Latin language, St. Peter's Basilica


Ave – Welcome

Latin (lingua latina) is a member of the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family. Italic speakers were not native to Italy. They migrated to the Italian Peninsula in the 2nd millennium BC. Before their arrival, Italy was populated by Etruscans, a non-Indo-European-speaking people, in the north, and by Greeks in the south. Latin developed in west-central Italy in an area along the River Tiber known as Latium, which became the birthplace of the Roman civilization. As Rome extended its political power over the Italian Peninsula, Latin become dominant over the other Italic languages, such as Oscan and Umbrian which ceased to be spoken sometime in the 1st century AD.

Roman Empire mapThe expansion of the Roman Empire also spread Latin throughout the territories occupied by the Romans who spoke Vulgar Latin, a colloquial variety of the language spoken by Roman citizens. Vulgar Latin was a language of wider communication but it was not a standardized written language like Classical Latin, a standardized form of the language used for all written communication. Vulgar Latin varied across the territories occupied by the Romans, depending on a variety of factors, including the influence of local languages. As the Roman Empire disintegrated and communication with Rome declined, regional forms of Vulgar Latin diverged more and more from the classical norms in structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation. They became less and less mutually intelligible, and by the 9th century developed into separate Romance languages, as we know them today.

As Vulgar Latin continued to evolve, Classical Latin continued mostly unchanged in somewhat standardized form throughout the Middle Ages as the written language of religion and scholarship. As such, it has had a profound effect on all Western European languages.



Even though it is no longer spoken today, Latin has exerted a major influence on many living languages, serving as the lingua franca of the Western world for over a thousand years. Most modern Western Indo-European languages have directly or indirectly borrowed words from Latin, which still has limited use in academia, medicine, science, and law. The study of Classical Latin language and literature is part of the curriculum in schools and universities in many countries. The works of Roman writers and poets, such as Ovid and Virgil are widely studied throughout the world.

The Catholic Church used Latin as its primary liturgical language until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) after which it was largely replaced by the local spoken languages of the parishioners. However, Ecclesiastical Latin, also known as Church Latin, is used in documents of the Roman Catholic Church and in its Latin liturgies. Ecclesiastical Latin does not differ greatly from Classical Latin.



No data exists on different dialects of Latin as it was spoken.




Sound system

Since Latin has no living native speakers, the reconstruction of its sound system has to be somewhat conjectural. The most valuable source for reconstructing Latin phonology was its spelling. Today, there are as many pronunciations of Latin as there are languages whose speakers have learned Latin. In most cases, Latin pronunciation is based on the sound system of the speaker’s native language. The sound system presented below is that of Classical Latin.



Latin had five short and five long vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate word meaning. Vowel length made a difference in word meaning. There were five diphthongs: /ae, oe, ui, au, eu/. Vulgar Latin had seven vowels with vowel length being associated with stress.

  • /i/ = beet
  • /e/ = bait
  • /a/ = bat (some dialects)
  • /u/ = boot
  • /o/ = boat



Latin has a fairly uncomplicated system of consonants.

Stops voiceless
Fricatives voiceless
Lateral approximant
Trill or flap



Stress in Latin words falls on the penultimate, i.e., next to the last, syllable. If the penultimate syllable is short, stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable.



Latin grammar has retained many features of Proto-Indo-European, particularly in its noun declensions.


Nouns, pronouns, adjectives

Nominal inflections are fusional, i.e., one ending represents a fusion of case, number, and gender. Latin nouns are characterized by the following:

  • three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter which cannot be determined from the shape of the noun; sex of animate nouns is marked by gender of the adjective; inanimate nouns are assigned to all three genders;
  • two numbers: singular and plural;
  • seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, locative, and vocative;
  • 6 nominal declensions;
  • pronouns and adjectives agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number, and case;



Verb endings fuse tense, aspect, mood, number, person, and voice.


Word order

The normal word order in Latin is Subject-Object-Verb. However, other word orders are used to mark sentence topic and for emphasis because inflections clearly indicate the role of words in sentences.



Latin vocabulary is mostly Italic in origin, however, some frequent Latin words have no Italic etymology, e.g., mulier ‘woman’, bonus ‘good’. Latin shares only between 25%-35% percent of its basic vocabulary with such languages as Gothic, Vedic Sanskrit, old Irish, and Old Armenian, showing that there was a long period of separation between Latin and the rest of these classical languages.

Latin has borrowed words from many sources. Prominent among those sources is Greek which provided many religious terms. Various Germanic languages spoken by the Germanic tribes who invaded western Europe were also major sources of new words. In addition, Classical Latin borrowed words from Vulgar Latin which, in turn, borrowed words from the local languages. Important sources of vocabulary-building in Latin were prefixation and suffixation.

Blow are a few basic words and phrases in Latin.

Hello, greetings Salve
Goodbye Vale
Thank you. Gratias
Man Vir
Woman Femina


Below are Latin numerals 1-10.




The true developers of the Latin alphabet were the Etruscans who dominated the Italian peninsula in pre-Roman times. They adapted the early Greek alphabet for writing their language. The Romans took over the Etruscan alphabet for writing their own language. They originally took 21 of the Greek and Etruscan letters to represent the sounds of their own languages.

  • The Roman alphabet for Latin consisted of 23 letters which are given below.
  • The early Roman alphabet had only uppercase letters. Lowercase letters evolved from the capitals in several stages, as shown below for the letter A.alpha
  • The Greek letters upsilon (Y) and zeta (Z), unnecessary in early Latin, were dropped. However, since the Romans borrowed many words from Greek, they re-instituted the letters Y and Z for spelling Greek words they had borrowed, and added them to the end of the alphabet.
  • The letters J and U appeared in writing as variants of I and V in the Middle Ages, and acquired the status of separate letters during the Renaissance.In northern Europe a two-letter sequence of VV or UU became fused into the new letter W, providing the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet.


Most of the people conquered by Rome had unwritten languages. With the spread of Christianity into the areas where these languages were spoken, came the need to translate the Bible into the local vernaculars. This, in turn, required the adaptation of the Roman alphabet to represent these languages.

There are two different versions of Latin orthography, one for Classical Latin and another for Ecclesiastical Latin. The latter is based on the medieval standard pronunciation of Latin by Italian speakers, as preserved by the Catholic Church.

Take a look at the text of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Latin.

Declarationem hominis iurium universam
Omnes homines dignitate et iure liberi et pares nascuntur, rationis et conscientiae participes sunt, quibus inter se concordiae studio est agendum.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Did You Know?

Latin words in English

Many English words and word parts can be traced back to Latin. A full list may run into tens of thousands. Below are just a few examples of Latin influence on English vocabulary.

Latin roots, words, and phrases in English

From Latin
-dict- dicere ‘speak, tell, say’ in dictate, dictionary, predict, contradict,
-ject- jacere ‘to throw’ in eject, reject, project, inject
-pend- pendere ‘to hang’ in pendulum, pendant, depend, impend
-script/scribe- scribere ‘to write’ in scribe, describe, inscribe, prescribe
-port- portare ‘to carry’ in deport, import, comport, transport
-vert- vertere ‘to turn’ in revert, invert, convert, divert
audio ‘I hear,’ 1st person singular present indicative of audire ‘to hear’
video ‘I see,’ 1st person singular present indicative of videre ‘to see’
veto ‘I forbid,’ 1st person singular present indicative of vetare ‘to forbid,’
circa circa ‘about’
a posteriori ‘from the latter’, the reverse of a priori
a priori ‘from the former’, presupposed, the reverse of a posteriori
ad hoc ‘For this’, i.e. improvised, made up on the spot
ad infinitum ‘To infinity’, going on forever
alma mater ‘Nourishing mother’, term used for the university one attends/has attended
alter ego ‘Another I’, a pseudonym or a close associate who always acts on one’s behalf.
Anno Domini ‘In the year of the lord’ indicates a year counted from the traditional date of birth of Jesus; also called the Common Era (C.E.)
ante meridiem (am) ‘Before noon’, in the period from midnight to noon
bona fide ‘In good faith’
cum laude ‘With honors’
curriculum vitae ‘Course of life’
de facto ‘In fact’
et cetera (etc.) ‘And the rest’
habeas corpus ‘You must have the body’
in absentia ‘in the absence’
in memoriam ‘in memory of’
in vitro ‘in glass’
mea culpa ‘my fault’
modus operandi (M.O.) ‘Way of working’
non sequitur ‘It does not follow’
per annum ‘Per year’
per se ‘By itself’ or ‘in itself’, i.e., without referring to anything else,
pro bono (publico) ‘For the (public) good’
pro rata ‘For the rate’, e.g., per hour
quid pro quo ‘A thing for a thing’, i.e., a favor for a favor
rara avis ‘A rare bird’, i.e., an extraodinary or unusual thing
status quo (ante) ‘The state that was (before)’, the status of affairs or situation prior to some upsetting event
sub poena (subpoena) ‘Under penalty’ of a request (usually by a court) that must be complied to on pain of punishment
tabula rasa ‘Scraped tablet’, i.e., ‘a blank slate’
vice versa ‘With places exchanged’, i.e., ‘in reverse order’, ‘conversely’



Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Latin?
There is no data on the difficulty of Latin for speakers of English.