Select Page


For a contextual account of Latin within the broad family of languages see Language – history


For someone first taking an interest in plants and the world of botany, one of the most unusual aspects of the subject is its frequent use of a strange and foreign ‘dead’ language, Latin. We encounter Latin in both plant names (more so than in zoology where the common names are better known) and in terms used for the various of plant structures.

How did this come to be, and why do we persist with it?


The word ‘Latin’ is derived from the Roman word ‘Latium’ which referred to a tribal district in the vicinity of ancient Rome, and later a district of Rome that was south of the Tiber River where the Latin language was spoken. In the period before 75 BCE (the late Roman Republic) Old Latin was spoken: it had writing and spelling conventions that were rarely fund in subsequent works which were standardised into Classical Latin (latinitas)which was the formal language of the Late Republic and Roman Empire with special rules applied to the scholarly works of poetry and rhetoric. Vulgar Latin was the Latin spoken by the general population across the Roman Empire with dialects diverging around 200-300 CE until about 750 CE when Classical Latin died (it was no longer spoken as a natural language but was retained as Ecclesiastical Latin which had a simplified syntax and a pronunciation based on Italian). By 850 CE Vulgar latin was diverging into the various European Romance languages.

We find this language and alphabet (which is in the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages) first appearing in inscriptions dating to about 600 BCE. These were used by the Etruscans who occupied much of Italy until about 500 BCE. The Etruscans themselves had modified the Greek alphabet which, in turn, had been derived from the Phoenician one.[21]

Latin spread across Europe with the Roman Empire, the Romans being masters of social organization and governance. Though expansionary Empires were militaristic they tried to avoid internal conflict and for about 200 years there was a Pax Romana during which the population rose to about 70 million citizens. When Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity Latin became the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic church across western Europe so when the empire collapsed around the 5th century CE Latin was the preferred language for scholars in the monasteries. As universities evolved from about 1000 CE into the Renaissance, all lectures were delivered in Latin, the students expected to become fluent by using only Latin in everyday conversation. There was no common language across Europe so it became the mutually-understood language of the literate and well-educated – essentailly those involved with theology, medicine and the law. It would be some time before printing would arrive and literature appear in native languages. This is why many biological, legal and medicinal terms are in Latin today. And it is also why the great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who laid the foundations of botanical nomenclature, spoke Latin when he visited Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1736, and why he used Latin as the language of plant names when he published his famous Species Plantarum (Species of plants) in 1753 which listed every species of plant known at the time, denoted by a binomial. In the Middle Ages those who read, did so in Latin.

Botanical Latin was an innovation post-dating the ancients and mostly assembled after 1650, its spelling and pronunciation diverging from that of Classical Latin although its grammar followed the classical precedent.[4] By 100 CE the few remaining Italian languages had been absorbed into the empire-wide Latin, and as the empire spread so Latin took the place of indigenous languages among the more educated citizens. Botanical scholars often Latinized their names and the many Greek words used in plant names were also Latinized in this way as when the Greek word narkissos was converted to the Latin narcissus. Few countries escaped, although we still have the Basque language on the border of today’s Spain and France, the Breton of Brittany, and Gaelic languages in Ireland and Scotland – but Latin was near-universal across the Western world. Speaking Latin became a symbol of learning, a privilege of an educated upper class – one of the distinctive qualities of a ‘gentleman’.

Botanical Latin

Our greatest all-time authority on botanical Latin was the learned Classical scholar, historian, botanist and keen horticulturist William Stearn (1911-2001) who was Librarian of the Royal Horticultural Society in London from 1932–1951 and who wrote the highly readable definitive work Botanical Latin.[1] Every serious botanist should have a copy of this book. He writes:

‘Botanical Latin is best described as a modern Romance language of special application, derived from Renaissance Latin with much plundering from ancient Greek, which has evolved, mainly since 1700 and primarily through the work of Carl Linnaeus, to serve as an international medium for the scientific naming of plantsin all their vast numbers and manifold diversity’
Stearn’s Botanical Latin, pp. 6-7

In the opening Stearn outlines the history of the use of Latin in botany and for anyone seriously interested in the topic I suggest reading his account. For those who cannot access his book, I have outlined the main elements in this article.

I once had the pleasure of sharing sandwiches with this true gentleman during a lunch break at a symposium on the taxonomy of cultivated plants in Edinburgh in 1995 when he was 84. He was one of the key speakers and I recall that, although there was the usual strict time schedule for the talks, the repeated bells and prompts to finish were ignored as he sailing on gloriously, oblivious of his allotted time, enthralling the audience with his enthusiasm and erudition.

To get a feel for the use of Latin from a gardener’s point of view you could try the recent A little book of Latin for gardeners (2018) by Peter Parker.[13]

Technical language

William Stearn brings tells the story of botanical terminology from antiquity to the present day by pointing out the difficulties confronting those introducing new terminology. Should you replace the lexical definition (dictionary definition) with a familiar word but one which has a wider sense, or is it better to introduce an unfamiliar but unambiguous new word with a precise (stipulative) definition? Also, if you are thinking of introducing a new word then think of its users so . . . make it: short, euphonious, phonetically spelled, easily pronounced, unambiguous in meaning, not easily confused with existing words and, if possible, with a derivation that suggests its meaning.[9]

For botanists communication is most efficient using precisely-defined technical terms (remember there are technical terms in any subject from computers, to car engines). Having said this, there seems little point in day-to-day conversation or popular writing on plants in talking about a ‘petiole’ when ‘leaf stalk’ is perfectly adequate.


Where do plant names and Latin terms come from?

Many plant names used today come to us from ancient Greece and Rome either as the common or medicinal names used at that time, and it is essentially the ‘Father of Botany’ Theophrastus’s terminology as presented in his De Historia Plantarum (Enquiry into Plants), along with the morphological terms he used for plant structures, that would be used for nearly 2000 years. To Theophrastus we probably owe the insight that the full range of structures we call ‘flowers’ were in fact items of the same kind, thus generalizing from particular instances to general principles and giving us the scientific botanical concept ‘flower’. The two original major works of Theophrastus that have come down to us from nearly 2000 years ago probably met their end with the Christian insistence on the burning of pagan books in the famous library of Alexandria (named after Theophrastus’s student Alexander the Great). However, copies of his work had been retained in the Islamic East and a Latin translation from an Arab manuscript held in the Vatican library was recovered by European scholars in the 15th century.[3]

Greco-Roman world

The Roman empire lasted from about 27 BCE to 476 CE. Most notable of the Roman writers on botanical matters was Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) who, although serving as a commander in both the Roman army and navy and an administrator to the Emperor Vespasian, managed to find the time to study, his writing being mostly on geography and natural history. His best known work was the monumental Naturalis Historia (Natural History, 77– CE) an encyclopaedic work of 37 books on a wide range of subjects and essentially summarising all the knowledge of his day. A true scholar Pliny cited the sources of his information and provided an extensive index. His method of working would later serve as a model for the great encyclopedias written in the Age of Enlightenment when, in the Western Renaissance, there was a revival of the classical learning from Greco-Roman civilisations. Pliny cites 146 Roman sources and 327 Greek while for the plant content he sings the praises of his plant forbears Aristotle and Theophrastus. All-in-all he describes about 800 plants and their uses, and Books 4-6 are devoted exclusively to garden plants. A much-travelled man, Pliny had begun his career in Germany and died in 79 CE as commander of the Roman fleet which was destroyed was it went to the assistance of villagers waiting on shore during the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Herculaneum and Pompei in 79 CE.

The other great compiler of the period was Dioscorides a Greek who had served in the Roman army and produced an extensive compilation of the medicinal uses of plants.

Modern scholars criticise both Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides for lacking the critical imagination so evident in the work of Theophrastus: they were not original thinkers but derivative synthesisers whose curiosity did not extend beyond plant uses. They did not analyse plant form, function, and ecology. It might be noted that the Romans emphasised the cultivation of plants for their beauty in a way that was not a part of Greek culture. What is, however, a sad historical fact is that for about 1200 years the works of Pliny and Dioscorides were revered and considered beyond improvement, being copied and re-copied slavishly until a new era of critical thought began in the European Renaissance.


The works of Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder were among the first books produced after the establishment of printing. Naturalis Historia was first printed in 1469 and by 1799 it had run to 190 editions.[5] Although Pliny’s plant terminology was widely accepted it had been used in an imprecise literary way although there are still 187 of his botanical terms roughly the same as those we use today.[2] Probably the next most prolific user of Latin botanical terms was the Medieval Bishop of Regensberg, Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) who included 142 terms in his De Vegetabilibus Libri VII other later Medieval writers of influence being Valerius Cordus (1515-1544) and Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566).

Although Roman names now existed for the general plant parts the sexual significance of the parts of the flower was not fully appreciated until the end of the 17th century giving them names using existing Latin words but giving them precise botanical meanings. As more and more plants were studies and introduced to European gardens it was clear that botanical progress required a stable and universal terminology.


With the revival of learning and knowledge accumulation in Europe after the Renaissance authors were now producing substantial compendia of plants with their Latin descriptions. Two monumental works of this period were Rariorum Plantarum Historia (1601) by Dutchman Carolus Clusius and Historia Plantarum (1686-1688 suppl. 1704) by Englishman John Ray. Plant description had been given an enormous boost in the 17th century by the use of the magnifying glass which stimulated the creation of improved terminology. Researchers like Italian Marcello Malpighi, English anatomist Nehemiah Grew, German Joachim Jung all added new terms, while Frenchman Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) compiled an impressive conspectus of 698 genus descriptions. All botanical workers now recognised the need for carefully defined terms. Englishman John Ray (1628-1705), in particular, had established a working list of the world’s flora, and developed the idea of what it meant to speak of a ‘species’, laying emphasis on a simple botanical terminology. The man who demonstrated conclusively that the sexuality of plants was based around the flower was German Rudolf Camerarius (1665-1721). The Key words stamina, ovarium, ovulum, and placenta first appeared in Discours sur la Structure des Fleurs, Sermo de Structura Florum (1717) coined by Frenchman Sébastien Vaillant (1669-1721).

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)

Works like these provided the stratum for the sexual classification system, binomial nomenclature, and botanical terminology that would be published by the great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus who synthesised the plant knowledge to date in a form that could be accessed by all and with a precision that had not been seen before: all his many publications were written in Latin. It is Linnaeus’s choice of the terms used in his day, together with some new terms added by himself (like corolla and petalum), that forms the basis of botanical terminology today. He presented plant descriptions in a clear format, the words used sparingly, without verbs, thus facilitating comparisons. Carl Linnaeus’s supreme skill in assembling and cataloguing plant names and plant information in a practical and readily comprehensible system (and all in the universal scholarly language of Latin) secured him fame in his day and a place in the history of science.[12] It was an internationally-accepted method of overall plant inventory that Linnaeus bequeathed to western plant science, not just the reinforcement of binomial nomenclature.


After Linnaeus, especially in the late 18thand early 19th centuries, there continued to be studies penetrating in ever greater detail into the structure and function of floral parts. William Stearn lists the following Western European botanists as contributing most to botanical terminology at this time: Englishmen Robert Brown (1773–1858) and John Lindley (1799-1865); Frenchmen Adolphe-Théodore Brogniart (1801–76), Alphonse de Candolle (1806-1893), Charles-François Mirbel (1776–1854), Louis Richard (1754–1821); and Germans Joseph Gaertner (1732–1791), Heinrich Link (1767-1851), and Carl Martius (1794–1868).[6]

Although many botanical names date back to the ancients, most Latin words for floral, seed, and fruit parts obtained their current usages in the years between 1736 and 1844 and it is through this century that botanists developed the vocabulary necessary to describe plants and their parts with precision, a process greatly assisted by the proliferation of text books and botanical glossaries that occurred at this time. Outstanding among these was the massive Handbuch der Botanischen Terminologie und Systematik (1830-1844) of Gottlieb Bischoff (1797-1854).[7] This was an invaluable archive of terminology including all the obsolete terms. More practical glossaries were published by three taxonomic botanists who were also university teachers, two of them also garden directors: Frenchman Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841), Englishman John Lindley (1799-1865) and American Asa Gray (1810-1888) all people who, William Stearn approvingly notes, had ‘an enquiring philosophic attitude leading to a careful choice of words’ and were therefore both ‘instructive and pleasant to read’.[8]

In more recent times there has been the relatively brief but meticulous Benjamin Jackson’s Glossary of Botanic Terms (1900) and of course now we have several more loosely constructed but operational botanical glossaries on the web like those available in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

The International Code of Nomenclature

Linnaeus’s great strength was that he provided the European community of scientists with system of plant description, nomenclature and classification that was, more or less, acceptable to all. His standardization has proved so persuasively powerful that it has now been accepted by the international scientific community for the biological nomenclature we need to survey all the organisms that exist on planet Earth. Such agreement is a rare commodity.

Each six years there is a meeting of the International Association of Plant Taxonomy at which the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants (ICN), (formerly in separate codes, the most notable being the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature) is reviewed and a new edition published. Since the time of Linnaeus it has been the official tradition to accompany the formal description of all new plant species with a description in Latin (the diagnosis). It is a measure of globalisation and the international history of science and the spread of English as a lingua franca that in the ‘Melbourne Code’ of 2012 authors of new plant names are now permitted a description in English.

Learning Latin

The classics were once considered a necessary part of a well-rounded ‘liberal education’. Greek and Roman literature formed the core of the education curriculum for young English gentlemen sent to prestigious schools, especially those stiff-upper-lip chaps who forged the British Empire.

Today all this antiquity seems passé, something that we have culturally outgrown. Shouldn’t we be looking to the future rather than harking back to the past? Ancient Romans and Greeks did much that we reject today. They were extremely nationalistic and militaristic. Their much-admired architecture and infrastructure was constructed by maltreated slaves. They were male societies, the Greeks to a degree that we find perverse today. Women, if not openly oppressed, were treated as socially and politically second-rate citizens. We have also reacted against the arrogance and cruelty of British Imperialism that emulated many of the ideals of the classical world. And, as our perspective on existence has become more global, so we have also realized that other cultures have made major contributions to the world. We no longer understand history as proceeding linearly and gloriously along a trajectory of Western progress (‘Plato to NATO’).

Add to all this the fact that Latin is a ‘dead’ language and you might, with some justification, think good riddance.

But in spite of all this, we have over-reacted. There is much to be learned from the ancient world. Romans and Greeks, for all their faults, were highly socially organised, sophisticated, cultivated, and thoughtful people – although this might only become clear when you take the time to read and think about what they wrote over 2000 years ago.


About 60% of the English words we use today are derived from the Latin used by ancient Romans. How did that happen when Anglo-Saxon England was Germanic in origin?

When the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, overran England in 1066 their language, Norman-French, was based on Latin and it became the official language of politics, economics, religion, and the law, thus usurping the Anglo-Saxon of the general population.

Roughly, of the 20,000 English words in common usage about 10,400 are Latin, 5,400 Anglo-Saxon, and 2,200 derived ultimately from Greek. Latin is embedded in English in three forms: in their original form (e.g. per capita, vice versa, terra firma), absorbed into the language and taking English plurals (actor, impetus, error), or derived from Latin but with their own form and meaning (accommodation, efficient, available). European Renaissance students learned Latin by conversation as well as book work using the methodthat became known as ‘practical grammar’. The Romans left very little on the teaching of their native tongue, so some of the best books on practical grammar come out of this period, notably the works of Comenius (1592-1670) a brilliant thinker regarded as the ‘Father of Education’ who first introduced the use of pictures as an educational tool, especially for children, and the application of meaningful rather than rote learning. The practical grammar approach was used in the 19th century by Adler’s Latin Grammar a near-forgotten tome recently rediscovered. So many Latin words were added to the English language by early scholars who used Latin as their first language, or via the various Romance languages. Latin-derived words have also spread across the world through the English-speaking colonies of the British Empire to become, by default, the global lingua franca (‘scuse the pun).

For botanists learning Latin will help you to learn the subject and therefore understand plants better. But there are many additional reasons why learning Latin will reap dividends:


      • The European (Roman)ce languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, (Roman)ian, and Catalan) evolved out of Latin – so a foundational knowledge of Latin will provides you with the foundational knowledge for the major European languages which are now spoken over much of the world
      • Latin words make up more than half of the English language which is effectively today’s global lingua franca so learning Latin will give you a better understanding the structure of the English language, its vocabulary, and expression
      • In addition, familiarity with Latin improves comprehension by focusing on word meaning and therefore improves writing skills. These benefits can be enjoyed without having to spend long periods in a native-speaking country
        • It stimulates the mind with a different perspective on life and ideas – and gives us insight into the Western outlook on life and the cultures that gave us our system of government, much of our art, philosophy and science. It also opens the door to some of the world’s greatest literature


      • Learning a new language is an intellectually-demanding exercise to challenge the brain and bring reward for perseverance. It is a worthwhile exercise in itself


    Once confined to dusty university and ecclesiastical libraries, classical books and manuscripts have only in the last decade become available for free download on the following sites:,,,, and the Perseus Digital Library

    Latin is a highly logical and structured language, which means that – unlike English with all its idioms, strange and confusing spellings, and irrational and irregular pronunciations – it can be learned and pronounced in a sytematic way.
    There is, however, a hurdle to vault because Latin is a highly inflected language.

    So … here is the main problem for teachers and students alike: there are four verb conjugations. Then there are five declensions applied to nouns, pronouns, and adjectives (participles – verbal adjectives e.g. ‘burned toast’) each with six (seven) cases that must eventually be learned.

    In a long tradition dating back to Roman schoolchildren, the learning of grammar has been associated with censoriousness and cruel punishment. As a product of an English Grammar school where I learned Latin for five years I recall my terror as the Latin master moved from student desk to student desk demanding the conjugation of verbs which we were force-learned parrot-fashion. I would not be surprised if this tradition was passed on from the Roamns themselves. Poor performance meant public humiliation and occasionally a sore bottom or hand (Roman-style cruelty). It was the only subject of my English GCE exams (as they were called then) that I failed and I think it is ironic that I was probably the only one in my class who would actually use it in later professional life. I got what I deserved because I copied homework from others on the train on the way to school each day (dare I say – steam train!). Returning to this subject has been a revelation, an education, and a real pleasure. Better late than never.

    You’ll be glad to know that we fought bravely against the oppression of Latin masters using devastating wit like the following:


    Latina est lingua morta,
    Mortuissima quam.
    Pred et cedit Romani,
    Et nunc et cedit me.


    Latin is a dead language,
    As dead as it can be.
    First it killed the Romans,
    And now it’s killing me.


    For those in an older generation,  learning Latin meant slogging away at grammar text-books and difficult translation. Nowadays there are numerous Youtube videos and Latin apps that make the whole process simple, quick, and enjoyable.

    Learning Latin – the traditional way

    From Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’


    The logical structure of Latin grammar seems to provide a clear path into the language and is generally taken as the first step in developing familiarity by poring over text books on Latin grammar. But this is not the way we learn other languages which we do by immersion in conversation (aural and oral experience) not by intellectual analysis. Learning grammar leads to a knowledge of Latin as an intellectual decoding process, seeing the structure of the language and translating this into our native tongue. To be truly fluent the language must pass directly into our understanding without this intellectual filtering and this is achieved by experiencing the spoken language on a regular basis which is much less painful. In this way the grammar eventually emerges rather than being superimposed. No doubt the more inhumane aspects of learning the language have contributed to its unwarranted demise.

    So, much of the internal logic of the language is conveyed using different word endings (inflections). For verbs there are endings that indicate whether they are singular or plural, and whether they are referring to ‘I’, ‘you’ (singular), ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘we’, ‘you’ (plural), or ‘the’y. There are four kinds of verbs and the endings for each need to be learned: this is called conjugating the verbs. Similarly word endings indicate whether nouns are the subject or object of a sentence, male or female, singular or plural, and whether they are implying ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘by’, ‘with’, or ‘from’. There are five kinds of noun endings known as declensions and you will therefore need to work at declining nouns. Once you have learned to conjugate verbs and decline nouns the rest will become much more straightforward. Word order, so important in English, is not so important in Latin which achieves similar grammatical objectives using the word endings.

    To follow the grammarian approach there is Wheelock’s Latin and its web supplements (6th edition of 39 chapters available on the web free with a free app revising each chapter), while the practical grammar approach can be addressee through the extensive web and Youtube materials of Evan der Millne at Though even this requires a sustained effort over perhaps several years it will repay the effort. It includes the London Latin Course, Coursum Latinum and much more – explore the materials. My own suggestion would be a combination of both approaches. If you read a little about grammar the broad linguistic landscape will quickly become apparent. Then by listening to spoken Latin and eventually doing your own reading you will find things rapidly becoming much easier and the Classical world will open up to you.


    If you want to learn Latin properly then pronunciation is certainly important: long and short sounds can change the meaning of words that have the same spelling. You will soon become familiar with the line above letters, the macron, indicating a long sound. As part of your learning you can listen regularly to Latin spoken properly, and for this I recommend The London Latin Course on Youtube. It is as well to remember that classical Latin was used for the formal literature read by the well educated: it was the vulgar Latin of the masses that gave rise to the Romance languages.

    But for the gardener and lay-person pronunciation (like word meaning) is probably best decided by common usage. There is no ‘proper’ way any more than there is a ‘proper’ way of pronouncing English – it all depends on dialects (where you come from) and many other factors besides. Although we have clear rules for the pronunciation of Ecclesiastical Latin as it is spoken in the Roman Catholic Church, and also the Reformed Academic pronunciation of classical scholars, which aims to replicate the spoken language of ancient educated Romans, the problem is that there is a kind of Gardeners Latin which seems to have simply evolved naturally by reverting to corresponding words spoken in our native language, and with many variations.

    There is no way that the Classical pronunciation can be forced on people and so we fall back on common usage.

    Perhaps the best example I know expressing this dilemma confronting the plant science student and gardener is a witty poem about the pronunciation of the genus name Cyclamen . . . are the ‘c’s soft or hard, the ‘y’ and ‘a’ long or short? There are many permutations. This erudite little ditty appeared in the pages of an old gardening magazine.[2]

    How shall we sound its mystic name
    Of Greek descent and Persian fame?
    Shall “y” be long and “a” be short,
    Or will the “y” and “a” retort?
    Shall “y” be lightly rippled o’er,
    Or should we emphasise it more?
    Alas! The doctors disagree,
    For “y’s” a doubtful quantity.
    Some people use it now and then,
    As if ‘twere written “Sickly-men”;
    But it comes from kuklos, Greek,
    Why not “kick-laymen”, so to speak?
    The gardener with his ready wit,
    Upon another mode has hit;
    He’s terse and brief – long names dislikes,
    And so he renders it as “Sykes”.

    For the pedantic academic scholarly pronunciation turns on selection of long and short vowels and correct positioning of stress on syllables. In general, pronounce each syllable in turn – so it is cot-on-e-aster, not coton-easter (ko-ton-e-aster, not cotton-easter). But then remember that although Botanical Latin is ‘Latinised’, about 80% of generic names and 30% of specific epithets (the second word in the binomial) are from languages other than Greek or Latin.[10]

    William Stearn tells how the great Linnaeus, who had not travelled widely nor educated in languages other than his native Swedish, when deciding to visit Germany, Holland, England, and France in 1735-1736 spoke to his fellow scientists in Latin.[11]

    The Roman alphabet omitted the letters j and w and the letter k rarely used. In the second century the rounded u appeared but both v and u are now employed in Latin texts of most modern editions, our letter w being a double u of the v-shaped kind. Vowels in Latin had only two possible pronunciations, long and short. Long vowels were generally held about twice as long as short vowels like half notes to quarter notes in music. Long vowels are indicated with a line over the letter (th macron), those without are short and their use or not can change meaning (liber = book, liber = free).

    Though we often associate the Roman alphabet with that of the ancient Greeks, the Romans learned their writing skills from the Etruscans, who had themselves learned to write from Greek colonists who had settled near Naples during the 8th century BCE. So, we may view the Roman alphabet as just one form of the Greek alphabet except that the Greeks had adopted a semitic alphabet used by the Phoenicians whose inspiration, it seems, was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

    We can repay this enormous debt to antiquity by taking the trouble to learn a little about their world and languages.


    Latin has a basic vocabulary (word frequency) of about 1,500 words[1]. Armed with this lexicon you will recognize about 84% of the words in the literature. And then there are less than 4000 words in general use. Ancient Greek has many times that number. For a run-down on word numbers in English and our word capacity see Language – English. In general, words are best learned in context rather than parrot-fashion. Word-frequency dictionaries can be found on Wikipedia for free if you search ‘wiki word frequency.’ Routledge also produces nice word-frequency dictionaries that go up to 5,000 words.

    The key to learning Latin is not intellectual mastery but immersion – exposure to seeing and hearing the language as much as possible: volume of throughput (familiarity), not quality. However, there are now free apps to to give you vocabulary workouts. You must wait for the great texts of Virgil, Cicero etc., their subtlety and splendour can only be appreciated if you understand the finer points, and that does take a little time. Nowadays the business of learning has been speeded up by the vast array of free web resources.

    A work plan

    You can learn Latin without spending a cent.

    My suggestion is to start with Latina Lingua per se – Familia Romana and aim to follow this up with its sequel Latina Lingua per se – Roma Aeterna. This is a manageable goal and by the time you reach the end of the second book you will be ready to set out on your own. These books are entirely in Latin but the progress gently graduated.

    Set up your computer with a series of tabs to address all eventualities – one tab for the text or book you are working on, another tab for ‘no dictionaries’, another tab for a different dictionary, another for a translation (it is OK to work with these as you will learn from them), another for grammar (Wheelock’s grammar is organised into chapters so that you can dip in as needed). For variety you can have another tab to the 170 few-minute, Youtube episodes of spoken Latin in the London Latin Course. There are also many free apps that are now available and these will also reinforce your learning.

    Media gallery

    How Latin works

    Fire of Learning – 2019 – 19:07

    History of the Romance Languages

    Costas Melas – 2019 – 7:47


    First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

    Print Friendly, PDF & Email