What’s a “Dead” Language?

“Latin is a dead language.”

Everyone who has ever heard of Latin knows that. You’ve probably heard that. And unless you are already fully convinced of the value of learning Latin, this may be one of the key issues you have with choosing to learn Latin over a modern foreign language.

I won’t spend time here trying to convince you of the value of Latin, that will come later. Before we can tackle that question, we should define our terms and hopefully put you at ease. “Dead” is not as ominous a term as it sounds. “Dead” sounds, well, dead.

Silent, irrelevant, incapable of anything.

Psst… here’s the secret. “Dead” just means there are no native speakers of the language. Did you catch that? Let me repeat, no native speakers. There are no longer living communities of native Latin-speaking adults who raise children to speak Latin as their first and primary language. There are speakers. There are even fluent speakers. There are books, videos, podcasts, etc. produced in Latin. There are classes taught exclusively in Latin. And, of course, Latin is the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.

I’m ready to concede that Latin is very different from the modern languages you’ll find spoken and taught in your local communities. And if “dead” is the term we want to ascribe to that distinction, I’m okay with that. After all, Cicero is dead. Virgil is dead. Augustine is dead. Aquinas is dead. Newton is dead. But they still have something to say to us, and they say it in Latin.