Although hundreds of individuals teach Latin for a living, few of them spend time explaining why it became a dead language. If you read about its history, facts are presented as self-evident and no general lessons are drawn.
How useless things end up becoming irrelevant
The official version of the story is that, when the
Roman Empire was conquered in the 5th century, barbarian words polluted
the purity of ancient speech. Foreign influences changed the manner of
writing Latin, did away with its grammar, and distorted its
During the Middle Ages, clerics and lawyers tried
to maintain the old language alive, overall with little success. The
quality of written Latin deteriorated at the same speed as it was taught
to younger generations. The spoken word, undisturbed by grammatical
constraints, became approximative and vague.
By the end of the
16th century, the great language of antiquity was clinically death,
although a few volumes were still written and published in Latin in the
17th century. Those relics symbolize man's reluctance to acknowledge
tidal changes that disrupt established patterns of thought.
expulsion of Latin to the realm of the dead becomes an intriguing
question when we compare it with other achievements of the time, such as
the laws of Ancient Rome. In contrast to language, the principles of
Roman law have survived the passage of time and can be found today in
the civil code of numerous European and South American countries.
Latin was dead and buried centuries ago, ancient Roman law still
permeates our culture and institutions. The logic of modern contracts
replicates the arguments of ancient jurisprudence; our court procedures
follow the steps conceived by Roman magistrates; our conception of
marriage and inheritance is derived from ancient family law.
Illogical justifications are good for nothing
is the weak point in the official story of the disappearance of Latin.
If ancient language was polluted by barbarian influences, so was Roman
law. If grammar and pronunciation lost their original purity, so did
Roman law. Nevertheless, legal principles survived and Latin is no
A closer look at the facts reveals that Latin did
not actually die, but was displaced. It was not destroyed or dismantled,
but abandoned. Nobody took active steps to eliminate it from the minds
of citizens. People just stopped using it, like a car that is too old to
be worth repairing.
Financiers know that there is a world of
difference between a company that is taken over and one that goes
bankrupt. The official story is that Latin was merged or transformed
into medieval languages. While this aspect is indisputable, it misses an
important part of the picture.
The truth must include the
acknowledgement that Latin, like an enterprise that loses customers,
went bankrupt. The decline of the ancient language must have begun
before the barbarian invasions. Most likely, Latin would have decayed
even if the Roman Empire had lasted another century.
companies that blame their difficulties on the market show blindness to
the real cause of their financial demise. If competitors have stayed in
business and thrived, why did a specific company go bankrupt? Why did
Latin wane into oblivion despite all efforts to keep it alive?
of ancient languages will seldom give you the answer to that question:
Latin was highly inefficient. Left to its own devices, it was unable to
maintain itself. Its grammar was calling for simplification. It was too
difficult to learn and brought little value to the table.
A machinery that is too heavy first slows down, then collapses
major languages of our age, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese,
are derived from Latin. All four have shed the overcomplicated structure
that made Latin so inefficient. The cost of maintenance became to heavy
and the old construction fell apart. Like a bankrupt company, Latin
collapsed under the weight of its liabilities.
language built sentences by adding affixes to adjective and names
depending on their grammatical role, gender, and number. In order to
create a correct sentence, each name and adjective had to be combined
with the right affix. Latin had many different affixes, which varied
from name to name and case to case. In contrast, modern Spanish just
adds "s" for most plurals.
Speaking correct Latin required
extensive training that few could afford in the Middle Ages. Even with
our most advanced learning methods, languages that continue to use
numerous affixes for names and adjectives demand great efforts of
foreigners who wish to learn them.
Which worthless project are you quitting today?
Trying to maintain Latin alive
was the quintessential dead-end project. Relatively few people were
willing to devote resources to the undertaking; its cost far exceeded
the capital available. The project was doomed from the start; those who
believed that it could succeed were massively unrealistic.
ancient language did not die the glorious death of a heroic medieval
knight; it perished from starvation and neglect. Its structural
inefficiency rendered it unable to compete. History broke it down and
scattered the remnants. The clock stopped at a time when it could not be
Has the lesson been learned? Have we grown capable of
recognizing and avoiding dead-end projects? Anyone willing to recognize
mistakes can acquire the necessary knowledge and perspective. Latin is a
dead language and rightly so. The next time that someone asks you to
participate in a project, make sure that is has a future.
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