Which family does Latin belong to?
Lingua latīna is an Indo-European language of the Kentum group. Originally spoken by the Indo-European people settled in Latium during the II millennium BC, after the historical events that led to the great expansion of the Roman Empire, Latin became the language of the administration and culture in all the vast territories under the dominion of Rome, from Northern Africa to Gaul and from the Iberian Peninsula to the Balkan region. We cannot determine with certainty how much Latin has absorbed from the existing local languages; certainly, the pre-Indo-European substrate of Latium has passed some linguistic elements, as it can be seen especially especially for the names of plants, animals and objects (pre-Indo-European are, for example, terms such as oliva [olive], oleum [oil], ficus [fig tree], asinus [donkey], etc.). However, the biggest influence was from Etruscan, the language of a population initially dominant which for a certain period even Rome was subjected to (Etruscan certainly are, for example, words like hister [actor, comedian] and balteus [baldric]), from Osco-Umbrian, and especially from Greek.
From this latter language, the expression of a superior civilization spread across the Magna Graecia, Latin never ceased to absorb lexical items and even some important grammatical and syntactic structures. It is precisely on the Greek model that, during the III century BC, Latin forms its literary language, which has its first application by Livius Andronicus, native of the Greek colony of Taranto.
An increasingly common literary use raises the need to conform the language to certain rules; and important writers, such as Ennius and Lucilius, address grammatical issues. The standardization of the language is fulfilled under the influence of the rhetoric schools, which are numerous during the II and I centuries BC thanks to Greek rhetoricians: the result is this the so-called Classical Latin, which will retain a significant uniformity and stability, remaining an unsurpassed example which will inspire later classical tradition.
Where does Latin come from?
The oldest documents of the Latin language go back to the VI century BC (inscriptions of the so-called Lapis niger, of the Fibula Praenestina, of the Laws of the Twelve Tables). Comparing the language of those documents with that of the classical works and the subsequent period, we notice significant differences in both phonetic and morphology; the little extension and high irregularity one can observe in the documents of the oldest period nevertheless make it possible to reconstruct, to a fair extent, the evolution of Latin. Many of its tendencies will continue uninterrupted in the spoken language until they effect, in the Middle Ages, the rise of the Romance languages.
What are the main linguistic features of Latin?
The key features of this evolutionary trend are as follows:
1.- In phonetics, the originally musical accent of Indo-European has shortly (for some centuries) evolved into and intensive stress, then back to musical in the classical period, and finally intensive in Late Latin and in the Romance languages.
2.- The fact that stress will never fall on the last syllable led to the progressive weakening of the latter, up to its complete disappearance. Therefore, the case ending was no longer sufficient to distinguish the grammatical functions of words; and to avoid misunderstandings the use of prepositions became generalized, transforming Latin, a synthetic language, into the more analytic Romance language s.
3.- Intervocalic consonants tend to weaken and fall (audivi gets audii, debere becomes devere, etc.), and so do the unstressed vowels (calidus becomes caldus); intervocalic s often turns into r (Lases becomes Lares).
4.- In morphology, dual is abandoned, Indo-European cases are reduced to six, and then to five (the Locative and the Instrumental disappear).
5.- Neutral gender tends to disappear, and so do the fourth and fifth declension of nouns, which are respectively assimilated to the second and first;
6.- Comparative suffix -ior disappears, replaced by periphrastic forms with plus and magis.
7.- Verbs lose distinctions of aspect.
8.- The aorist merges into the perfect tense and the optative into the subjunctive mode.
9.- In syntax, as hinted above, the reduction and subsequent disappearance of case distinctions leads to a more frequent use of prepositions. Moreover, it effects the fixing of word order (Subject, Verb, Object) to express syntactic roles.
11.- In subordinate clauses the use of the infinitive decreases, and is replaced by clauses with a finite verb, introduced by conjunctions (especially quod and quia [that, because]).
These changes in the structure of the language, which are obviously more numerous and complex than those we have briefly sketched, are not always evident in the texts following the Classical period, because writers have consistently taken a conservative attitude, trying to repeat faithfully the model of the great writers, especially Cicero for prose and Virgil in poetry; but some sporadic documentation and especially the results that we see in the Romance languages are enough to give us a clear view of all these complex evolutionary phenomenona.
In fact, the spoken language has followed its natural development, certainly influenced, in a conservative sense, by the language of culture and administration, but also and above all bound to reality, varied from place to place, always changing, and of course conditioned by the various local dialects it came in contact with. Precisely this language gave rise to the various Romance languages and dialects, each with its own features but all basically related to a single origin.
The Latin alphabet is derived from a Western Greek alphabet, significantly mediated by the Etruscan and naturally suited to the particular needs of Latin phonetics. Widely disseminated by the Roman conquest, this alphabet continued to spread even during the Middle Ages, especially thanks to the Christian missionaries. Now tied to the whole European culture, it has gained in modern times an almost worldwide distribution, to which its rationality and simplicity certainly contributed.
- Enciclopedia Grolier