As something of an amateur linguistics nerd, I’ve always taken a liking to Latin. It’s a good thing too, because I couldn’t avoid the language if I tried. It’s impossible to research zoology at any length without running into scientific names and Latin words for body parts. What a shame it must be, then, that so many seem to have little interest in its storied history. Far from dying away, Latin pervades every corner of the academic world, and influences even the most casual of registers. And that’s not even counting how much inspiration it provides to fantasy authors.
That brings us to this week’s topic. I intend to recount a brief overview of Latin’s history, and describe just why it’s as popular as it is today. I’ll try and clear up a few misconceptions if I can, and argue why this so-called dead language is actually alive and well, and how you can learn more if it piques your interest. And, most importantly of all, we’re going to talk about how cryptids could be classified if we ever convinced the scientific community that they actually exist.
Historia Brevis Latini
Latin is an Italic language, a branch of Indo-European. Latin script is based on Etruscan script, which was itself a derivative of Phœnecian script. The first records we have of Latin date back to Rome, although the Romans acquired the language through contact with the Latins. (Hence the name.) This early version is known as Old Latin. While it has much in common with the Latin of later periods, an undiscerning eye might mistake it for Greek or some other language, on account of its declensions.
You see, Latin is a highly synthetic language. Whereas analytic languages, like Modern English, for example, tend to convey syntax, AKA sentence structure, largely through word-order, synthetic languages tend to convey that same structure though word-endings. As an example, let’s say we wanted to describe an event that involved a ball, a lion, and the act of striking. We must, of course, differentiate which of the two struck the other. This gives us either “The lion strikes the ball” or “The ball strikes the lion”. By switching the word order, we have conveyed an entirely separate meaning. In Latin, however, “Leō pilam ferit” and “Leōnem pila ferit” manage to have completely opposite meanings even with the same word order.
This can be done to some degree in English, of course. If you’ve ever heard “Yoda-speak”, you’ll know that English does retain a somewhat flexible word order when speaking poetically, although this is rarely done in casual speech. Some English words still follow this older pattern of case differentiation. That’s the difference between I and me, or who and whom. Synthetic vs analytic is more of a spectrum, really. Even Latin has word-orders that are more common, and some sentences that are technically correct would sound really bizarre. Then there are languages, like Esperanto, that have strict word-order and clear word-endings.
Why go on this tangent? Well, the point is that Latin’s most recognizable features are its word-endings, and not that of any period; only those found in a specific dialect, known as Classical Latin. This nomenclature refers to the higher registers of Latin spoken around the first centuries BC and AD. This is the first form of the language you’re likely to recognize in writing, although you probably won’t recognize much of the sound.
At the same time as Classical Latin, in more rural dialects was a form of the language known as Rustic Latin. It sounds almost like a mix of Italian and Greek, and most people may have some trouble recognizing it as Latin. Later centuries added even further sound changes, and the language steadily morphed into something resembling the Romance languages.
It’s at this point that I need to dispel a few misconceptions. You may have heard the term Vulgar Latin before. Rather than referring to a specific dialect, it’s something of a catch-all; any dialect of Latin that’s of a lower register, a more distant geography, or a later date than Classical may be called a form of Vulgar Latin. Now, there was once a theory that there were two Latin languages used contemporarily, one in official writing and the other in everyday speech. (If you’re familiar with Demotic Greek and Katharevousa, this was posited to be a similar situation.) This theory was since abandoned, however, and it is now widely accepted that Latin dialects were more organic, like how contemporary Modern English has developed since the time of Shakespeare.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter of Latin history is that of the Carolingian Reforms. In the early Mediæval Period, Latin had splintered into various dialects of the different nations. We might dub this Proto-Romance, as these dialects were fundamentally forms of Romance languages. The words were pronounced much like a Romance language would, but were still spelled like they were in Classical Latin. This left a variety of silent letters and misleading vowels. If you thought English and French had confusing orthographies, you probably wouldn’t appreciate sounding out the “Latin” of this time period.
As you might imagine, this made literacy and international communication difficult. The solution? Reinstitute a form of standardized Latin, and allow the various vernaculars to have their own spelling schemes. This standardized Latin, known as Ecclesiastical Latin, had a mix of sounds from Classical Latin and the Romance languages, and would sound slightly different depending on what country you were from. This process revolutionized communication, and paved the way for much of science, law, and philosophy as we know it today.
Latin was again revitalized in the Renaissance with the advent of New Latin. This is basically just a form of Ecclesiastical with new words and expressions that made the communication of academic concepts easier. The greatest body of Latin literature is from this period. Names like Linnæus, Newton, and Descartes were widely published in New Latin, and the diction thereof colours our technical terminology to this day. If you’ve ever wondered why body parts and animal species were all named in Latin, it’s because Latin was the language these subjects were pioneered in.
Fantasia Linguaque Latina
Many of you might be familiar with various works in the fantasy genre, particularly the ever-popular Harry Potter franchise. As you may have noticed, there is a tendency to make spells and incantations either based on Latin, or using Latin words. Rarely will you have it that Latin is used conversationally, or described at any length, and the pronunciation is likewise all over the place.
Why did this become such a trope? Well, it may have something to do with the origin of the fantasy genre itself. Two of the most prominent fantasy authors, at least in the early days of the genre if not for all time, are J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, were both heavily influenced by traditional education, which included Latin among other subjects. (The fact that fantasy is so often based on the Mediæval is likely also in part due to these authors popularizing such a setting, and their collective appreciation for Church history.) Tolkien, particularly, was a professional linguist, and had a deep respect for the formalized use of Latin… although he doesn’t seem to have been a fluent speaker.
This mirrors the contemporary use of Latin almost perfectly. It’s seen as a language worthy of respect, if not understanding. Pronunciation is almost never coherent, let alone authentic, and its use tends to be limited to isolated phrases or short quotations, except when simply reciting an older text verbatim. This contrasts with the way most languages are portrayed, of course. Japanese, French, Italian, Mandarin: these tend to be spoken in an actual dialogue with flowing sentences.
Thus, Latin itself has been relegated to a form of magic in popular consciousness. Rather than a vehicle for information, it’s treated as some kind of arcane code required to unlock the secrets of the universe, or as a sort of incantation of power. It may then surprise you that Latin is not really a dead language. It’s really more of an auxiliary language at this point, and it’s still in use today. In fact, Latin has been spoken fluently for thousands of years straight at this point, and it shows no signs of stopping.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the use of Latin in exorcism. While IRL exorcisms are often very little like you see in popular media, it is certainly true that Latin is often involved. This is no small part of how Latin is perceived. Because Latin is associated with Church history, on account of both that the Carolingian Reforms cemented its use and that the Vatican is one of the few organizations to work with Latin to this day, it has a somewhat archaic appeal, seen as being a ceremonial language passed down from time immemorial, though whether venerable or antiquated depends on who you ask.
Okay, let’s get to the fun part. How could one go about classifying a cryptid, should it finally be recognized by mainstream science? Well, there are rules to establishing binomial nomenclature. It should be noted that a physical specimen, alive or dead, in part or in whole, is typically required to propose a new species. This could mean as little as a single fossilized bone in some cases, or as much as a group of live organisms in others. Then, the scientist publishing this new species simply selects a valid binomen, and that becomes the species’ scientific name.
Now, something interesting is what happens when there is already a name for a species, but it’s wrong. For instance, what if an animal was put into the wrong genus? Well, standard procedure is to simply move the specific name into that genus, unless it’s already taken, in which case a new specific name would be coined. What if two apparently different species turned out to be only one species? Well, standard procedure is to use whichever was published first, should it still be valid.
This brings us to an interesting question. Does bigfoot already have a scientific name? Well, possibly. Carl Linnæus described a number of Homo species. The current consensus is that these referred to the principal racial groups in humans, (caucasoid, congoid, & mongoloid) but Dr Meldrum has opined that they may actually refer to various types of wildman that cultures have been reporting for millennia. It’s hard to know for sure, because the only way you could ask the original author would be a Ouija board. (This is a joke; don’t seriously try it.)
If the binomen Homo troglodytes really was describing forest giants, then it still has problems. Namely, current evidence suggests that sasquatch is not closely related to humans. This problem also plagues the other scientific name attributed to the wood apes, Homo sapiens cognatus, coined by the infamous Dr Ketchum. This would render the creature as sharing a species with modern humans, only different subspecies. While some evidence may point this direction, the majority of evidence goes the opposite way.
Thus, it seems entirely likely that if science does manage to recognize the existence of forest giants before the heat-death of the universe, an entirely new name will likely be invented. If you’re interested in some of the other strange things early taxonomists argued about, you might want to look into animalia paradoxa.
I hope that you walk away from this article with a little more knowledge about Latin, and a great deal more interest. Studying ancient languages has never been easier. In addition to a range of paid courses or good-old-fashioned independent study, there are creators dedicated to teaching ancient languages and a wide variety of online communities and free resources. You can gain a command of this aged tongue from the comfort of your own home.
Rather than being set in stone, Latin is an ever-evolving art form that has stood the test of time. From children’s literature to academic publications, Latin is everywhere. Understanding it can help you communicate across language barriers, describe scientific concepts with precision, and yes, even classify cryptids.