Why Italian and not Latin

Wilfried Straw

Why is there a Latin language but no country where only Latin is spoken?


If I want to learn English I can go to England. I want to learn French to France. So why can I only learn Latin from books and from teachers? Why is there no “Latin country”?
To understand this, we have to go far back in history. Latin was once the language of the Lazio countryside and its capital, Rome. Later it became the common language of all of Italy, of which all inhabitants became Roman citizens. Then in the imperial era, after the birth of Christ, it became the language of the Roman Empire, with the exception of the East: Latin was spoken from Spain to Romania, from Africa to Britain. Everywhere there were lessons from the so-called Grammaticus, that is, language and literature teacher who made sure that good Latin was written and spoken in the manner of the great writers, especially Cicero.
This situation changed when during the time of the Great Migration, i.e. from about the 6th to the 8th century AD, the Roman Empire disintegrated and schooling collapsed. Now even the Christian pastors forgot their Latin, and the so-called Romance languages, Italian, French, Spanish, etc. came into being. How did that come about? For a long time, in addition to the standard or written language supervised by the Grammaticus, there had been a spoken Latin colloquial language, the so-called Vulgar Latin. From this initially uniform Vulgar Latin, it was now possible to develop precisely these Romance languages ​​in the various parts of the earlier Roman Empire, Italy, France, Spain, etc., and in some cases at a rapid pace. Even then, there was soon no country where Latin was spoken. In general, Latin seemed to have come to an end.
But then Charlemagne came, who was 800, so to speak, as the successor to the Roman emperors in office: he restored Latin lessons throughout his empire, especially for the pastors who needed it most. But now the old condition could not be completely repaired. Not only in Germania, but also in the Romance countries where Latin was spoken earlier, Latin was no longer learned by the educated as a mother tongue, but as a second language: The Parisian learned French first, then Latin; the Westphalian first Westphalian, then Latin, etc. And so it remained until the 18th century, when Latin gradually ceased to be the leading world language at all. And so it remains in a certain way until today, when even fewer people write and speak Latin, but many want to learn Latin just to be able to find their way through the history of Europe. A Latin country has not existed for over a thousand years. Even the Vatican State is not, even if Pope Benedict XVI, an avowed Latin fan, would certainly like to have it that way.
What a pity! Already the famous pedagogue Comenius had the good idea almost 400 years ago that one should found such a small state in which only Latin was spoken. And the same idea was put forward again with great vigor at the Congress of Vienna almost 200 years ago: unfortunately without success. But good things take time, and maybe the last word has not yet been spoken here. Those of today's Latin students who want to learn Latin not only from grammars and in the classroom, already have a number of options: There are clubs for speaking Latin, Latin magazines, international Latin congresses and of course the Latin chat rooms on the Internet. So for the moment we can still get by without Latin country.

Wilfried Stroh was full professor for Classical Philology at the University of Munich from 1976 to 2005. He is the author of the book "Latin is dead, long live Latin", List (Berlin) 2007, 414 p., € 18.- (with information, especially on the "living Latin").