Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Why did writers use ancient latin to make their point?

  1. Dec 25, 2015 #1
    whats so special about latin that they couldn't just make their point without using latin, especially because more people could understand their point?
    I have 2 ideas.. do either of them have any merit?
    1. latin was used by the educated people so they could exclude not so smart people from any conversation.
    2. latin is "dead" language so it no longer evolves like "live" languages. So making a point in latin is less likely to be misunderstood especially through long passages of time.

    if both answers are wrong, then what else is there about latin that writers used it so much back in day? (I mean about 200-300 years ago)

    ALso what is the technical name for when a writer starts an essay of a chapter with some quote, (or maybe some latin phrase in this case)

    thanks for any help
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 25, 2015 #2
    Two hundred years ago this tradition was almost gone. It came from the Middle Ages, when every learned person in the Roman Catholic world could read Latin.
  4. Dec 25, 2015 #3
    Latin used to be the common language of the educated. If you wanted your thoughts understood by the international community, then that is what you used. Today it is English.

    Back in 1950 or so if you wanted to be a chemist you had to learn German. Germany was the center of chemistry research. (Maybe it still is, I dunno.) But just enough German to read technical papers with a little aid from a dictionary, that's what you needed to get a degree in chemistry. All this has faded away, I think. World War II impoverished Europe, made the US the center of research in many fields, and English took over. Maybe now automatic translation is good enough.
  5. Dec 25, 2015 #4

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Which writers are you talking about? Julius Caesar used Latin for a different reason than Newton.
  6. Dec 25, 2015 #5


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I don't think any scientists used Latin after maybe the early 1700s. Even Newton, who used Latin for his Principia Mathematica in 1687, later used English for his Opticks in 1704 (and then it was translated into Latin in 1706!).
  7. Dec 25, 2015 #6
    For Newton and his contemporaries writing in Latin was, in my opinion, a kind of intellectual snobbery. Latin was called, "The Language of the Learned," meaning it was a sign of education. They wrote things in Latin mostly to assert their elitism. A generation before, Galileo had already eschewed this practice, writing his books in Italian to broaden his audience, and simultaneously proving there wasn't any real need to communicate science in Latin.
  8. Dec 25, 2015 #7


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Well, if people are separated by large distances and different languages, it makes sense for there to be a common language that scientists and others can communicate in. I think that European scientists, in particular having descended intellectually somewhat from the Scholastic traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, naturally adopted the language of the church, which was Latin. That priests and monks all were taught Latin certainly made it easier for the Church to post clerics to a new land and have them communicate with each other without the need for translators. It certainly made record keeping easier, since the business of the Church was recorded in Latin. Certainly, the early sciency types noted the advantages to having a common written language of discourse and adopted Latin, since there was already a large body of Latin speakers among the educated.

    This is not to say that Latin was the only language which was adopted ad hoc for use over a wide geographical area in a specialized role. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French was used almost universally as the language at court by the various monarchs of Europe and for diplomatic correspondence between states. When the Hanovers came to rule England after 1714, the first kings George spoke no English, and their English ministers in London spoke no German, so the business of state was carried out in French, which both parties knew fluently. When Frederick the Great ascended the Prussian throne in 1740, he preferred using French in his correspondence and in conversing with his intimates, as he was a great admirer of French culture. Eventually, the use of French as a court language and as the language of diplomacy also fell by the wayside as more state business began to be conducted in the vernacular.

    The great prolific mathematician Leonhard Euler was, I believe, a significant exception. Although Swiss by birth, he worked for many years in Russia for the tsars there. After his employ there ended, he settled in Berlin for a time, before eventually returning to Russia, where he died. Euler wrote quite extensively on many scientific topics besides mathematics, and he did so in several languages besides Latin.


    The great mathematician C.F. Gauss was producing scientific works written in Latin as late as the 1830s, but started publishing in German by the early 1840s.


    As far as Newton and other scientists writing in Latin to 'assert their elitism', I don't think there is any doubt that these men were indeed 'elite' by just about any sense of that often badly misused adjective, and certainly owe no apologies to lesser minds.
  9. Dec 25, 2015 #8
    Galileo wrote Sidereus Nuncius in Latin. It is about the audience one wants to reach. In Newton's time, few people on the continent read English.
  10. Dec 25, 2015 #9
    Yes, but consider the books of his he didn't write in Latin.
    Yes. Galileo wanted his ideas to be readable even by practical men: mechanics, shipbuilders, artisans; not just the classically educated.
    True, but few in England spoke Italian. Regardless, Newton and his contemporaries were quite conversant with the works of Galileo. If someone thinks a work is important enough, it will get translated.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook