New Latin

From Academic Kids

New Latin (or Neo-Latin) is a post-medieval version of Latin, now used primarily in International Scientific Vocabulary cladistics and systematics.

The term came into widespread use towards the end of the 1890s among linguists and scientists.

Classicists use the term "Neo-Latin" to describe the use of the Latin language for any purpose, scientific or literary, after the Renaissance (for which purpose they often use the date 1600), although, for example, the editors of the I Tatti Renaissance Library call their Renaissance Latin language texts Neo-Latin as well.

The binomial nomenclature and classification system for living things devised by Carolus Linnaeus is perhaps the most important body of neo-Latin text today, and the chief engine for the development of new Latinate vocabulary today. Important neo-Latin scientific works were written by Isaac Newton and Leibniz during the period; at least during the beginning of the neo-Latin period, scientific works meant to be read by an international audience were still written in Latin in order to address an international academic audience. By stark contrast, Krafft-Ebing couched portions of his Psychopathia Sexualis in Latin, but this resort to Latin was a sort of cryptography designed to conceal descriptions of sexual practices from the unlearned: it was designed to shrink his readership, rather than expand it.

Latin could be used as cryptography by Krafft-Ebing, because over this period the study of Latin declined. At the beginning of the period, Latin was a universal school subject, and indeed, the pre-eminent subject for elementary education in Western Europe and those places which shared its culture. All universities required Latin, and often ancient Greek, proficiency to obtain admittance as a freshman. The Latin studied in schools was almost always classical Latin, thanks to the continuing influence of the Humanists; its vocabulary and grammar were exclusively that of the Roman period, and little thought was given to writing about contemporary subjects in Latin.

Widely variant traditions of Latin pronunciation among several countries eroded Latin's value as an auxiliary language for international communication. People who attempted to speak Latin frequently produced macaronic Latin with an admixture of contemporary vocabulary; the classicizing standards of the Humanist educators meant that these admixtures were condemned as solecisms rather than viewed as a source that would enrich a living language. Disappointment with the levels of proficiency achieved in Latin by education was a frequently expressed theme. This perceived level of failure was in fact related to the exclusive teaching of classical Latin as an object of antiquarian study, and the use of Classical norms rather than looser or contemporary usage as the standard to which written and spoken Latin should aspire. Since Latin was studied but seldom used outside the schoolroom, many Latin students went on to forget most of the Latin they once knew. Latin held this place of educational pre-eminence until the second half of the nineteenth century, when its value was increasingly questioned; in the twentieth century, educational philosophies such as that of John Dewey dismissed its relevance.

A large body of mostly theological work continued to be written in Latin by Roman Catholic writers. Up until the 1960s, Roman Catholic priests studied theology from Latin textbooks, even if the language of instruction in most seminaries was the local vernacular. Latin is still spoken in international gatherings of Roman Catholic leaders, such as the Second Vatican Council or a papal conclave to elect a new Pope.

Literary work was done in Latin by John Milton, one of the last writers of any significant literary reputation to have written a large body of purely literary work in Latin. Other, later, authors, including Max Beerbohm and Arthur Rimbaud, have written Latin verse, but these texts have been either school exercises or occasional pieces. Various texts — usually children's books — have been translated into Latin in the twentieth century; these include:

These books, too, seem mostly to have been made as teaching tools or as learned stunts. Henry Beard has written a series of books on Latin for All Occasions that attempt to find Latin equivalents for contemporary catchphrases.

Compare: Latino sine flexione.


  • Waquet, Françoise, Latin, or the Empire of a Sign: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Verso, 2003) ISBN 1859844022; translated from the French by John Howe.

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