Medieval Latin, Changes in vocabulary, syntax, and grammar

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Medieval Latin was the form of Latin used in the Middle Ages, primarily as a medium of scholarly exchange and as the liturgical language of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but also as a language of science, literature, law, and administration. Despite the clerical origin of many of its authors, medieval Latin should not be confused with Ecclesiastical Latin. There is no real consensus on the exact boundary where Late Latin ends and medieval Latin begins. Some scholarly surveys begin with the rise of early Ecclesiastical Latin in the middle of the 4th century, others around 500, and still others with the replacement of written Late Latin by written Romance languages starting around the year 900.


Medieval Latin had ceased to be a living language, and was instead a scholarly language of the minority of educated men in medieval Europe, used in official documents more than for everyday communication. This resulted in two major features of Medieval Latin compared with Classical Latin. First, many authors attempted to "show off" their knowledge of Classical Latin by using rare or archaic constructions, sometimes anachronistically (i.e. haphazardly mixing constructions from Republican and Imperial Latin, which in reality existed centuries apart). Second, many lesser scholars had a limited grasp of "proper" Latin, or were increasingly influenced by Vulgar Latin which was mutating into the Romance languages.

  • Word order usually tended towards that of the vernacular language of the author, and not the artificial and polished word order of Classical Latin. Conversely, an erudite scholar might attempt to "show off" by intentionally constructing a very complicated sentence. Because Latin is an inflected language, it is technically possible to place related words at opposite ends of a paragraph-long sentence, and owing to the complexity of achieving this it was seen by some as a sign of great skill.
  • Typically, prepositions are used much more frequently (as in modern Romance languages) for greater clarity, instead of using the ablative case alone. For example, while amico and cum amico both mean "with a friend" in Classical and Medieval Latin, for the sake of clarity Medieval Latin would tend to include the preposition cum. Further, in Classical Latin the subject of a verb was often left implied, unless it was being stressed: videt = "he sees". For clarity, Medieval Latin more frequently includes an explicit subject: is videt = "he sees", without necessarily stressing the subject.
  • Various changes occurred in vocabulary, and certain words were mixed into different declensions or conjugations. Many new compound verbs were formed. Some words retained their original structure but drastically changed in meaning, e.g. animositas specifically means "wrath" in Medieval Latin, while in Classical Latin it generally referred to "high spirits, excited spirits" of any kind.
  • Owing to heavy use of biblical terms, there was a large influx of new words borrowed from Greek and Hebrew, and even some grammatical influences. This obviously largely occurred among priests and scholars, not the laity. In general, it is difficult to express abstract concepts in Latin, and many scholars admitted as much. For example, Plato's abstract concept of "the Truth" could only be expressed in Latin as literally "that which is always true". Medieval scholars and theologians, translating both the Bible and Greek philosophers into Latin out of the Koine and Classical Greek, cobbled together many new abstract concept words in Latin.

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