The Languages that made Latin

Yesterday’s lesson with my twelve year olds involved a few interesting moments. At one point, I found myself explaining to the class that the Latin language is not unlike other languages (including English) in that it had a number of ancestor languages out of which it developed. This seemed to surprise most, if not all, members of the class: I think their assumption had been that Latin was something like a primordial language, or, at least, one which somehow hadn’t been subject to a process of development of comparable complexity to modern English and Romance languages.

Correcting this misapprehension was one thing, but having done so I quickly ran up against some rather large grey areas (ok – gaps) in my own subject knowledge when I was asked to elaborate. ‘So which languages fed into Latin then?’ came the inevitable question.

My answer to this (in hindsight, pretty much inevitable, if entirely appropriate, question) started with a classic hedge, though one which I *think* does approximate justice to the state of research in the field: ‘Well, this is an interesting question and scholars aren’t *entirely* clear on it’, I began. I hope this is fair!

I then mumbled something about how we have only a quite incomplete picture of a number of languages which are close relatives of Latin – like Oscan and Umbrian – before mentioning that the linguistic relative of Latin that we know best is Ancient Greek and that Greek did give Latin a few loanwords (I consciously avoided the word ‘cognate’ for simplicity’s sake).

An inscription in Oscan

I then talked briefly (and, if truth be told, quite unconfidently) about Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical ancestor language of Latin and a whole group of other ancient languages (including Greek), before mentioning Linear B as the oldest known linguistic relative of Latin that we have evidence of.

The Linear B script

So what did my mercifully brief and very scratchy attempt at philological exposition miss? Well, one obvious thing I didn’t mention at all is that the Latin language can itself be periodised and seen as a socially varied linguistic form. I think I am right in saying that philologists divide it (roughly) into early, middle and late forms** – and of course its character could vary profoundly depending on who was speaking it and where they were speaking. So an obvious example of what fed into Latin was, well, older, or socially varied forms of Latin itself.

Beyond this perhaps rather pedestrian-seeming (though important) point, there’s quite a lot more to say. And, from the cursory glance I’ve had tonight at a few pieces of research in this area, I realise my current knowledge-base is not even remotely close to where it would need to be to try to write any further with anything approaching conviction. So I’ve resolved to try to find time this summer to address this with some remedial reading (my intended purchase is James Clackson and Geoffrey Horrocks’ History of the Latin Language). More to come on this, perhaps, in a future post…

For the time being, I am going to present my 12 year olds with an extension task challenge: can they find any brief, interesting, accessible and reliable reading materials on the languages which influenced the development of Latin to share with their classmates (and me) to teach us all something new? I have no doubt that some of them are resourceful enough to succeed in this endeavour and I am looking forward to seeing their findings. This isn’t the first time a set of twelve year olds has led me to learn something new and it’s of course a teacher’s privilege that a good question from a pupil (however young) can help both fellow pupils *and teachers* find out new and interesting things.

*The featured image is of a Linear B inscription.

**I am referring here to Latin in antiquity, NOT to medieval and subsequent forms of the language.

The ‘cives’ of the Admiralty Arch

I have been doing some walking around the streets of London over the past few days, trying to keep an eye out for new things on some familiar routes. Maybe I hadn’t been paying much attention the last few times I’d passed it, but I noticed yesterday that the area surrounding the Admiralty Arch is under construction.

The arch is in a formidable location, just off Trafalgar Square at the entrance to the Mall (the thoroughfare specially designed for ceremonial parades going straight up toward Buckingham Palace). As an architectural monument, the arch is quite something. It is in fact comprised of three separate arches and a large building which straddles them (as pictured below).


Constructed in the first decade of the twentieth century during the reign of Edward VII, the arch was designed by the prolific architect Sir Aston Webb. The arch was used for a long time as an office for the admiralty. My research tells me that under New Labour, it became a home for the Cabinet Office. In 2011, as part of the Conservative government’s public spending cuts under David Cameron, the Cabinet Office stopped using it and the arch was put up for sale on a 125 year lease.

The winning bidder – a Spanish real estate developer –  has begun the process of transforming the arch into a plush Waldorf Astoria hotel. It’s of course easy to understand why a property developer would want to snap up the arch: its views and prime location alone will no doubt make for a stunning hotel experience once it’s up and ready. And how many hotels can there be that are also architecturally imposing public monuments?

Perhaps the most characterful features of the arch are two matching sculptures – one of Navigation, one of Gunnery (pictured below: note the cannon in her lap) – which are built into its Mall-facing facade.


What caught my attention as I walked past the arch, though, was its Latin inscription, which can be translated as follows: ‘In the tenth year of King Edward VII, for Queen Victoria, his most grateful citizens [built this arch] 1910’. A word features in the Latin of the inscription – ‘cives’ (citizens) – that surprised me.

For London’s inhabitants and for parliament, it had long been customary to speak of themselves as (royal) subjects, not citizens. It took twentieth century statutory developments, culminating in the British Nationality Act of 1981, effectively to supersede this custom. The fact that the arch’s inscription is in Latin, and the fact that Latin doesn’t have a neat translation for the English ‘subject’, explains why ‘cives’ was used on the arch. Since the time of Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, it transpires, the English ‘subject’ had sometimes been translated to Latin using ‘civis’.* For this inscription, other alternatives could feasibly have been preferred, however: ‘populus’ (people), for instance.

What’s interesting to me is that the arch’s use of Latin – far from being a backward-looking feature – in fact anticipates a legal development (the widespread adoption of the language of citizenship) which only becomes enshrined in law decades later.

When shifting to a more thoroughgoing legal adoption of the language of citizenship in 1981, parliament effectively replaced a term – ‘subject’, which did not feature in the legal lexicon of the ancient world – with a central legal category of ancient Rome. This ancient Roman category represented a way to achieve a legal advance.

Do any other London monuments use the (Latin) language of citizenship in this same unwittingly prophetic way? I imagine some others must, though my internet searches have turned up nothing so far.

*Conal Condren, The Language of Politics in Seventeenth Century England, p.98f.