Latin, the language of ancient Rome, is the ancestor of the modern Romance languages. Beginning as a local dialect of a small village on the Tiber River, it spread in the course of history over a large portion of the globe. In the Middle Ages Latin served as the international medium of communications, as well as the language of science, philosophy, and theology. Until comparatively recent times a knowledge of Latin was an essential prerequisite to any liberal education; only in this century has the study of Latin declined and emphasis shifted to the modern living languages. The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally used Latin as its official and liturgical language.
Latin was brought to the Italian peninsula by a wave of immigrants from the north about 1000 B.C. Over the centuries the city of Rome rose to a position of prominence and the Latin of Rome became the literary standard of the newly-emerging Roman Empire. Side by side with classical Latin a spoken vernacular developed, which was carried by the Roman army throughout the empire. It completely displaced the pre-Roman tongues of Italy, Gaul, and Spain and was readily accepted by the barbarians who partitioned the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. Further divisions led to the eventual emergence of the modern Romance languagesItalian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Rumanian.
The Latin, or Roman, alphabet was created in the 7th century B.C. It was based on the Etruscan alphabet, which in turn was derived from the Greek. Of the original twenty-six Etruscan letters the Romans adopted twenty-one. The original Latin alphabet was A, B, C (which stood for both g and k), D, E, F, I (the Greek zeta), H, I (which stood for both i and j), K, L, M, N, 0, P, Q, R (though for a long time this was written P), S, T, V (which stood for u, v, and w), and X. Later the Greek zeta (I) was dropped and a new letter G was placed in its position. After the conquest of Greece in the first century B.C. the letters Y and Z were adopted from the contemporary Greek alphabet and placed at the end. Thus the new Latin alphabet contained twenty-three letters. It was not until the Middle Ages that the letter J (to distinguish it from I) and the letters U and W (to distinguish them from V) were added.
Latin lacks somewhat the variety and flexibility of Greek, perhaps reflecting the practical nature of the Roman people, who were more concerned with government and empire than with speculative thought and poetic imagery. Yet in the hands of the great masters of the classical period it was the vehicle for a body of literature and poetry that can bear comparison with any in the world.