The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist


Latin is all around us.

Not just in inscriptions in churches and on monuments, but in our English phrases and even in the words we use all the time.

As the Romans extended their Empire, Latin went with them.  In places like Britain and Gaul (France), it was the first form of written word those people had ever seen or used.

And, as the Romans swallowed up the various cultures, they borrowed the new ideas they encountered.  Drama and literature and all the vocabulary that came with it flowed in from the Greeks (drama, actor, persona … these are all pure Latin words).

Every part of our modern lives contain SOME Latin in it.  Many of our words have derived from Latin originals.  So, whether it be the Roman military might (miles, soldier; navis ship), their financial acumen (pecunia, or indeed acumen!) or their skill as orators (orator, rostrum, sermo …), we owe many of our words and concepts to the Romans of 2,000 years ago.

The story of its journey through the centuries is a roller coaster.  Almost lost in the ‘Dark Ages’ of Early Medieval times, the ancient Latin writers heralded by King Alfred, even as English was developing as a literary language.  Latin was brought back in by the Normans and scribed by the Church and then  celebrated in the Renaissance.   As Shakespeare penned his plays in English, Latin was so impregnated in the culture that the stories and knowledge from the past had coloured the words we use to explore them.

Latin is on the coins in our pockets, emblazoned in mottoes (Latin is SUCH a good, concise language for mottoes!) and even lurking in brand names and on road signs.  Technology that we use all the time was given Classical-sounding names when they were invented – all the kudos, the gravitas and deeper meanings that come from the ancient words were wrapped up in them.

For example, the word ‘electricity’

  • was created from the Greek elektron (‘amber’ which has static electric properties)
  • and given an -ic ending (electric) to show it had those properties (like Music of the Muses, and domestic belongs to the house)
  • and then -ty is the anglicised version of -tas the suffix used for many abstract concepts (such as libertas, gravitas, qualitas – liberty, gravity and quality)

Linneus in the AD 1700s ensured that we would have Latin names for all our species of plants and animals so that we can identify a species even if you call it one thing in Spanish, someone else calls it another in Italian and we call it an English name.

When Horace wrote that his poems were ‘a monument more lasting than bronze’, he was right!   Not only can we still read his work, but the Latin he (and others) used, remain on our very breath, every time we speak.

An extended version of this story of Latin is available as an illustrated lecture in both Free Previews of The Muddy Archaeologist Online Practical Latin courses.

Practical Latin 1: First Steps (which gets you started)

and Practical Latin 2: Stepping Out which gives you all the grammar you need to head out and translate for yourself the inscriptions you might encounter on your travels.

Both free previews contain this richly illustrated lecture.

You can find more information on The Muddy Archaeologist Online Courses here

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