This is a detailed guide explaining the major similarities and differences between Latin and Italian.
Much like Ancient Greek, there are no native speakers of Latin today, which technically qualifies the Latin language as a “Dead Language.” Yet, as author Samuel Clemens (better known by his pen name, Mark Twain) once said “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
The same is true with Latin. Despite not having a native speaking base, Latin was has been such a force in European history, art, and literature that it can never truly die, and there is a sizable number of speakers of Latin globally today. Additionally, Latin’s importance is highlighted by the number of romance languages spoken today which take their roots from Latin. And among these languages, none other may be as closely linked as Italian.
In short, Latin remains an important language, and the proximity to Italian often draws comparisons between these two languages. In this article, we explore the similarities and differences between Italian and Latin, as well as an important question: is Latin worth learning over Italian? We dive into the reasons why you may want to consider learning one language over the other.
Similarities Between Latin and Italian Languages
Where do we even begin? There are so many similarities between Latin and Italian. This is chiefly because Italian is a direct derivative of Latin. Almost all Indo-European languages use the Latin alphabet and have similar sounds; however, Italian is probably the closest modern linguistic relative of Latin.
Latin was originally spoken in Italy, so it has gradually evolved over the centuries into modern-day Italian. In fact, the reason that so many European languages derive from Latin is that when the Roman empire conquered other areas of Europe, they imposed Latin onto those cultures.
But when the Roman empire fell, regional dialects took over and turned Latin into what we now know as French, Spanish, Romanian, and others. However, Italy was the hub of ancient Roman civilization, and as such, Latin has changed very little into what we now know to be Italian.
One fun similarity in Latin and Italian that English speakers will appreciate is that they both have the short and long vowel sounds that we know so well. In fact, Italian is one of the only Romance languages that still use this system. They also share a great deal of vocabulary and verb conjugation.
Differences Between Latin and Italian Languages
Although these languages are quite similar at the basic level, Italian has evolved a great deal in the last 1,700 or so years since it took root. Italian has many different variations, too, just as English and Spanish do.
Depending on where in Italy you travel, you’ll hear different accents and vocabulary, whereas since Latin is a “dead language,” it is what it is and no longer changes over time with the influence of native speakers.
Latin originally used three genders, and now Italian only has the masculine and feminine. Latin also doesn’t use articles for its nouns while Italian does.
Latin also has two forms: Vulgar and Literary. Vulgar Latin was the spoken form and Literary, the written. Vulgar (in its Latin roots) means “common”—it was the language spoken by common people who weren’t educated.
Highly learned people had another form that they could use—Literary. The spoken form is what evolved into Italian, so if you are learning Latin and notice that it’s very different from ancient texts you read, that’s why.
Which Language Is Easier To Learn: Italian and Latin?
Many people might say that learning Latin is quite difficult because it’s a “dead language.” However, this simply means that there aren’t any cultures or countries that speak it as their main dialect.
And just because no one speaks Latin as their native language doesn’t mean that no one understands it anymore. You’ll just have to look harder for other people who have learned it.
Learning Italian is probably easier from the get-go because there are plenty of others learning it, too. There are simply more learning tools and materials available for Italian today than there is with Latin.
However, once you get the basics of any language down, becoming proficient in any of them is fairly similar. It all just takes practice, that’s the reality.
Why You Should Learn Italian Rather Than Latin
If you’re going to be spending plenty of time in Italy or with Italian people, then learning Italian is a solid time investment. You’ll always have a broad base of people to speak with, and it gives you better avenues to explore modern culture, food and locales.
Latin, on the other hand, is a great way to understand linguistic roots, but not much more. Not very many people speak it as a conversational language anymore, and it really only serves a purpose if you’re a linguist, or have a deep affinity for ancient Roman history, literature or art.
Why You Should Learn Latin Rather Than Italian
If you plan on learning other languages down the road, then it might be best to start with Latin. Latin is the foundation for plenty of other languages, including Spanish, French, Romanian, and Portuguese.
Plus, plenty of other non-Romance languages (such as Germanic or Hellenic dialects) also have a good portion of words with Latin roots. So, learning Latin will mean that almost any other Western or European language will come more easily to you.
Not to mention, if you are going to concentrate your career or academic studies in science or technology, particularly medicine, then learning Latin is going to be instrumental to your success. Almost all branches of science have technical words rooted in Latin. Even Asian languages use Latin words for animal and plant species so that these are never confused no matter where in the world people are talking about them.
Not very many people learn Latin compared to other languages, so if you take on this challenge, you’ll set yourself above the rest when employers or colleagues are looking for someone with special skills. Who wouldn’t be impressed by someone that speaks fluent Latin?
There are plenty of people for whom learning Italian is the best choice, just as there are plenty who would benefit the most from learning Latin. Only you know your projected trajectory and what will be most useful to you.
No matter which language you decide to learn, gather plenty of resources and people who can help you practice every day. Commit to becoming proficient and use your new knowledge consistently so that it becomes imprinted on your brain. You’ll never regret learning a new language, and you’ll be amazed at the doors that it opens.
Although an argument could be made that Latin is easier to learn than Italian based on its more straightforward grammar (in some instances), most linguists would agree that Italian is easier to learn overall. It more closely aligns with English and other modern languages.
Unless you have a specific literary, scientific, or artistic reason for learning Latin, you will probably be better off learning Italian. Italian is obviously much more broadly spoken today, and thus, will be a more useful modern tool.
Although very closely related linguistically, Latin and Italian do diverge on certain grammar rules. This includes use of genders for nouns (two vs three) and articles.