How Latin Unlocks Language Learning

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“Latin?” I hear you say. “Isn’t that a thing of the past?”

Well, yes, it all started in the past, but Latin has had a tremendous influence on many of the modern languages we speak around the world today. Let’s take a look at how Latin, one of the building blocks of the English language in particular, is still used in English now and how it can bring extra value to learning modern languages in general…

Let’s hop back in time to when the Romans invaded Britain, just over 2,000 years ago in 55BC. You can hear Julius Caesar’s famous words, veni, vidi, vici (I came; I saw; I conquered), echoing around the dark and drizzly British Isles. Ironically, the Romans only conquered Britain in 43AD under Emperor Claudius, and they eventually left in 410AD. But they brought with them straight Roman roads, coins, food, bath houses, gladiators, gods, literature, laws and of course, the Latin language.

Although English has evolved over the years, heavily influenced by Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and the French language especially, it is estimated that still half of all English words come from Latin…

We all know that Latin is still widely used in medicine and science, as it is in some churches, schools and various English traditions. The words ‘decus et tutamen’ (glory and protection) are written around the edge of our British one pound coin, and our new King Charles will appear on our coins with the Latin inscription ‘CHARLES III DG REX FD’ (Dei Gratia Rex Fidei Defensor – King Charles III, by the Grace of God, Defender of the Faith). But did you know that we use Latin much more widely than this?

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Hidden Latin Words

We use Latin abbreviations on a daily basis. When you wake up at 7am, do you know what that AM stands for? It means ‘ante meridiem’, before midday. And PM (no, not one of the many people living at number 10 this year) stands for ‘post meridiem’ – after midday. Similarly, BC (as in, 55BC) stands for ‘Before Christ’, so you might think that AD stands for ‘After Death’, but it doesn’t. It is another Latin abbreviation, ‘Anno Domini’, meaning ‘in the year of the Lord’. Latin is everywhere, right down to the names of the cities you may be living in: Manchester, Doncaster, Grantchester, Towcester, Worcester or Winchester. These were all originally Roman towns, and the names are derived from the Latin word ‘castrum’, meaning military camp or fort.

Latin Phrases

Many Latin words and phrases are still in use in the English language today. Many of the words are original Latin words, but their English meaning has evolved in places:

  • vacuum (orig. empty thing)
  • exit (orig. he/she goes out)
  • media (orig. things in the middle)
  • innuendo (orig. by hinting)
  • agenda (orig. things to be discussed)
  • fungus (orig. mushroom)

Equally, there are some Latin words and phrases that are used in English with the exact same meaning as they have in Latin: carpe diem, ad hoc, impromptu, versus, vice versa, status quo, bonus, ergo, post factum, pro bono, alibi… the list goes on!

Prefixes and Suffixes

These are like Lego bricks! The beginnings and endings of words. Take the prefix ‘trans-’, meaning ‘across’, ‘beyond’ or ‘on the other side of’ in Latin, and see how many English words you build from it: translate, transfer, transcribe, transmit, transactional, transgender, transformation, transgression, translucent, transparent…
And how about the English suffix ‘-port’, from the Latin root, meaning ‘to carry’? Which words come to mind? Import, export, support, deport…

Latin Roots in Modern Languages

In a similar way to the prefixes and suffixes, a knowledge of Latin can help us decipher words in other modern languages, especially the Romance languages, but not exclusively.

Take a look at the word ‘year’ in the following languages: Latin (annus), Italian (un anno), Spanish (año), French (l’année / l’an), Portuguese (un an). Are you noticing a pattern?
And the word ‘wine’: Latin (vinum), Italian (il vino), Spanish (el vino), French (le vin), Portuguese (o vinho), Romainian (vin), Russian (вино, vino), Czech (víno), Lithuanian (vynas), Estonian (veini), Norwegian (vin).

A Useful Tool For Digging Deeper

Latin came in very handy when I started studying Russian at university, not only because some Russian words also find their roots in Latin, but mainly because of the grammatical case system that Russian and Latin both share. Nouns in Latin have seven cases, and in Russian, they have six. The concept of the nominative, accusative, genitive and dative cases – ‘the whaaht now?’ you might be thinking – enabled me to understand which noun endings follow which verbs in Russian as I had already learned these alien concepts a few years back when studying Latin. If you read or study literature in any language, Latin can also help you to unpack the meaning of longer, complicated words, and give more depth to the text when you analyse the choice of the author’s words.

Latin can help unlock modern foreign languages as well as expand your English vocabulary and understanding of English culture and literature. If you want to dive into this subject a bit more, why not book a language lesson with Dialogue today? You won’t regret it!

 

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