Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (2023)


  • Is it pos­si­ble to speakLatin?
  • How can we know how to speakLatin?
  • What Latin do peo­plespeak?
  • What is cor­rectLatin?
  • How “cor­rect” Latin can wespeak?
  • What about Latin words for new things?
  • What about pronunciation?
  • Why speakLatin?

The Pan­theon and Colos­se­um, both mon­u­ments of Ancient Rome, are still stand­ing. But an even more endur­ing Roman mon­u­ment is the Latin lan­guage spo­ken and writ­ten far beyond the fall of Rome, into the mid­dle ages, and on through the renais­sance and ear­ly mod­ern peri­od. Today many ask if it’s still pos­si­ble to speak Latin and if peo­ple do speakit.

Latin can be spo­ken and is spo­ken today, but this does not mean that it is used in the same man­ner as mod­ern lan­guages such as Eng­lish or Span­ish. Today, speak­ing Latin is main­ly a tool for learn­ing and teach­ing Latin. How­ev­er, it is also used for enjoy­ment and by Latin learn­ers, teach­ers, and some schol­ars in dif­fer­ent coun­tries as a lin­gua franca.

I start­ed speak­ing Latin to learn to read Latin lit­er­a­ture bet­ter, and now I use it in teach­ing and dai­ly com­mu­ni­ca­tion with fel­low Latin teach­ers world­wide. Speak­ing a lan­guage that you are learn­ing might seem nat­ur­al, but this is not the case for Latin. Usu­al­ly, stu­dents learn Latin by mem­o­riz­ing gram­mar and trans­lat­ing Latin lit­er­a­ture using dic­tio­nar­ies and gram­mar. How­ev­er, in recent decades, many teach­ers and learn­ers have real­ized the ben­e­fits of using Latin active­ly in learn­ing and teaching.

Many peo­ple, most­ly Latin teach­ers and auto­di­dacts, speak Latin dai­ly inside and out­side the class­room. For some exam­ples of spo­ken Latin, you can watch the many videos in Latin on this site or in this playlist.

Is it possible to speakLatin?

To answer the ques­tion if it’s pos­si­ble to speak Latin, we need first to look at what we mean by speak­ing Latin and what con­sti­tutes cor­rect Latin. Let’s look at the com­mon ques­tions I get when I say that I speak Latin and teach oth­ers to do aswell:

  1. How can we know how to speakLatin?
  2. What Latin do peo­plespeak?
  3. What is cor­rect Latin, and how cor­rect Latin can wespeak?
  4. Is it pos­si­ble to speak Latin fluently?
  5. What about pronunciation?
  6. What about new vocabulary?
  7. Why speakLatin?
Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (1)

How can we know how to speakLatin?

In com­par­i­son with mod­ern lan­guages, where you usu­al­ly try to learn to speak as the natives do, this is not the case in Latin. It is not pos­si­ble to speak Latin as a native Roman of, e.g., the time of Caesar.

Why isthat?

First, there are no native speak­ers of Latin. Latin, the lan­guage spo­ken in Ancient Rome, devel­oped and changed over time until it turned into dif­fer­ent lan­guages, e.g., French, Ital­ian, and Span­ish. Sec­ond, we do not have enough writ­ten evi­dence of the way peo­ple in Rome actu­al­ly spoke, apart per­haps from graf­fi­ti and let­ters (e.g., the Vin­dolan­da tablets). We also have some styl­ized ren­der­ings of “col­lo­qui­al Latin” in lit­er­ary works by Petro­n­ius and Plau­tus and Ter­ence, but that is about as close we can get to see­ing how Romans might have actu­al­ly spo­kenLatin.

(Video) Romanian vs Latin Speakers | Can they understand it?

Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (2)

So what does “speak Latin” mean, if not the way the Romans spoke it everyday?

When Latin teach­ers say “speak Latin,” we usu­al­ly mean “to speak in a man­ner con­form­ing to the lit­er­ary lan­guage of the great works of antiq­ui­ty and beyond.” While we have very few texts show­ing the actu­al col­lo­qui­al lan­guage of every­day life in Ancient Rome, we have a sub­stan­tial amount of high­ly lit­er­ary works of ora­to­ry, poet­ry, and history.

Indeed, Latin gram­mar books are large­ly based on the lan­guage used in the high lit­er­a­ture of a rather small num­ber of authors (e.g. Cicero, Vergil, Cae­sar, and Livy). This is not with­out cause, for instance, Cicero and Vir­gil were authors stud­ied already in Roman schools, and were mod­els of prose and poet­ry through­out the mid­dle ages and the renais­sance and beyond. (Of course, there were oth­er mod­els as well.) Fur­ther­more, a large body of work from these authors is avail­able to us, allow­ing schol­ars to get a clear pic­ture of the gram­mar and syn­tax of the lan­guage they wrotein.

Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (3)

Learn­ing to speak Latin is thus not unlike learn­ing to speak Eng­lish or French from read­ing a rather small part of the high­est lit­er­a­ture pro­duced in those languages.

In essence, to speak Latin, most peo­ple will try as best they can to use the vocab­u­lary, expres­sions, and gram­mar found in Latin lit­er­a­ture from antiq­ui­ty, but also beyond.

Learn­ing to speak a lan­guage by ana­lyz­ing high lit­er­a­ture is of course very difficult.

Luck­i­ly, there are many gram­mars, text­books, dic­tio­nar­ies, and cours­es that make learn­ing to use Latin much eas­i­er than learn­ing it from the study of only advanced literature.

What Latin do people speak?

It depends on the pur­pose of speak­ingLatin.

Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (4)
(Video) Latin Language Spoken | Can Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian speakers understand it? | #1

Many, again, myself includ­ed, strive to speak in a man­ner sim­i­lar to the writ­ings of the clas­si­cal authors, espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing gram­mar. Thanks to a great num­ber of philo­log­i­cal works on styl­is­tics and com­men­taries, we know quite a lot about the minu­ti­ae of the lan­guage; there are even Latin syn­onym dic­tio­nar­ies.

How­ev­er, despite the great advances offered by philo­log­i­cal research over the cen­turies, there is always a sort of veil between the Latin of ancient lit­er­a­ture and us: we just don’t know enough about the exact nuances, or con­no­ta­tions of words, what a slight shift in word order does to the tone or weight of the sen­tence. That being said, ample read­ing and philo­log­i­cal study gets us very far in under­stand­ing and appre­ci­at­ing Latin literature.

What is correct Latin?

What con­sti­tutes cor­rect or good Latin is a debate going back to antiq­ui­ty: the mod­els and styl­is­tic ideals changed over time: e.g., some sought to imi­tate one or a select few authors, while oth­ers adopt­ed a lan­guage based on the use of a wide array of authors, and even cre­at­ing new words and con­struc­tions. The his­to­ry of Latin is the his­to­ry of devi­a­tion and course cor­rec­tions towards a more or less clas­si­cal Latin norm. How­ev­er, since Latin is not only the lan­guage of Rome but the Mid­dle Ages and beyond, cor­rect Latin is, in a sense, that Latin used in the lit­er­a­ture that has come down to us from history.

Today, most stu­dents of Latin learn to speak Latin to be able to read Latin lit­er­a­ture bet­ter. It thus fol­lows that peo­ple learn to use a form of Latin that is in line with usage in the lit­er­a­ture they want toread.

A com­mon stance today (and dur­ing the renais­sance) is to imi­tate and emu­late the great Roman authors, such as Cicero, Cae­sar, and Vergil: Their Latin is, in fact, the very image of cor­rect­ness, since Latin gram­mars are large­ly derived from the use of, e.g., Cicero, Cae­sar, Vergil, and Livy. Fur­ther­more, the sheer amount of writ­ings pro­duced by them that has come down to us makes this a pos­si­blestudy.

Some peo­ple want to take care not to use poet­ic lan­guage in more ordi­nary con­texts for fear of erod­ing the poet­ic nuances of the words when they final­ly meet them in texts, oth­ers might want to use Latin exclu­sive­ly of the clas­si­cal period.

Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (5)

Nev­er­the­less, the Latin of Augus­tine or Jerome is no less cor­rect than that of Sal­lust or Livy, even though it is some­what different.

A use­ful guid­ing line that I use is this: is the Latin we use today so lex­i­cal­ly and syn­tac­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent to not be under­stood at all by an edu­cat­ed Roman of the 1st-cen­tu­ry A.D.? If the answer is yes, then I would say that the Latin is not “cor­rect” as it does not serve the goal of learn­ing to read clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture well. Now, of course, the sub­ject mat­ter could ren­der under­stand­ing dif­fi­cult, but the lan­guage itself should not.

I myself use vocab­u­lary and expres­sions from all of Roman antiq­ui­ty and the gram­mar of the clas­si­cal peri­od, espe­cial­ly as cod­i­fied in the works of Cicero and Cae­sar. Latin gram­mar changed only a lit­tle, but there are indeed changes, of which it is impor­tant to be mind­ful of since the mean­ing might be dif­fer­ent depend­ing on the cen­tu­ry the con­struc­tion is foundin.

How “correct” Latin can wespeak?

Depend­ing on the amount of time and dili­gent work you spend on read­ing and study­ing lit­er­a­ture and style, you can learn to speak a Latin that is very much in line with the lit­er­ary works of clas­si­cal Rome—however, in con­ver­sa­tion, no one would speak using the long com­plex sen­tences of Cicero.

(Video) Can a silent Latinist become a Latin speaker?

Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (6)

The Human­ists of the Renais­sance were able to learn to speak Latin well, and there is no rea­son that we can­not do this our­selves today.

We will how­ev­er nev­er be native speakers—even the best speak­ers would to a Roman prob­a­bly sound like a talk­ing book with a very eclec­tic vocabulary.

What about Latin words for new things?

When some­one hears that I speak Latin, they often ask how I deal with con­cepts not known to the Romans.

This is much less of a prob­lem than one mightthink.

Many “new things” are metaphors in mod­ern lan­guages in which com­mon old words are used to describe a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non, e.g., win­dows or a mouse on com­put­ers. And in speak­ing Latin, we can use the cor­re­spond­ing words fen­es­tra (“win­dow”) and mūs (“mouse”). Also, remem­ber that, in Europe, Latin was the lan­guage of vir­tu­al­ly all human inno­va­tion and dis­cov­ery, in some domains, until the 19th cen­tu­ry. Thus, in the cre­ation of this vast lit­er­a­ture, authors adopt­ed the mean­ing of exist­ing Latin words or invent­ed new ones, e.g, bom­bar­da (“can­non”), pro­vid­ing us with much of the vocab­u­lary nec­es­sary to speak about the mod­ern world while still keep­ing with the chain of Latin lex­i­cal devel­op­ment over the centuries.

Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (7)

Usu­al­ly, the lack of words to describe mod­ern phe­nom­e­na is not real­ly a great prob­lem. For the com­mon areas of con­ver­sa­tion in Latin, e.g. lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture, his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, as well as the peren­ni­al con­cerns of humans, such as love and friend­ship, the Latin vocab­u­lary pro­vid­ed by the ancients as well as lat­er authors is more than enough. Should the need arise to dis­cuss some­thing for which there is no Latin word, you can use cir­cum­lo­cu­tions, late words, or, like the Romans them­selves, Ancient Greek words, or come up with a newword.

A much more com­mon dif­fi­cul­ty is ren­der­ing the mod­ern words that have a rather vague passe-par-tout mean­ing e.g. “inter­est­ing” and “aspect”.

What about pronunciation?

We also need to address pro­nun­ci­a­tion; cor­rect­ness in pro­nun­ci­a­tion is an entire sci­ence in itself, and we shall only briefly touch uponit.

One par­tic­u­lar­ly recur­ring ques­tion is about the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Latin. If there are no native speak­ers and, of course, no record­ings of them speak­ing Latin, how can we know how they pro­nounced it? This requires a lengthy expla­na­tion, but to put it briefly, schol­ars have recon­struct­ed what is deemed a prob­a­ble pro­nun­ci­a­tion by ana­lyz­ing a vari­ety of evidence.

(Video) American speaks Latin to Italians in Rome – watch their reaction! 😳 🇮🇹

Impor­tant types of evi­dence used in this recon­struc­tion are, for instance, the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the mod­ern lan­guages sprung from Latin, ancient Roman writ­ings about pro­nun­ci­a­tion, spelling in ancient graf­fi­ti and inscrip­tions, and how Latin words were writ­ten in oth­er lan­guages, e.g., in Greek. Using this infor­ma­tion, schol­ars have recon­struct­ed many aspects of what might have been the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the 1st B.C. This restored pro­nun­ci­a­tion is referred to as the restored clas­si­cal pro­nun­ci­a­tion. Some of its hall­marks are the hard C and the diph­thongs ae and oe.

Sug­gest­ed lis­ten­ing: Record­ings of Latin texts in the restored clas­si­cal pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Anoth­er aspect rarely tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion is the vow­el length. Latin of the clas­si­cal peri­od had long and short vow­els, but few peo­ple who speak Latin try to use these. This is a shame since they are such an inte­gral part of Latin—Latin poet­ry (and prose) is built on the inter­play between short and long syl­la­bles, cre­at­ing a won­der­ful rhythm, which the ancients praised highly.

How­ev­er, even though I am a great enthu­si­ast of using the restored clas­si­cal pro­nun­ci­a­tion and ren­der­ing short and long vow­els, pro­nun­ci­a­tion is a minor thing in the grand scheme of things. In the end, learn­ing to speak Latin is a tool to under­stand Latin lit­er­a­ture bet­ter, not to recre­ate the sound of every­day life in ancient Rome—even though that is very interesting.

Why speakLatin?

The last decade has seen a growth in inter­est in learn­ing to speak Latin. The most com­mon rea­son to learn this is to under­stand Latin bet­ter, to be able to read Latin texts with greater ease.

Oth­ers want to use Latin as an inter­na­tion­al lan­guage or speak for fun like con­struct­ed lan­guages. These are rather few com­pared to those who want to use it as a didac­tic tool for Latin studies.

Many, myself includ­ed, speak Latin for didac­tic pur­pos­es: first, using Latin while teach­ing makes learn­ing the lan­guage much eas­i­er and more engag­ing for stu­dents; sec­ond, know­ing how to express your­self in Latin makes under­stand­ing writ­ten Latin immense­ly easier—when vir­tu­al­ly every word and con­struc­tion you read in a clas­si­cal text is some­thing you’d use every day in class, or with friends—you can start to read Latin as Latin rather than trans­lat­ing it to understand.

If you are com­fort­able express­ing your­self in Latin, espe­cial­ly if your speech is close­ly mod­eled on the type of Latin you will read, it will make read­ing the source texts feel very famil­iar and much easier.

Can Latin be Spoken? Common questions answered by a Latin speaker (8)

Many schools and uni­ver­si­ties have real­ized that teach­ing Latin using the lan­guage itself in class is very effec­tive and enjoy­able for stu­dents, lead­ing to bet­ter results and low­er dropout rates.

I saw an almost non-exist­ing drop-off rate for stu­dents when I gave a course in spo­ken Latin at Stock­holm University.

(Video) American speaks Latin at the Vatican with Priests 🇻🇦

In the sum­mer, many schools in Europe and the US in par­tic­u­lar offer immer­sion cours­es in Latin, where peo­ple spend a week or more speak­ing only Latin and read­ing Latin literature.

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: How to choose the best Latin immer­sion course

So, now you know: it is pos­si­ble to speak Latin, and very well too, but only in a form based on the lit­er­ary works of clas­si­cal and lat­er authors. A Roman who heard even the best Latin speak­ers would prob­a­bly think they spoke quite odd­ly, or at the very least, very, very book­ish­ly. But hey, books aregreat.


1. American Speaks Fluent Latin like an Ancient Roman 😲
(Xiaomanyc 小马在纽约)
2. Conversational Latin Simple types of common questions learn to speak Latin
3. Why speak Latin in the classroom? Latin at the Speed of Speech | Part 1 of 3
(Found in Antiquity: Latin)
4. What Latin Sounded Like - and how we know
5. What's the Difference Between Latino and Hispanic?
6. This is What Latin ACTUALLY Sounded Like
(Xiaomanyc 小马在纽约)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Corie Satterfield

Last Updated: 06/02/2023

Views: 5349

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (62 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Corie Satterfield

Birthday: 1992-08-19

Address: 850 Benjamin Bridge, Dickinsonchester, CO 68572-0542

Phone: +26813599986666

Job: Sales Manager

Hobby: Table tennis, Soapmaking, Flower arranging, amateur radio, Rock climbing, scrapbook, Horseback riding

Introduction: My name is Corie Satterfield, I am a fancy, perfect, spotless, quaint, fantastic, funny, lucky person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.