The linguistic landscape of Central Italy at the beginning of Roman expansion
A number of historical phases of the language have been recognised, each distinguished by subtle differences in vocabulary, usage, spelling, morphology, and syntax. There are no hard and fast rules of classification; different scholars emphasise different features. As a result, the list has variants, as well as alternative names. In addition to the historical phases,
Ecclesiastical Latin refers to the styles used by the writers of the
Roman Catholic Church as well as by Protestant scholars from
Late Antiquity onward.
After the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and Germanic kingdoms took its place, the
Germanic people adopted Latin as a language more suitable for legal and other, more formal uses.
The earliest known form of Latin is Old Latin, which was spoken from the
Roman Kingdom to the later part of the
Roman Republic period. It is attested both in inscriptions and in some of the earliest extant Latin literary works, such as the comedies of
Latin alphabet was devised from the
Etruscan alphabet. The writing later changed from what was initially either a right-to-left or a
 script to what ultimately became a strictly left-to-right script.
During the late republic and into the first years of the empire, a new Classical Latin arose, a conscious creation of the orators, poets, historians and other
literate men, who wrote the great works of
classical literature, which were taught in
rhetoric schools. Today's instructional grammars trace their roots to such
schools, which served as a sort of informal language academy dedicated to maintaining and perpetuating educated speech.
Philological analysis of Archaic Latin works, such as those of
Plautus, which contain snippets of everyday speech, indicates that a spoken language, Vulgar Latin (termed sermo vulgi, "the speech of the masses", by
Cicero), existed concurrently with literate Classical Latin. The informal language was rarely written, so philologists have been left with only individual words and phrases cited by classical authors and those found as graffiti.
As it was free to develop on its own, there is no reason to suppose that the speech was uniform either diachronically or geographically. On the contrary, romanised European populations developed their own dialects of the language, which eventually led to the differentiation of
Decline of the Roman Empire meant a deterioration in educational standards that brought about Late Latin, a postclassical stage of the language seen in Christian writings of the time. It was more in line with everyday speech, not only because of a decline in education but also because of a desire to spread the word to the masses.
Despite dialectal variation, which is found in any widespread language, the languages of Spain, France, Portugal, and Italy retained a remarkable unity in phonological forms and developments, bolstered by the stabilising influence of their common Christian (Roman Catholic) culture. It was not until the
Moorish conquest of Spain in 711 cut off communications between the major Romance regions that the languages began to diverge seriously.
 The Vulgar Latin dialect that would later become
Romanian diverged somewhat more from the other varieties, as it was largely cut off from the unifying influences in the western part of the Empire.
One key marker of whether a given Romance feature was found in Vulgar Latin is to compare it with its parallel in Classical Latin. If it was not preferred in Classical Latin, then it most likely came from the undocumented contemporaneous Vulgar Latin. For example, the Romance for "horse" (Italian cavallo, French cheval, Spanish caballo, Portuguese cavalo and Romanian cal) came from Latin caballus. However, Classical Latin used equus. Therefore caballus was most likely the spoken form.
Vulgar Latin began to diverge into distinct languages by the 9th century at the latest, when the earliest extant Romance writings begin to appear. They were, throughout the period, confined to everyday speech, as Medieval Latin was used for writing.
The Latin Malmesbury
Medieval Latin is the written Latin in use during that portion of the postclassical period when no corresponding Latin vernacular existed. The spoken language had developed into the various incipient Romance languages; however, in the educated and official world Latin continued without its natural spoken base. Moreover, this Latin spread into lands that had never spoken Latin, such as the Germanic and Slavic nations. It became useful for international communication between the member states of the
Holy Roman Empire and its allies.
Without the institutions of the Roman empire that had supported its uniformity, medieval Latin lost its linguistic cohesion: for example, in classical Latin sum and eram are used as auxiliary verbs in the perfect and pluperfect passive, which are compound tenses. Medieval Latin might use fui and fueram instead.
 Furthermore, the meanings of many words have been changed and new vocabularies have been introduced from the vernacular. Identifiable individual styles of classically incorrect Latin prevail.
Renaissance briefly reinforced the position of Latin as a spoken language by its adoption by the
Renaissance Humanists. Often led by members of the clergy, they were shocked by the accelerated dismantling of the vestiges of the classical world and the rapid loss of its literature. They strove to preserve what they could and restore Latin to what it had been and introduced the practice of producing revised editions of the literary works that remained by comparing surviving manuscripts. By no later than the 15th century they had replaced Medieval Latin with versions supported by the scholars of the rising universities, who attempted, by scholarship, to discover what the classical language had been.
During the Early Modern Age, Latin still was the most important language of culture in Europe. Therefore, until the end of the 17th century the majority of books and almost all diplomatic documents were written in Latin. Afterwards, most diplomatic documents were written in
French and later just native or other languages.
The largest organisation that retains Latin in official and quasi-official contexts is the
Catholic Church. Latin remains the language of the
Roman Rite; the
Tridentine Mass is celebrated in Latin. Although the
Mass of Paul VI is usually celebrated in the local
vernacular language, it can be and often is said in Latin, in part or whole, especially at multilingual gatherings. It is the official language of the
Holy See, the primary language of its
public journal, the
Acta Apostolicae Sedis, and the working language of the
Vatican City is also home to the world's only
automatic teller machine that gives instructions in Latin.
 In the
pontifical universities postgraduate courses of
Canon law are taught in Latin, and papers are written in the same language.
Anglican Church, after the publication of the
Book of Common Prayer of 1559, a Latin edition was published in 1560 for use at universities such as
Oxford and the leading "public schools" (
English private academies), where the liturgy was still permitted to be conducted in Latin
 and there have been several Latin translations since. Most recently, a Latin edition of the 1979 USA Anglican Book of Common Prayer has appeared.
has adopted Latin names in the logos of some of its institutions for the sake of linguistic compromise, an "ecumenical nationalism" common to most of the continent and as a sign of the continent's heritage (such as the
Switzerland has adopted the country's Latin short name Helvetia on coins and stamps, since there is no room to use all of the nation's
four official languages. For a similar reason, it adopted the international vehicle and internet code CH, which stands for Confoederatio Helvetica, the country's full Latin name.
Canada's motto A mari usque ad mare ("from sea to sea") and most
provincial mottos are also in Latin. The
Canadian Victoria Cross is modelled after the British
Victoria Cross which has the inscription "For Valour". Because Canada is officially bilingual, the Canadian medal has replaced the English inscription with the Latin Pro Valore.
states of the United States have Latin mottos: such as
Connecticut's motto Qui transtulit sustinet ("He who transplanted us, sustains us");
Ad astra per aspera ("To the stars through hardships");
Michigan's Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice ("If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you");
Salus populi suprema lex esto ("The health of the people should be the highest law");
Esse quam videri ("To be rather than to seem");
Sic semper tyrannis ("Thus always to tyrants"); and
Montani semper liberi ("Mountaineers are always free").
Many military organizations today have Latin mottos, such as
Semper paratus ("always ready"), the motto of the
United States Coast Guard;
Semper fidelis ("always faithful"), the motto of the
United States Marine Corps; and
Per ardua ad astra ("Through adversity/struggle to the stars"), the motto of the
Royal Air Force (RAF).
Some colleges and universities have adopted Latin mottos, for example
Harvard University's motto is
Veritas ("truth"). Veritas was the goddess of truth, a daughter of Saturn, and the mother of Virtue. Latin is taught at many high schools, especially in Europe and the Americas. It is most common in British
public schools and
grammar schools, the Italian
liceo classico and
liceo scientifico, the German Humanistisches
Gymnasium and the Dutch
gymnasium. In the
United States, it is taught at
Baltimore City College,
Boston Latin Academy,
Boston Latin School,
Brooklyn Latin School,
Central High School of Philadelphia,
English High School of Boston,
Norwell High School (Massachusetts),
Oak Hall School, and many other public and private schools.
Some films of ancient settings, such as
The Passion of the Christ, have been made with dialogue in Latin for the sake of realism. Occasionally, Latin dialogue is used because of its association with religion or philosophy, in such film/
television series as
The Exorcist and
Jughead"). Subtitles are usually shown for the benefit of those who do not understand Latin. There are also
songs written with Latin lyrics. The libretto for the opera-oratorio
Oedipus rex by
Igor Stravinsky is in Latin.
Occasionally, some media outlets, targeting enthusiasts, broadcast in Latin. Notable examples include
Radio Bremen in
YLE radio in
Finland, and Vatican Radio & Television, all of which broadcast news segments and other material in Latin.
There are many websites and forums maintained in Latin by enthusiasts. The
Latin Wikipedia has more than 100,000 articles written in Latin.