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The Latin language

The origin of the Latin language

Latin developed around 900 SBC in the area of Latium, which is why the language is referred to as Latin and not Roman. The language did not entirely originate in Italy, but is one of the languages contained in the family Indo-European languages that also includes Celtic, German, Greek and Persian. Of all the languages that make up this group, Latin has more of a leaning towards Greek than any of the other languages. As Britain was already inhabited by Celtic tribes at the time of the Roman invasion, it is clear to see that the British and Roman languages did have similarities that made communication slightly easier. In any case, the natives of any country the Romans invaded and made a Roman province, were expected to learn and use Latin.

The Latin alphabet

The Latin language originally had just 21 letters, but during the time of the great writer Cicero, two extra letters, Y and Z were added. The reason for the addition of these letters lies in the basis of Latin, which as mentioned above, was mostly Greek and two extra letters were needed to translate many Greek words into Latin.

The Latin alphabet is

It is noticeable that inscriptions and writings in Latin are all in capitals. This is no accident, as Latin consisted only of capital letters until the Middle ages, some 1000 years later when smaller, lowercase letters were added.


The small form of V was u. In early times C was pronounced like a g in get, which is why C is used for the abbreviation of Gaius, pronounced keys. Later, C was used for the k sound; then the g sound was represented by C with an added stroke, i.e. G, and K only survives in the word Kalendae. The letters I and V were also used both as vowels and consonants. The Romans made no distinction in writing between vowel I and consonant I (pronounced like y the word yet), or between vowel V and consonant V (pronounced like the English w). This shows the link to the German language where a V is pronounced like a W. Hence anyone with the name of Victor has it pronounced Wictor, as is still the case today. In modern Latin texts, the consonant V is usually printed as v, but j is only rarely used for consonant I.

The following letters were used as abbreviations for the very few Latin
forenames used by the Roman upper classes.

A = Aulus

K = Kaeso

Mam = Mamercus

Ser = Servius

C = Gaius

L = Lucius

P = Publius

Sp = Spurius

Cn = Gnaeus

M = Marcus

Q = Quintus

T = Titus

D = Decimus

M' = Manius

S(ex) = Sextus

Ti = Tiberius

If you look at a page of Latin you should recognise parts of many of the words, since a vast number of English words have their origins in Latin. But if you look more closely, you may notice that the same word, if it occurs more than once, may have a different ending, or even two or three different endings. These endings have definite purposes.

For example these two sentences

senex servos vidit
servos senex vidit

(Both mean : The old man saw the slaves )

In senex the ending tells you that senex (the old man), is the subject of the sentence.
in servos, the letters os tells you that servos, (slaves), is the object and also is plural
In vidit the ending indicates that the subject of this verb, which means see, is a singular noun.

servos senex vidit also means The old man saw the slaves; the order does not affect the meaning, but only gives a slightly different emphasis.


servi fortes senem viderunt
(The brave slaves saw the old man)

The different ending to servi tells you that now that the slaves are the subject.
The ending of fortes (brave) indicates that it agrees with the slaves and not the old man.
Senem tells us that the old man is now the object, and viderunt is the plural form of vidit.

Without going too deeply into the Latin language,t you can see how greatly a language that does have different forms of a word, (an inflected language), differs from English. Though traces of inflection do still survive in English

I saw him.
He saw me.
I am.
You are.
He is.
I stand.
They stood.

And many other examples.

How complex Latin is may be judged from the following.

A ordinary noun has 12 different forms; all nouns have a gender (as in German), either masculine, feminine or neuter (the Latin word for neither): In German such words are : Das (masculine), die (feminine) or Der (neuter).

An adjective has 36 forms

A verb has over 150 forms, and of these 150+ forms the three participles and the gerundive are like adjectives, and so each have 36 different endings!  

You will be pleased to hear that we will end the Latin lesson here.

Numbers in Latin

[For a detailed look at Roman measurement, go here.]

All Latin numbers were written with seven signs

I = 1, V = 5, X = 10, L = 50, C = 100, D = 500, and M = 1,000

Numbers were written side by side, in descending order, and were added together.

Ill = 3
VII = 7

If a smaller number is placed before, i.e. to the left of, a larger number, then the smaller number is subtracted from the larger number which follows it:

IV = 4
IX = 9
XIX = 19
XXIX = 29
XC = 90
MCMXCIV = 1,994

For numbers above 1000, when this method would be awkward, special signs were designed. 5000 was represented by D, and 10,000 was two circles, one inside the other with a vertical line through the centre of both while a bar written above a number indicates that it is to be multiplied by 1000, and a bar with tails above a number shows that it must be multiplied by 100,000. It will be obvious that these numbers could not be used, for calculations. Calculations were worked out in the head or on an abacus, then the answer was written down with the numerical signs above.

The Romans were not always consistent: IIII often replaces IV, even XXXXXX has been used instead of LX.

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