Why Study Latin?

The History of the Latin Language

Latin and English

Latin at CSU Sacramento

Why study Latin?

Why study the Latin language and the city of Rome rather than a modern language and a contemporary nation? Because no other language and no other city have had so much influence--and for so long a time--on our own culture. Students of ancient, medieval, or early modern history should be able to study the original Latin documents, many of which (archives, local histories, inscriptions) have not been translated; students of English literature should be familiar with the ancient authors who were used either as models or objects of emulation by the great English writers of earlier ages; students of philosophy or religion should be familiar with the Latin sources in their fields. Even if you are not a student of History, English or Philosophy, but are simply curious about Latin or are trying to complete the CSUS foreign language requirement, you can still benefit from a study of Latin. This study will enlarge your English vocabulary, increase your knowledge of the world, and show you how another culture viewed reality. All students can benefit from a study of the Latin language.

The History of the Latin Language

More than 2700 years ago, Rome was an insignificant settlement on the Tiber River in a central district of Italy called Latium. From small beginnings, the military, political, and cultural power of Rome spread, first to the rest of Italy, then throughout the Mediterranean. By the second century after Christ, the Romans dominated all of Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. Roman writers such as Vergil, Horace, Livy, and Cicero became models of literary excellence for all succeeding generations. Later writers, even if they did not write in Latin themselves, were inspired by the literature of the Romans. In English literature Milton (who also wrote in Latin), Pope, and T. S. Eliot, in Spanish Góngora, and in Italian Dante (whose prose works are all in Latin) are all examples of writers who were influenced by Latin literature.

The Romans' language, Latin, came to be used everywhere, largely displacing the native languages of France, Spain, the Balkans, North Africa, and parts of western Asia. (Only Greek resisted the inroads of Latin and remained the common and official language of Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Levant until the Arab conquest of 700 A.D. Greek survived as the language of the Byzantine Empire until the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.) But in the rest of the empire Latin prevailed, and the modern languages of Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, and Romania, all called Romance languages, are the living descendants of the Latin spoken by the Romans who conquered and colonized these lands.

Latin survived the fall of the Roman Empire. As the centuries passed, Latin continued to be the international language of all educated men and women, living a parallel existence with the different national languages, such as Spanish or French, which were growing beside it. The sole language of the Catholic Church was Latin; all scholarly, historical, or scientific work was written in Latin. When the Middle Ages ended, interest in classical Latin as a means of artistic and literary expression grew. This period (approx. 1200-1400) is called the Renaissance, the "rebirth" of the ancient world and at the same time a transition to the modern world. During and after the Renaissance, Latin was transplanted to the Western Hemisphere. Even today, the people of Mexico, Central America, and South America are called Latins or latinos.

Latin continued in common use until the 18th century. Some examples:

Latin and English

What about Latin's influence on English, which is not a Romance language? Because Latin was the usual language for any scholarly, legal, or scientific activity, and because English (unlike, for example, French) has no qualms about borrowing words from other languages, English speakers borrowed Latin words wholesale. About one-half of the words in modern English have been borrowed from Latin. Many of these are in everyday use: parent, accuse, wine, liberty; others are less common, such as obdurate, equanimity, impecunious, but these too should be part of an educated person's vocabulary--and may well appear on the SAT! The meaning of such words is transparent to a student of Latin.

Even more than the improvement in vocabulary which most students experience, the best reason for studying Latin and the Romans is that you will enter a new and different world which can tell you much about your own and will help to educate you, for understanding the past is a major part of being educated. As the famous Roman orator Cicero said, "Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child." By observing Roman values, attitudes, and behavior and by comparing them to our own, you can come to know another way of seeing reality and can broaden your experience.

Latin at CSU Sacramento.

For current offerings in Latin, consult the office of the Department of Foreign Languages www.csus.edu/fl.

Some Latin resources on the WWW.