle, well-devel­oped and shared lan­guage, and to give up this pos­ses­sion and receive four or five still not ful­ly devel­oped lan­guages in its place was no very great improve­ment. But progress moves for­wards, as we say, and after a short bout in the 1950s, when Latin with­out Inflec­tions, gen­er­al­ly called Inter­lin­gua, was tried out as a lan­guage of con­fer­ences, Eng­lish stepped in to take over as the inter­na­tion­al lan­guage of Science.

But we are still fac­ing the fact that a very large pro­por­tion of the works of Sci­ence and Med­i­cine pub­lished before 1750 were writ­ten in Latin. Any­one wish­ing to study the his­to­ry of Sci­ence will find that year to be a lin­guis­tic divid­ing line, an iron cur­tain that only deter­mined stud­ies in Latin will help you to raise. We may add anoth­er com­pli­ca­tion: the sci­en­tists of that time wrote a Latin that had been devel­oped and brought to per­fec­tion in the last cen­tu­ry before Christ. The names of these cre­ative inno­va­tors and lit­er­ary genius­es are, Cae­sar, Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Livy, and many oth­ers. They did not write about sci­ence but about war, they made speech­es on pol­i­tics and legal mat­ters, wrote learned tomes on his­to­ry and poet­ry about Love or the great­ness of Rome. The sci­en­tists of the 16th, 17th, and 18th cen­turies imi­tat­ed their lan­guage, to the best of their abil­i­ty, but added new words and new thoughts. They still loved and imi­tat­ed the com­pli­cat­ed gram­mar and bril­liant style of the ancients, and this com­bined imi­ta­tion and inno­va­tion makes mod­ern Latin of Sci­ence both dif­fi­cult and charming.

It is easy to illus­trate this. Maps offer excel­lent exam­ples. The geo­g­ra­phers of the ear­ly mod­ern world found the shape of the plan­et Earth an intrigu­ing sub­ject for study, and they formed many con­flict­ing the­o­ries. Abra­ham Ortelius (1527–1598) was a Flem­ish car­tog­ra­ph­er who pro­duced a line of maps of the world, among which we note one that he called Typus orbis ter­rarum (Image of the World):

This map rep­re­sents his the­o­ry on the shapes of the con­ti­nents and the names and loca­tions of oceans, land mass­es, rivers, and towns. Its cap­tions form a mix­ture of dif­fer­ent lan­guages: the large for­ma­tions have Latin names, small­er items bear names giv­en by the explor­ers, who were most­ly Span­ish and Por­tuguese. Adi­tion­al­ly, he offers more spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion, and this is always in Latin. He recog­nis­es his debt to the ancient mas­ters by adding at the bot­tom a quote from one of them:

Quid ei potest videri mag­num in rebus huma­n­is, cui aeter­ni­tas omnis totiusque mun­di nota sit mag­ni­tu­do (”What, among things human, might appear large to one who knows the whole of eter­ni­ty and the size of the whole world”), a bon mot by Cicero, Tus­cu­lanae dis­pu­ta­tiones 4,37 – Ortelius is not word per­fect but the sense is the same as Cicero’s; I use a Latin spelling that is nor­mal today).

In the mid­dle of the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent Ortelieus puts a note: AMERICA SIVE INDIA NOVA. Anno 1692 a Christophoro Colom­bo nomine reg­is Castel­lae pri­mum detec­ta (Amer­i­ca, or New India. First dis­cov­ered in the year 1692 by Christo­pher Colum­bus in the name of the King of Castilia).

One geo­graph­i­cal point, still unde­cid­ed at that time, is not­ed: Nova Guinea nuper inven­ta, quae an sit insu­la an pars con­ti­nen­tis Aus­tralis incer­tum est (New Guinea, recent­ly dis­cov­ered; whether this is an island or a part of the South­ern con­ti­nent is not cer­tain). Along the length of this entire con­ti­nent he com­ments: Ter­ra Aus­tralis non­dum cog­ni­ta (The South­ern Land, not yet known).

A ques­tion of name is intro­duced: Hanc con­ti­nen­tem Aus­tralem, non­nul­li Mag­el­lani­cam regionem ab eius inven­tore nun­cu­pant (This South­ern con­ti­nent is called by some, The Mag­el­lan Region, after its discoverer).

He also offers a zoo­log­i­cal obser­va­tion on ani­mals in the Antarc­tic: Psit­ta­co­rum regio, sic a Lusi­ta­nis appel­la­ta ob incred­i­bile earum avi­um ibi­dem mag­ni­tudinem (The region of the Par­rots, thus named by the Por­tuguese because of the incred­i­ble size of these birds there). 

At the extreme right-hand low­er cor­ner the con­ti­nent bor­der­ing on the South Pole is award­ed a com­ment: Vastis­si­mas hic esse regiones ex M. Pauli Veneti et Lud. Var­toman­ni scrip­tis pere­gri­na­tion­ibus con­stat (That these lands are enor­mous­ly large is known thanks to the wan­der­ings of Mar­co Polo of Venice and Lodovi­co de Varthemas).

These pieces of infor­ma­tion are, per­haps, not so very deep, but rather charm­ing – not least the fact that the Por­tuguese con­sid­ered the pen­guins to be vari­ants of the par­rots. But unless you know Latin, this infor­ma­tion will escape your atten­tion entirely.

A per­son­al note might be of inter­est here: my inter­est in Latin as a source lan­guage for the his­to­ry of Sci­ence was aroused by the request of a col­league, who had no Latin, but wished me to take a look at two 17th cen­tu­ry aca­d­e­m­ic trea­tis­es pub­lished at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Upp­sala, Swe­den: Jonas Loc­naeus, Murus Sinen­sis (The Chi­nese Wall) of 1694 and Eric Roland, De mag­no Sinarum impe­rio (On the Great Empire of the Chi­nese) of 1697. I was award­ed the chance of pre­sent­ing this work at two con­fer­ences held at Fudan Uni­ver­si­ty of Shang­hai. The theme of the sec­ond con­fer­ence, held in 2008, was The His­to­ry of Geog­ra­phy. The organ­is­ers, wish­ing to illus­trate the his­tor­i­cal and inter­na­tion­al aspect of this sub­ject had tak­en an old map of South-East Asia and repro­duced it in two ways, as a back­drop to the pan­el and as a dec­o­ra­tion on the tote bags giv­en to the par­tic­i­pants. The map is drawn in a fash­ion that puts North point­ing to the left, and the East point­ing upwards. 

Just as Ortelius’s map, this one offers us names of geo­graph­i­cal fea­tures and points of inter­est , all in Latin. 

One small notice inter­est­ed me par­tic­u­lar­ly. It tells the his­to­ry of a lake, some­where on the bor­der between Bur­ma and Siam. It appears on the close-up pic­ture above:

Lacus hic rotun­dus in San­cij provin­cia, fac­tus fuit inun­da­tione Anno 1557, in qua sub­m­er­sae sunt civ­i­tates septem, praeter oppidu­la et pagos, et mor­tal­i­um ingen­tem numerum uno tan­tum puero in trun­co arboris ser­va­to (This round lake in the province of Guanxi was cre­at­ed by an inun­da­tion in the year 1557, and there sev­en cities were drowned besides towns and vil­lages, includ­ing an enor­mous num­ber of humans, the one sin­gle sur­vivor being a boy rid­ing on a tree-trunk).

The par­tic­i­pants were Chi­nese almost to a man, and none of them had any Latin. Inter­pret­ing this map with­out this knowl­edge must have been very frustrating…

To con­clude – being able to read Latin will help you dif­fuse the fog that start­ed to sep­a­rate the sci­en­tists of the late 18th cen­tu­ry from those of the 17th cen­tu­ry and earlier.

You do not require a per­fect knowl­edge of the Latin word end­ings and the rules of Latin syn­tax in order to enjoy the mean­ing of its vocab­u­lary. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true when it comes to the Latin used by the med­ical pro­fes­sion. They some­times use sin­gle words to cov­er up uncom­fort­able state­ments: ”The prog­no­sis is infaust” – a phrase I observed in a hand­book of the 1930s – means that the patient’s fam­i­ly might as well order a cof­fin at once. This usage of Latin, as the secret lan­guage of a pro­fes­sion­al group, was well estab­lished even in the Mid­dle Ages, when priests could talk to each oth­er on things like the prob­lems of faith and dog­ma or sex, that they thought too sen­si­tive for laymen.

The med­ical pro­fes­sion has, indeed, a great respect for Latin­ists, see­ing that their entire vocab­u­lary of tech­ni­cal terms is built on this foun­da­tion. But Med­ical Latin is in real­i­ty two lan­guages: the words nam­ing body parts and organs (Anato­my) is in Latin, those nam­ing dis­eases (Pathol­o­gy) are in ori­gin Greek words that have been giv­en a Latin spelling.

In Clas­si­cal Antiq­ui­ty, the med­ical men knew and named a lot of human organs, but these were main­ly those you can see with­out dis­sect­ing a body. These well-known organs had every­day names of very ancient ori­gins, such as caput (head), auris (ear), nasus (nose), os (mouth). When anatomists start­ed open­ing up the human body, they found lots of new things to name. In order to facil­i­tate learn­ing, they adopt­ed a tech­nique of equat­ing the organ they saw with things they knew from nature. Look­ing at an arm (or open­ing up an arm) they saw, for instance,  things that looked like lit­tle mice, writhing under the skin, and called them mus­cu­lus (lit­tle mouse); open­ing the skull, they saw fea­tures look­ing like the fur­rows of a plough, call­ing them sul­cus; an open­ing that looked like a drill hole was a fora­men. These names are thus metaphors and describe by com­par­i­son instead of just point­ing out with an indi­vid­ual name (deic­tic words).

The Latin used by sci­en­tists and med­ical peo­ple is best described by a metaphor: it is a high wall hid­ing a secret gar­den. Unless sci­en­tists have stud­ied Latin, they have no good way of look­ing into this enchant­ed world, for sur­pris­ing­ly few of the cen­tral sci­en­tif­ic works have been trans­lat­ed into the ver­nac­u­lar. William Har­vey (1578–1657) in 1653 pub­lished a work enti­tled Guiliel­mi Harveii Exerci­ta­tiones anatom­i­cae de motu cordis et san­gui­nis cir­cu­la­tione (William Harvey’s Anatom­i­cal Trea­tise on the Move­ment of the Heart and the Cir­cu­la­tion of Blood). It offers proof, for the first time, that the blood does, indeed, cir­cu­late in the body, hav­ing been set in motion by the heart. It was trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish only in 1957!

The Latin­ists, hav­ing learnt to climb the wall hid­ing this enchant­ed gar­den, are in the oppo­site posi­tion: they are able to look into the gar­den but are sur­pris­ing­ly indif­fer­ent to the won­ders con­tained therein.

This is a sit­u­a­tion that mer­its a new way of thinking!

Hans Aili

Hans Aili

Hans Aili is Professor Emeritus of Latin (Stockholm University, Sweden). His research has focused on three principal areas: stylistics of Classical Latin Prose (The Prose Rhythm of Sallust and Livy (1979)), Swedish medieval Latin (Sanctae Birgittae Revelationes (IV 1992, VIII 2002)), and Swedish Neo-Latin literature, especially war-time propaganda poetry and, scientific writings.
Written by Hans Aili

Written by Hans Aili

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