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(in Latin, lingua latina), the language of the tribe of Latins, who settled ancient Latium, a region in west-central Italy with its center at the city of Rome.
Latin belongs to the Italic group of the Indo-European family of languages. In its historical development it passed through nine periods.
(1) The preliterary period came to an end about 240 B.C.
(2) The old literary period, or archaic Latin, lasted from 240 to about 100 B.C. The expansion of Rome, which began in the fourth century B.C., ended by the first century B.C. with the almost complete latinization of Italy. Examples of the archaic language, which in the third and second centuries B.C. had not yet established a normative usage, are to be found in the comedies of Plautus and Terence.
(3) During the period of the classical Golden Latin (from c. 100 B.C. to A.D. 14), grammatical standards were finally fixed. The language attained a high literary level in the prose of Caesar, Cicero, and Sallust and in the works of the Augustan poets (Vergil, Horace, Ovid), and, somewhat earlier, in the lyrics of Catullus.
(4) Silver Latin (from A.D. 14 to A.D. 200) closely followed the grammatical standards which had already been elaborated, but it departed somewhat from the rigid syntactical standards of Golden Latin (for example, in the works of Tacitus). The literary language was characterized by the penetration of elements of poetic style into prose and elements of elevated rhetoric into poetry.
(5) Late Latin (200–600) was a qualitatively new phase in the development of the Latin language. A split occurred between the literary standards and the differentially developing colloquial variant. Classical Latin ceased to function as a living language. Subsequent development occurred only in the colloquial language. Features of the colloquial language have been preserved in inscriptions, scholarly treatises, and records of business transactions, as well as in certain chapters of The Satyricon by Pe-tronius (first century A.D., in the conversations of the freedmen). The history of colloquial Latin continues until the ninth century, when it ended with the formation of the national Latin-based Romance Languages. The distinctiveness of each of these languages was determined by the dialectal splintering of colloquial Latin during the period of Rome’s military, political, cultural, and linguistic expansion in the first few centuries of the Common Era. Dialectal differentiation was also caused by the influence of local languages.
(6) During the medieval period (seventh to 14th century), Latin served as the common written language of Western European society, the language of the Catholic Church, scholarship, and, to a certain extent, of literature.
(7) The revival of the standards of Golden and Silver Latin during the period of humanism, which began in the 14th century, was not of long duration. The works of T. More, Erasmus of Rotterdam, G. Bruno, T. Campanella, and N. Copernicus, as well as certain works by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, are representative of this period.
(8) Since the 16th century Latin has gradually been replaced by national languages, though until the 18th century it remained the language of diplomacy, and until the 20th century the language of university lectures and, to a certain extent, of scholarship. The works of the philosophers and scientists from the 16th through the 18th century—R. Descartes, P. Gassendi, F. Bacon, B. Spinoza, I. Newton, L. Euler, and many works by M. V. Lomonosov—were written in Latin.
(9) In the 20th century Latin has been used in scientific terminology and is the official language of the Catholic Church and the acts of the Vatican.
In the history of culture—especially Western European culture—the Latin language has played an enormous role. This fact is testified to by the numerous borrowings from Latin in all European languages, as well as by a large number of internationalisms.
The ancient structure of Latin has been reconstructed, for the most part, by means of the comparative-historical method, since there are very few extant sources. The lexical system of Latin is characterized by a great many archaisms, which reveal its affinity with the Indo-Iranian and Hittite languages. There are words of uncertain derivation. A number of scholars (in particular, the Italian G. Devoto) have distinguished a Mediterranean lexical stratum in Latin which preceded the Indo-European unity. Later, the principal means of enlarging the vocabulary consisted in borrowing from foreign languages, both from the related languages of the neighboring Sabine tribes and from the neighboring Etruscan language, whose origin is obscure; for example, the Latin word histrio, “actor,” is a borrowing from Etruscan. However, the most important source of borrowings for Latin over the course of many centuries was the Greek language.
The phonological system of Latin is characterized by an opposition between long and short vowels, by the presence of the diphthongs and digraphs ae and oe, and by the presence of paired voiced/unvoiced consonantal phonemes b/p, d/t, g/c[k] (s/z are variants of a single phoneme), and gu[gw]/qu[kw]. Accentuation, in the opinion of most scholars, was musical, with a strong tendency toward dynamic stress. In contrast to the vocabulary, which was considerably enriched by elements of non-Indo-European derivation, Latin morphology fully preserved the inflectional system typical of the ancient Indo-European languages. Grammatical categories include three genders—masculine, feminine, and neuter—and two numbers—singular and plural (the dual disappeared). The noun system has six cases. Verbs have three persons and six tenses that form two parallel groups from two stems—imperfect and perfect; there are three moods—indicative, imperative, and subjunctive—and two voices—active and passive. Substantive forms of the verb include four participles, six forms of the infinitive, a gerund, and a supine. Cases gradually fell into disuse in the colloquial language.
The classical syntax of simple sentences is characterized by a relatively free word order, especially in poetic language. Precision in the syntax of complex sentences is ensured by strict rules for the formal subordination of the sequence of tenses.
The ancient types of word formation, based on the gradation of vowels, the reduplication of the root (compare the word-forming systems of Ancient Greek and Sanskrit), ceased to be productive during a later period of the language. The Latin language elaborated a precise system of word formation that consisted primarily of suffixation in the noun system and prefixation in the verb system. The high degree of semantic clarity of its word formants makes Latin (as well as Greek) the most suitable medium for enlarging the international terminology of scholarship in the most diverse fields.
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Cousin, J. Bibliographie de la langue latine: 1880–1948. Paris, 1951.
L. A. NAUMENKO