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Karen McClellan wrote:

Hi, guys —

My name is Karen and I'm almost 13. I've been to private school and public school. I was in the sixth grade and was offered Latin instead of Spanish at the time, but the counselor told me it was a dead language that wouldn't benefit me at all.

I was curious and took the class. It turns out the counselor was super duper wrong, since most legal and medical terms are based in Latin (modus operandi, quid pro quo, etc), I think that's a horrible mistake.

  • Why do you and your people talk in a dead language while you are in Church?

I think it's quite lovely, and useful to understand and appreciate life.

  • Why is Latin considered a dead language and is there an ATM in Italy that dispenses gold bullion, not lira?

Just wondering.

That's pretty cool if so . . . danke.


  { Why is Latin a dead language and why do you talk in a dead language while you are in Church? }

A friend, Anonymous Andrew replied:

Bravo, Karen!

You found that Latin is a great language of culture; it helps you connect with literature, history, religion, and ideas that go back 2,500 years. It shows you the basis of so many English words, with perhaps 40-50% of the vocabulary of English coming from Latin. It's also the mother tongue from which several major modern languages grew.

Incidentally, there are people who keep Latin alive as a spoken language, meeting in conferences and other educational events to share their interest and deepen their knowledge. I attended one some years ago and it was a very good experience, so if you want to extend your Latin learning, you can find several summer courses and living-Latin programs around the country. The event I attended was with the Familia Sancti Hieronymi, which meets every summer for a week.

For us Catholics in the Roman Church, Latin is the mother tongue of Catholic worship, even though it has been largely replaced with worship in the vernacular in the past 50 years. The use of Latin in Catholic worship is definitely a minority phenomenon these days. In most dioceses only a handful of churches offer Sunday Mass in Latin, and a few monasteries conduct most of their services in Latin. It remains a thing of beauty. A way of worshipping that fostered holiness in the lives of saints and it is enjoying a time of growth after a nearly complete disappearance here in the U.S. Among young Catholics. There is an international association Juventutem which encourages the observance of the old form of Mass in Latin. And most of the classic sacred music of the Catholic Church, from Gregorian chant, to 20th-century choral works, is written with Latin texts, so an appreciation for Latin gives one access to these artistic and spiritual treasures.

With best regards,


John replied:

Hi Karen,

Thanks for your question. It's a very impressive question coming from someone your age.

Let's see if we can't help you.

Latin is indeed not a dead language. In fact up until the 19th century all medical and law books were written in Latin. In Western Europe, it was widely understood or studied so the Church used it because it was quite alive and a language that people could understand. If a German went to Spain, the Mass would be in Latin, because they could still understand it.

So it is common fallacy that the Church chose Latin because it, was or, is a dead language. In fact the Church in the West, changed from Ancient Greek to Latin, (around 250 A.D.) because Ancient Greek or Koine Greek was no longer understood by the people. The Church specifically chose to use the vulgar Latin or (Latin Vulgate) over classical Latin because it was readily understood by the common people. Church Latin therefore differs from Classical Latin, just like Koine Greek, the original language of the New Testament, differed from Classical Greek.

It's important to note that the use of Latin only happened in the Western Church. The Eastern Church always used whatever language was native to area.

In the 1960s the Western Church, realizing that Latin was no longer widely taught or understood, allowed the use of whatever language the people understood. Here is where the confusion comes in.

Some folks didn't like the change, so they made the claim that Latin was superior because it is a dead language but they forget that Latin was chosen because it was the most common language and very much alive at the time it was chosen. Their pretext went something like this: Latin doesn't change therefore the meanings of the words don't change.

Now Latin is still the official language of the Church so Church documents and so forth are still written in Latin and then translated to the various languages. There are several reasons, among them is that it is the root language for many of the most common spoken languages. The Mass is still often offered in Latin as well but not because it's dead rather because Latin remains the official language of the Western Church, which is also known as the Latin Rite.


Mike replied:

Dear Karen,

You said:

  • Why do you and your people talk in a dead language while you are in Church?

I think it's quite lovely, and useful to understand and appreciate life.

  • Why is Latin considered a dead language . . .

To answer your question, we have to address:

  1. The history of liturgical language in the Church
  2. The history of languages spoken by various cultures, and the question:
  3. What is a dead language?

There have been many liturgical languages used in the Church throughout history including Aramaic (current day Syriac), Greek, and Latin. At one point in history, the Western Church may have had some mini-family fights over whether Latin or Greek should be adopted as the language of the Church but ultimately the Church adopted Latin seeing Latin, in the Early Church, was the language of the common people spoke in the Roman Empire and the Church has always wanted people to understand God's Word, doctrines, and the prayers being said.

In the Eastern Church, they have always used whatever language was native to area for the same (#ii) reason. Back then, just about anyone who got a well-formed education studied Latin. It was required for Med School and Law School.

Because Latin became the root for many spoken languages, phrases and words have been developed and are in use, to this day, used among many legal and medical fields. For example, there are American laws with Latin titles:

Posse Comitatus is a Law that was enacted in 1878 It prohibits the American Arm Forces from being used to enforce Domestic Laws.

The Motto of the United States of America is E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many One. Look at the Latin (E Pluribus Unum) again:

  • 13 Letters,
  • 13 original colonies becoming the original
  • 13 states of the United States of America.

Overtime, various publicly spoken languages developed as dialects from the original Latin. To this day, many current-day spoken languages all have their roots (or meanings) based on that Latin.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of legal terms that are in Latin.

Since the time when Latin was the public language of the common people, other languages have developed.

For many centuries around the world, the Church liturgically spoke Latin, meaning the celebrant of the Mass would be saying the Mass in Latin with the faithful following the written Latin in their missalettes.

There was no problem with this by the Church or the faithful for long awhile until the Church decided that an additional option should be added so that the faithful could optionally hear and participate in the Mass in the vernacular . . . their local language,

"[They] should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy." Vatican II.

As to the question:

  • Why is Latin considered a dead language . .

A dead language is a language where the meaning of the word in one century basically remains the same 50 centuries later or 50 centuries earlier. The word means the same then as it does now.

This is unlike spoken languages.

For example, in the 1950's, if a man said, I am gay, it would mean something totally different than a man saying, I am gay, in 2017.

For that reason, yes, Latin is a dead language.

Latin being a dead language does not mean we have not had other various liturgical languages throughout the Church's life.

Finally, although Latin is not spoken by any culture today, it's still used worldwide in various fields of study as new words arise that never existed in previous years like: internet, radio, television.

I hope this helps,


A friend, Anonymous Andrew replied:

Andrew replied:

The reference to missalettes below is an anachronism: they have not existed for centuries, just a few decades. Even hand missal books for the laity were probably not very common before the 20th century.

Incidentally, the Eastern churches have not always used the vernacular. Sometimes they do and did, but sometimes they use antique languages such as Slavonic, Byzantine Greek, Syriac and Malayalam.


Anonymous Andrew followed-up later:

Dear Karen,

Latin is no longer used as the everyday spoken language of any culture, so it's not surprising that it is commonly called a dead language.

Latin still has a place in the Church: it is the official language of the Roman Church, used in official editions of Church documents and in religious services. However, modern languages are also permitted in services and have become much more common in use than Latin.

For Catholics who appreciate Latin, praying in Latin adds a sense of unity with the Church across the world and across the boundaries of time. Many Latin texts used in the Mass are over 1,500 years old and have been used continuously since the early centuries of the Church. Moreover, the great sacred music heritage of the Roman Church is mostly written with Latin texts.

The Roman Church is not the only religious body to conduct services in an ancient language: the human tendency to keep an ancient language in use in religious practice also appears in non-Christian religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism as well as in some of the Eastern Christian churches such as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church.


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