Latin is in a sense a dead language, and in at least two other senses a living one. It’s a dead language in the sense that any children today growing up speaking Latin as their only first language are likely either to be subject to questionable parenting or have parents who have ended up speaking Latin to each other due to not being fluent in each others’ languages. There are a few people who speak Sanskrit, and a few more who speak Esperanto, as a first language, so it’s conceivable that there’s a teensy number who speak Latin that way too. I’m not one to judge such parenting decisions, but even so I’d hope that people who do opt to bring up their children speaking Latin at least make the additional decision to make them bilingual. Judging by my own experience in bringing children up speaking languages other than the dominant ones in their community, English is the language, French and Spanish (not so much Castilian) are also spoken by people around them, but German was just this funny noise I made at them which didn’t really catch on, except that it’s alleged that our daughter does speak German in her sleep.
But how is Latin alive? In at least two ways, as I said. Firstly, looking at the map above, most of the western half of the continental Eurasian portion of it still more or less speaks Latin. Every generation would have understood what the previous one was saying all the way back to the point where they would’ve been speaking Latin, or a dialect of it, at the time represented by this map, which is CCXVII ANNO DOMINI, or DCCCLXX ANNO URBIS CONDITÆ. The kind of prescriptive “correction” of pronunciation and grammar rife in probably most human communities would’ve been going on back then. In Italia and Dacia, parents would’ve been having a go at their kids for pronouncing C as “ch” before E and I or missing the S or M off certain words, and in Hispania perhaps complaining about this new trend of saying “you will be” instead of “you are”. Then eventually they would’ve given up and died, and only the church people and nobles would have noticed anything unusual about the language they were using, until eventually they were calling their languages Italiano, Português, Castellano, Français, Català, limba română and so on (not sure about capitalisation here), and couldn’t understand Latin very well at all.
Latin, though, was and is still alive. It’s still spoken fluently, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church and much Latin terminology is used in technical discourse. I always write prescriptions in Latin and British herbalists communicate with each other in the likes of Italy and Czechia in Latin. I’ve done so myself, although my attempt at talking to a herbalist in Rome using Latin didn’t work at all. I can look into the back garden and see Euphorbia helioscopia and Fragaria vesca aplenty, and don’t even bother to think what they might be called in English most of the time. The first of these, of course, is Latinised Greek and therefore possibly a poor choice but the point is I do this, as do many others, and this is the legacy of the Roman Empire.
However, the question I want to ask here is this: what would Latin be like today if it had continued to be a vernacular language? Ecclesiastical Latin survived of course, but that has some peculiar features such as the palatisation of C and G before E and I (to “ch” and “j” sounds) which even now one Romance language at least, Sardinian, doesn’t always have. This form of Latin probably doesn’t represent how it would be today as a widely spoken language as it is formally taught and frozen in some ways, although it adopts modern vocabulary such as helicopterus. It also ignores the difference between long and short vowels. Classical Latin had five long and five short vowels and some of the diphthongs, including Æ, AV and Œ, had already become single vowels by the Augustan period from which today’s academic pronunciation is derived. This was from 710 to 771 AUC, the period during which Jesus was born and ending maybe a decade before he was killed. The vowels of Latin, however, didn’t undergo this particular type of merging because the formerly long and short vowels, although they became levelled in length, also changed pronunciation while they were doing so and therefore remained distinct.
The question arises, though, of how these circumstances might arrive. It really amounts to the Empire not falling, and in order to imagine how it might persist one has to have some idea of why it fell in the first place. I personally think it was a combination of the adoption of Christianity and some kind of issue related to physical resources such as the need to continue to conquer land to retrieve food over increasing distances until it was no longer possible to transport them economically, but I’m no historian. The question also arises of what kind of world we’d be living in now if this had happened. For instance, would slavery still exist and would the Empire have continued to expand? For the sake of simplicity, I want to assume the following state of affairs:
- The Empire didn’t split in half after the death of Theodosius I in 395 CE (1148 AUC). This could mean the eastern Empire was less dominated by Greek, and the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453 CE.
- Christianity was not adopted. Perhaps it just didn’t exist.
- Slavery was abolished in any event fairly early. This is because without that, technological progress would be much slower since there would be no direct connection between the experience of people working in particular industries and “thinkers” who could pass on what they learnt from their work, and there would be more motivation to invent labour-saving devices. This would give the Empire technological and therefore military superiority over their neighbours and strengthen its prowess in the long term.
- The Empire eventually became global and there is a single state, the world ruled from Rome.
I am aware that all of this might not result in a particularly marvellous world order but I also think this world, with no European Dark or Middle Ages and the continuing innovation of the Greek part of the Imperium, would be many centuries ahead of our own technologically. I’m going to conjecture that slavery was abolished in about the year 500 CE, followed by an industrial revolution in about 600, leading to a twentieth century level of technology by 800, meaning that there would be weapons of mass destruction and the conquest of the entire planet around then. By today, Rome would have dominated the world for twelve centuries. Note that this may very well not be a utopia, although it’s worth asking whether it’s even possible for a society like this to exist without being a utopia because I am confident that anything other than a utopia-like civilisation could exist for long and still be industrialised, so I imagine that of necessity such a world would perhaps have begun as an oppressive régime, but ceased to be so after a fairly short period of time, perhaps because the level of education required is incompatible with maintaining that level of technology. All of this is interesting and worth exploring in itself, but for now I simply present you with the global official language of the 28th century AUC.
Today’s Romance languages are descended from Vulgar Latin. For example, the Castilian words calle, casa and caballo now mean “street”, “house” and “horse”, but originally meant “dirt track”, “hut” and “nag”, or rather they descend from such words. If the Empire had survived, it seems likely that some of the prestige register would have continued and the words via, domus and equus would have been the source of the modern words. In some cases these have survived anyway in some form. Italian still calls roads “via” and the Castilian word for “mare” is yegua. Domus, on the other hand, seems to have died out. Similarly, the French for “head”, tête, originally meant “pot”, but caput survives in the Castilian cabeza, and also in the French chef, where however it doesn’t mean “head” in the literal sense. Hence one major feature of 28th century Latin to my mind would probably be that the vocabulary was taken from classical rather than vulgar sources, although there would probably have been some infiltration from the lower classes, particularly if the society it was spoken in had become more egalitarian. On that matter, would there now be a communist society in which it had become routine for people to refer to each other by a word translatable as “comrade”, such as “amica”?
The purest Latin in the real Empire was said to be spoken in what is now the south of France. This may be surprising, but it was probably due to the fact that the other Italic languages, related to Latin but not descended from it, had been spoken in the rest of the Italian peninsula and influenced the way it was spoken there. Centuries later, it was agreed that the most accurate Latin was spoken in Britain, and this was because the first language spoken by the peasants here was not closely related to it and therefore didn’t influence it. In general, the further one went from Rome, the more divergent the Latin was, with the proviso that in Italy itself the language was somewhat different from the standard upper class register. One of the features of the Roman dialect of Latin was that it seems to have changed L to I in some places, as for example with “fiore” in modern Italian rather than “flos”, becoming “*flore”. And this underlines the fact that Italian is not modern Latin. The chief differences from a kind of “central” standard include its distinctive double consonants and the fact that most words end in a vowel.
Now would be an appropriate point to highlight many of the differences of today’s Romance languages from classical Latin in the sense of being actual divergences from a standard which are not present in all cases:
Italian shows the influence of other Italic languages, such as “I” replacing “L”, which I seem to recall is from Faliscan. There’s also the so-called “Tuscan throat”, which is the tendency to change /k/ to a guttural fricative, said to be inherited from Etruscan, this being however a dialectal feature. Apart from that is the doubling of consonants and the use of vowels at the ends of most words. The general rhythm of the language is similar to that of Modern Greek and may also not be original.
Spanish, by which I mean all of Castilian, the other dialects of the Spanish part of the Iberian peninsula except for Catalan/Valencian and Gallego, and the language of first-language Spanish speakers of the Americas and other former parts of the Spanish Empire, is divergent in two major ways. Firstly, it has adopted a fair bit of Arabic vocabulary due to the Moors dominating the region for much of what would be considered the Dark and Middle Ages in much of the rest of Europe. Secondly, during the second Christian millennium it became phonetically quite divergent, particularly in Castille, where J came to be pronounced “kh”, C before front vowels and Z “th”, F became H and was eventually completely dropped and so forth. In non-Castilian dialects, C in those circumstances stayed as “s” but “LL” became “y” (I’m using English spelling conventions here rather than IPA). Spanish also uses the verbs “ser” and “estar” to express what appear to be mainly necessary and contingent states, and has personal “a” for the accusative, which as far as I know is unique, and uses “haber” to express the perfect but never an existential verb.
As far as Portuguese is concerned, and here I’m including non-European varieties again, there’s again considerable divergence in pronunciation, but the spelling is conservative, making the written language look closer to Italian and Latin than Spanish does. The most distinctive features of that pronunciation are the nasalisation of vowels, the contrast in pronunciation according to whether the syllable is stressed or not, which incidentally is also present in English, and the tendency to palatise, which gives it a superficially Slavic sound. Brazilian Portuguese, which is generally more conservative than European, also has a uvular R like the French one. N’s also get turned into M’s sometimes. As far as grammar is concerned, it uses “ter”, from the Latin “tenere”, meaning “to hold”, as an auxiliary verb for past tenses and has the unique feature of the personal infinitive, where personal endings are added to the infinitive in hypothetical situations. Portuguese and Spanish are the closest national languages to each other in the group, but Portuguese also shares features with Catalan which Spanish lacks. It and Romanian are the two least similar languages of the lot. I’m not sure about this, but I get the impression that Portuguese vocabulary is almost as pure as Italian’s.
This brings me to boring old French, and I know I’m being unfair here but its ubiquity in secondary schooling for an Englander of my generation lends it a patina of tedium. French is quite divergent because it descends from Latin spoken far from its native territory, which also suggests that the extinct British Romance language which vanished without trace after the Germanic invasions would have been “even more French”, since it was spoken on an island, but since it quickly died out it probably didn’t have much chance to change that much. French is probably the language whose pronunciation is both furthest from its spelling and classical Latin pronunciation, and the grammar is extremely simplified. It seems to have been influenced in two major ways. One is that it was spoken in a formerly Celtic-speaking area and although I’m not sure I think that its tendency to run words into each other and have them influence its pronunciation may date from that stage. The other is that the Franks, who spoke a Dutch-like language, also had a major hand in its form. For instance, the French vowels “eu”, “u” and “œ” are found in no other national Romance language but are common in Germanic ones. The other notable feature of French pronunciation apart from elision and liaison is nasalisation, which is accompanied with a vowel shift. Although nasalisation wasn’t as important an element in Latin, it did exist in words which ended in M, and therefore is in a sense a conservative feature.
Romanian is generally the most divergent language of the group but is also the most conservative grammatically. It’s the outlier for two reasons. Firstly, it borrowed a lot of vocabulary from eastern European sources, and secondly it’s part of the Balkan Sprachbund, entailing that it has unusual features such as a tendency to avoid the infinitive and having suffixed definite articles. Compared to its relatives, it’s closest to French and shares with French what appears to be an original tendency to have a slower rhythm than Italian and Spanish. It still has the grammatically neuter gender and case endings, and its verb conjugation also tends to be quite conservative, but is extremely irregular.
Romanian and French, although not close to each other, share a few features. Romanian seems to have borrowed a lot of French vocabulary, and French case endings fell into the same two cases as now exist in Romanian. There’s also the tendency to use schwa (the murmured final vowel in “Sparta”) and the general prosody of the languages. Some of these features are clearly radical but the rhythm and case endings clearly are not. Romanian also preserves the way the vowels changed from Latin in the Eastern Roman Empire and Sardinia, which is different from the rest of the group.
French, Spanish and Portuguese also form a kind of block with similar features, although of the three French is closer to Italian in certain characteristics, though not the ones found in Portuguese. These include the universal noun plurals in “-s”, and incidentally in “-x” in French, which is a spelling convention.
Catalan has the distinction of being the “most central” Romance tongue. It has more in common with the other languages than any of the others have with each other. There are two fairly striking features. One is that words have a tendency to be quite short, and the other is that there is an unusually large number of personal pronouns. Incidentally, it’s the most widely spoken language in Europe which is not the official tongue of any recognised state and has more speakers than a number of other languages which are official elsewhere. Being the “central” one, it may have the best claim to being today’s version of Latin.
There are a number of other languages in the group and also some extinct ones, some of which have vanished without trace. The most conservative of these is Sardinian, which however is also influenced by Catalan. It forms the definite article in a distinctive way, from “ipso”, the reflexive pronoun “itself”, unlike all the others which got it from “ille”, meaning approximately “that”. It also still pronounces C as “k” in all positions. It’s generally considered closest to Latin of all the Romance languages but does have influences from extinct sources which have altered it somewhat. It also does things no other language in the group does, such as changing initial V to F.
I’ll just mention Ladino in passing as I already went into it in some depth here. It has more conservative pronunciation than Spanish, which is because it split off before Spanish took its foray into weirdness. Ladino is kind of more “normal” than Spanish in that respect because it’s conservative.
There are several isolated Romance languages spoken in the Alps, mainly in Switzerland, including Ladin, Rumansh and Friulian. At a cursory listen to these, about which I don’t know much, they sound rather like Spanish to me.
Dalmatian is a bit like a missing link. It was spoken in the region between Italy and Romania until rather dramatically its last speaker died in a road-building explosion. I’ll cover the rest here. Provençal is the most successful historically, and has a number of peculiar features. It used case endings for longer than any other Western Romance language, it has oddly swapped gender endings – O for feminine and A for masculine – and has no nominative personal pronouns at all. Finally there are four extinct languages of which there is little or no written record: British Romance, African Romance, Moselle Romance and Pannonian. These can be detected through placenames, words borrowed into other languages and errors made in documents.
I would like to claim that Modern Latin would, unlike other surviving Italic languages, be descended from classical rather than Vulgar Latin, and would combine features currently found in all surviving Romance languages otherwise, but that it would be more conservative. It would also have borrowed terms directly from other languages which Latin as a living language never encountered such as Australian Aboriginal or North American First Nation languages.
This, then, is what I think it would be like and why:
- A tendency to use vocabulary derived from classical Latin where surviving Romance languages have used vulgar, such as “caput” for “head”, “equus” for “horse”, “via” for “street” and “domus” for “house”.
- No definite or indefinite articles. Latin itself had no word for “the” and whereas other Italic languages now use them, they are not entirely consistent in their etymology or placement. Sardinian uses “ipso” and Romanian suffixes them.
- A future tense based on suffixing “habere” to the infinitive in most cases with the exception of “esse”. Romanian seems to be the only one which hasn’t done this and this is probably due to being in the Balkans.
- Three genders. Romanian retains the neuter gender and others have a kind of neuter pronoun. However, since the form of the masculine and neuter nouns is often similar, the distribution of those genders would seem arbitrary to someone ignorant of the history of the language. Feminine would be more definitely separate.
- Two cases for the nouns. This crops up in Old French, Provençal and modern Romanian. They’re likely to be absolute and oblique.
- C and G would be palatised before E and I, and V would be pronounced “v”, unlike in Latin.
- A nasal vowel would occur at the end of certain words but there would be no other nasalisation.
- R would be trilled.
- There would be a distinct future tense for “esse” but for no other verbs. “Stare” would not be used as an existential verb.
- The general rhythm of the language would be slower than Italian and more like French.
- The personal pronouns would include dative forms.
- Vowels would have collapsed in the Western Romance manner rather than the Eastern.
- Word order would be SVO except for pronouns.
- Past tenses would be realised using “habere” as an auxiliary verb before the past participle.
There would be a number of other deducible features, but probably the best way to approach this is to produce a passage in the actual language. Although this is a world without Christianity, the Pater Noster, or “Our Father” prayer, more commonly known in English as the Lord’s Prayer, is a reliable source of the form of most written languages, and it’s therefore worth trying to reconstruct it here. I think it would look something like this:
Padre nostro, qui es in cielo, sanctificato sia nome tuo.
Venga tuo regno, sia facta tua voluntatem, come in cielo e come in terra.
Da nobis odie nostram panem quotidianom, e pardone nos de nostras debitas, come nos pardonemos nostros debitores
E non duca nos in tentationem, ma libera nos de mal. Amen.
I’m not sure how closely I followed the recommendations here. However, I have attempted to include a number of grammatical points. The absolute case is distinct from the oblique, the subjunctive third person singular of “estre” is “sia”, possessive adjectives can occur either side of the noun. “Nobis” is the dative of “nos”. The neuter and masculine singular oblique ends in a M, but this serves to nasalise the vowel and is not pronounced as a consonant. Likewise, “GN” is a palatised N like in French and Italian. H’s are silent, if they ever occur – in fact there may simply be no letter H, except in foreign loanwords. “And” is “e”, and consequently there’s no ampersand. The penultimate line uses the same form as the English version which has “debts” and “debtors” rather than “sins” or “trespasses” and the awkward “those who trespass against us”. Finally, I’ve missed off the doxology, but it would be something like “car regno, potentia e gloria son tue, a seculas de secula.”, but I’ve just thrown that together at the last moment.
A short note on loanwords. They would have tomatlas, patatas, minuas (kangaroos), dovaques (boomerangs) and so forth. These would mainly be neuter, as the languages they were borrowed from would usually lack grammatical gender entirely.
In conclusion, I think this is an entirely feasible if somewhat arbitrary conjecture as to what Latin would look like today if it had been in continuous use since Roman times as a vernacular. The written numerals would be different as they would probably have been adopted from a different source, possibly India, but Roman numerals would doubtless have been abandoned early, and there would be no Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Baha’i or Sikh religions. Other than that, I don’t know what the world would look like today, except that it seems likely that the human race would be found on other planets and in space habitats by now. But whatever, this is how they’d be talking, or somewhere near.