Between a rock and a hard word

Languages were born naturally, spontaneously, but they evolve both naturally and artificially. They are a bit like agriculture, organic produce and gene-edited crops.

Rewind to ancient Rome. Latin evolved naturally out of Proto-Italic, now extinct, which in turn descended from Proto-Indo-European, also extinct, and completely artificially reconstructed.

With the disruptions leading to the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Latin continued to evolve – both naturally and artificially. Naturally, it led to the bouquet of Romance languages, like Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. Artificially, it grew into medieval Latin, a language acquired artificially through education and toil.

It continued to grow until that growth was reversed in the Renaissance, when the European humanists revalued the culture and language of ancient Rome. Their backward glance led to the emergence of classical Latin dug up from the ruins of the past. But that movement wasn’t natural at all. A dead language was resuscitated, but it was a reborn mummy.

In the meantime, the natural growth continued, with Romance languages emerging fully out of Latin and becoming fully-fledged idioms, capable of picking up the load of art, sensibility, knowledge, science and scholarship.

The early Romance languages, like medieval Italian and French, were languages spoken freely by people who cared little – actually none at all – about the origin of their own mother tongue. For this reason, writing these languages down was a natural growth, too. Spelling was inconsistent, rules weren’t observed, to the extent that they grew more slowly than the languages themselves. For medieval scholars, these were languages without grammar. Grammar meant Latin, the rules of artificial Latin, that nobody learned to speak as a child, except in the schools.

But as nations grew, so did the awareness that vernaculars needed to conform to Latin grammatical frameworks. Their natural growth was slowed down by legislation and linguistic control. Academies emerged to police good and bad practice. Proper language use passed through the schools. Education became essential, even if Latin was slowly abandoned.

We live in a post-Latin age which is heavily indebted not only to the matrix-language, but to the culture which laid down the blueprints of its artificial use through the ages. That’s why, I think, Latin is still, and always will be, an important part of modern education. Not only does it allow access to a foundational, albeit lost, world, but it also provides the key to understanding the culture which gave us the words we use today.

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