I was recently in a restaurant reading a copy of Tore Janson’s book, A Natural History of Latin: The story of the world’s most successful language.
The waitress—who I had not noticed during her approach—interrupted me in my reading.
“Latin?” she said. “How do you figure?”
“Figure what?” I asked.
She pointed to the book’s subtitle. “How can this author say that Latin is the ‘world’s most successful language’? Isn’t Latin a dead language? I mean—who speaks it anymore?”
I then explained to her that yes, Latin was technically dead. There was no country on earth where Latin was officially spoken, with the exception of Vatican City. And Vatican City hardly qualifies as a country. (Moreover, Italian will get you farther in Vatican City for practical purposes.)
“Real successful language,” she observed.
I then reminded her that Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire. And the Roman Empire had a population of about 57 million people (3 million less than Italy today) at its height. This was at a time when the total world population was around 300 million in total (22 million short of the United States today).
“We don’t get too many Romans in here,” she shot back, still skeptical. “Except when that office group threw a toga party in here last year.” She paused for a moment, remembering. “What a riot that was!”
I was going to counter that Latin has a history far beyond the Roman Empire. As late as the 1600s, most books and official documents were written in Latin, before French, and other local languages replaced it for these purposes.
I was also going to note that Latin is still used in the mottos of numerous entities. For example, the motto of the United States is E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”). The motto of the U.S. Marine Corps is Semper fidelis (“Always faithful”).
But these references, too, are deeply mired in history. And I could tell that my new friend was not to be impressed by history.
Latin pedagogy has, of course, undergone a revival in recent years. But there aren’t nearly as many people studying Latin as are studying Spanish, French, Japanese or Arabic. (Nor, to be fair, should there be.) In the world of language study, Latin is a minority interest, and will likely remain so—barring a revival of the Roman Empire (highly unlikely).
Why then, should Tore Janson refer to Latin as “the world’s most successful language?” Based on the evidence presented above, this might seem to be an inflated claim.
Latin’s ‘success’ can be reckoned in two ways: First, it is highly unusual that a technically ‘dead’ language is still being studied at all—or used at all—centuries after it went out of active use. No one today, outside of a few specialists, is studying Gothic or Etruscan. Opinions about the value of studying Latin are by no means unanimous, but one may be impressed by the fact that Latin is even the running, this far out.
Latin mostly lives on today in the form of the many languages that were derived from it, to one degree or another. Latin was the base stock from which so much of the Indo-European language family sprung.
French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian are all direct descendents of Latin. Anyone who speaks English also speaks Latin everyday. And I’m not merely talking about those English-speakers who like to pepper their speech with Latin phrases like tempus fugit (“time flies”). A vast swath of our day-to-day, ordinary vocabulary is Latin-based. Strip English of its Latin, and you can’t say agriculture, solar, or portable. Latin is everywhere in English, even though English is technically a Germanic language.
Speaking of which: There is some Latin-based vocabulary in German, too (though not as much as in English). Even Russian, the most significant Slavic language, contains a smattering of Latin-derived words.
But the reach of the Latin alphabet is practically mind-boggling, when you stop to think about it.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that every Western European language employs some version of the Latin alphabet. You might be surprised to learn that Latin is used to write most indigenous African languages. The same can be said of Indonesian and Tagalog. Vietnamese uses a version of the Latin alphabet, too—though it has been highly modified to accommodate Vietnamese phonetics. Ditto for Turkish.
Is there anywhere on the planet where the two letters ‘OK’ will not be recognized by at least some of the local population—even if they would be unable to conduct a basic conversation in English? I would venture to say no.
This would make the reach of Latin—the ‘dead’ language of the long-defunct Roman Empire—more or less universal, if only by a tiny degree in some places.
And yes, that is impressive. No other writing system has spread so far and wide—not the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Arabic script, and certainly not any significant number of Chinese characters.
So depending on how you measure success, Latin is indeed the most successful language in the world. There is no other language that has seen its elements and components spread so wide for so long.