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The Best Way to Learn Latin

By Yann, published on 12/06/2018 Blog > Academia > Latin > A Guide to Learning Latin

To learn how to speak and write latin is no easy task. It will require time, dedication and discipline.

The proverb ” Rome was not built in one day” is also true when it comes to learning the language that ruled most of Europe in the Antiquity.

Some of you may have studied Latin during your university days and amongst those some might have hated it.

The main reason many students are bored during Latin classes is that it is poorly taught.

What if you could learn Latin differently?

How to Learn to Write Latin?

To learn any foreign language, it is true that learning vocabulary and a few grammar rules can be quite daunting. Be warned. Latin is no exception to the rule.

While Latin is rarely taught in British schools these days, it has long been a sine qua none (indispensable) condition to be accepted into Law and Medicine schools.

It won’t be surprising that learning Latin for your A-levels wasn’t an option. But for those who would like to learn by themselves, a few tools will be much helpful.

Learning online is a trendy way to do it today, but the good old books and manuals will be very beneficial.  One of the best methods that you can follow is the Ørberg’s method.

You will find this method in most of the high-street bookshops.  The books consist of two lesson manuals and two exercise volumes.

  • Lingua Latina per se illustrata, Pars I: Familia Romana,
  • Lingua Latina per se illustrata, Pars II: Roma Aeterna,
  • Exercitia Latina Pars I,
  • Exercitia Latina Pars II.

It is also advised to invest in the Collins Latin dictionary or to download one of the free Latin dictionary apps.

Each chapter of the Ørberg’s method books is a lesson. This method will let you learn a constant and considerable amount of Latin without having to have to recite exhaustive lists of Latin words.

It is exactly like learning any modern language. 

To increase your Latin vocabulary, you will always have the option to craft some flashcards. That method has been proven to help the memorisation of new words, given that you use them regularly.

Reading Latin texts is also a good way to comprehend the mechanism of this ancient language as well as learn about the Roman civilisation. Four books should be on your list:

  • Jacobs’ Latin Reader, part I and II
  • Ritchie’s Fabulae Faciles,
  • De Viris Illustribus by Lhomond,
  • La Vulgate in Latin

Once you know the declension and some vocabulary it will be time to give a go at translating some texts. To learn how to decipher some ancients texts won’t be an easy enterprise and it will be vital to start with some simple texts at first.

Start gradually and try to understand the meaning of each work rather than go and look at the translation online every time you are stuck. The Assimil method can be helpful when it comes to learning the declension and understand the process of Latin to English translation.

Read more about learning to write Latin.

The Hadrian Wall in north England The Hadrian Wall marks a very popular hiking trail, but it was once the limit of the biggest Empire of its time. This was as far north as the Romans went ( by Ian Cylkowski).

How to Learn To Speak Latin?

Most Latin teachers have put aside the pronunciation that Roman used 2000 years ago for a more modern interpretation of the sounds.

That means that while you could be speaking Latin properly, it will not mean that you will speak Roman. But knowing how to say each work is primordial to learning a language. Would you learn any modern language without learning the rules of its pronunciation and accentuation?

For a proper understanding of Latin, it is essential to learn how to speak Latin.

Two things you should know:

  • There are no silent letters in Latin except for H
  • A letter will always be pronounced the same way.

To better understand the Latin phonetic it is easier to draw a correlation between Latin and other Latin-derived languages such as French, Spanish or Italian.

  • The R is rolled like in Spanish or Italien,
  • The C is always pronounced [c] as in “continent”,
  • The G is always pronounced [g] as in “goal”,
  • The J is always pronounced [j] as in “yack”,
  • QU is always pronounced [kw] as in “quest”,
  • The S is always a voiceless [s] as in “snake”,
  • The U is always pronounced [oo] as in “foot”,
  • The V is always pronounced like a U,
  • Le Y is always pronounced as “I” as in “antique”

Knowing the International Phonetic Alphabet when you’re trying to learn any language will prove itself useful. Read more on Latin pronunciation.

Then you have to wonder about the accent (or stress) which is simply which part of each word you need to emphasise when speaking Latin. Strangely some Latin languages such as French do not bother with stress. But English does, which will make it easier for you.

In Latin, the accent will depend on the length of the word. In dictionaries, the accent is indicated by an apostrophe before the syllable to emphasis:

  • For two-syllable words, the emphasis will be on the first one: ‘rosa, ‘cogo, ‘Roma.
  • For words with more than two syllable, the emphasis will be on the penultimate (the one before the last) syllable for a long syllable (co’rona) or the antepenultimate (the one before the one before the last) for a short syllable (ho’minibus).

It might sound complicated but practice will make it easy and pronunciation will become natural.

Origins and Influence of the Latin Alphabet

One of the good thing about learning Latin is that you won’t have to learn a whole new alphabet. Roman letters are almost the same than our modern ones; only the pronunciation was different.

Where Did the Latin Alphabet Come From?

You will have to go back to 4000 years BC to trace the origins of the first writings. Indeed, the Sumerian civilisation (the oldest known civilisation) created a cuneiform alphabet which had been used by the Egyptians to create their hieroglyphs. One might think that these writing systems have nothing in common with the Latin alphabet, but that would be wrong. These first Mesopotamian writing systems later developed into the first alphabet.

Around 1200BC, the Phoenician people, who lived around the Mediterranean sea, improved the cuneiform writing into an abjad of 22 consonants, each of them representing a sound.

Being merchants, the Phoenicians spread their alphabet all around the Mediterranean sea which eventually led the Greeks to create the first vowel and consonants alphabet around 800BC.

The Etruscan people will also put their two cents in the mix. This civilization from central Italy adapts the Greek alphabet which was eventually assimilated by the Romans and finally became the Latin alphabet.

The archaic Roman writing system only had 20 letters and looked like this:

A,B,C,D,E,F,(G),H,(I),J,K,L,M,N,O,P,Q,R,S,T,(U),V,(W),X,(Y,Z)

The V was pronounced the same way as U and the W was both a vowel and a consonant. As well, the J is pronounced the same way as the I.

It is only during Medieval times that letters will be added to help with the understanding of words. the G, Y and Z were borrowed from the Greek alphabet around 300AD.

The Romans also copied their numeration system on the Etruscan’s:

  • I: one,
  • V: five,
  • X: ten,
  • L: fifty,
  • C: hundred,
  • D: five hundred,
  • M: one thousand.

The Arabic numeration system is the most widely used today and Roman numbers are only used for a handful of occasions such as naming kings and queens or centuries.

Latin was spoken throughout the Roman Empire which included parts of actual Great Britain. South of the Hadrian wall, Latin was widely used and it mixed with the native Celt languages, and later with the Saxon, Angle and Norse tongues, to finally become the English language we know today.

Linguists estimate that roughly 60% of English words come, directly or indirectly, from Latin. 

The Latin language, which was born in central Italy a few centuries BC, became the origin of many of today’s modern languages. French, Romanian, Italien, Spanish, Castilian, Galician and many more local dialects, all take roots in Latin.

Today, Latin is only commonly spoken in the Vatican city, where even ATMs have a Latin language option.

The plaza San Pietro in the Vatican The Vatican is the only state that has kept Latin as its official language. Plaza San Pietro is often walked by priests, bishops and cardinals fluently conversing in Latin.

Common Latin Words in English

To learn Latin may feel somewhat of an elitist hobby. It is true that today, only a few public schools (meaning private sector schools), still teach Latin as part of their curriculum.

Did you know there are many common Latin words used in English?

However learning how to write and speak Latin can have a great positive influence on your culture, deductive abilities, and English language skills.

Through the apprenticeship of Latin, you will get to further your knowledge of European History and Geography and will get to read classical Latin texts in their original version.

To know all declensions by heart will be mandatory when learning Latin to be able to translate a text without using a dictionary all the time. Beyond that, Latin teachers often tend to give their students exhaustive word lists, making it somehow boring for any Latin neophyte.

This kind of teaching should stop and become something more ludic. Teaching new words and their declensions should be made fun and intuitive.

To keep learning Latin interesting it should be taught as a modern language. Students shoulds experiment, talk and play in Latin!

To learn how to write Latin is also learning about the origin and evolution of words. To better yourself at writing Latin it is fundamental to learn how the Latin word became an English word.

English is the perfect example of a dynamic language evolution. Through invasions and assimilation, the modern English language is made up of half a dozen different languages. But none more important than Latin.

Whereas our modern English language will give more importance to the order of words within a sentence and the syntax of the said sentence, Latin focus is mainly on the declension of the words in the sentence.

For example here are six ways to write “The legate sent the servant”:

  • Legatus mittit servum,
  • Servum mittit legatus,
  • Mittit legatus servum,
  • Legatus servum mittit,
  • Servum legatus mittit,
  • Mittit servum legatus.

Tips to Learn How to Speak Latin

As we said, not many schools today keep teaching Latin. Even though Latin is a dead language (the exception being the Vatican), it was still used in many medical European universities up to the 20th century.

Today, almost 90% of science-related words in English come from Latin.

Read our article on tips for learning Latin to help you in your studies.

In Great Britain, Latin stopped being spoken around 500AD to be replaced by Old English.

However, as Latin was the most spoken language at one point in History, English is today the most commonly spoken tongue today. It is the official language of 67 countries and 20% of the world’s population speaks English (1.5 billion people).

English it the native language of more than 350 million people.

But those native speakers may not realise that 29% of all English words directly come from Latin and another 29% indirectly comes from it through the French language.

English would not be English without Latin.

The UN HQ in New York. The Headquarters of the United Nations where English is one of the official languages with French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Arabic.

To keep the heritage of the mother tongue of English, many initiatives have formed around the globe. If you are still keen on learning Latin you will want to take a look at these:

  • The Schola Latína Európæa & Úniversális: this online Latin course website connects people who share the same passion for learning the language of Plato,
  • Nuntii Latini: this Finland based news site broadcast in Latin. You will be able to follow international news in Latin. Best thing is that broadcast comes with the corresponding text.
  • Latinitium: this website includes hundreds of audio and video files in Latin to help with your apprenticeship of the language. You will find Podcasts, books and a lot of resources.

We believe that teaching extinct languages as we do modern language would be much more beneficial to students. Sit scriptor scire! (Let’s learn!)

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