So, presumably, at some point during of after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin became a dead language. Or, at least no longer used outside of the Church or science. When that happens to a language, does that stop the process of borrowing words?

3 Answers 3


Yes, borrowing still happens—in both directions!

While Latin is dead in that nobody speaks it as their first language, it's still used for official purposes by scientists and the Vatican. When they need a word for a new concept, they have to either create or borrow one, just like for any language. For example, "internet" in modern Latin is interrete (calqued from English), and the Pallas cat has the biological Latin name Otocolobus manul (from Mongolian manuul).

On the other hand, words are still borrowed from Latin for all sorts of purposes, despite its death. "Television", for example, comes from Ancient Greek tēlē + Latin visio, and was borrowed long after the fall of the Roman Empire.

  • 2
    It’s a slippery question but do you really think that Latin which is used now is the same Latin which grew into modern Roman languages? Indeed, it sounds strange when we one say that dead languages still borrow words. They’re dead and hence ‘conserved’; equalising New Latin and Classic Latin isn’t an undoubted thing.
    – Aer
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 11:14
  • 1
    I think that I understand your viewpoint but anyway it seems to me not completely right. English of Beowulf and contemporary English are really different and as Old English is in the past (=dead) it can't loan any words. The loanwords of English are not the loanwords of Ænglisc. If we just extrapolate your approach, then PIE is pretty alive (because all the modern IE languages borrow words from other families...).
    – Aer
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 17:12
  • 2
    @Aer True, but if e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien is writing new riddles in Old English, and has to borrow some words from Old Norse or the like to do so, I'd say that Old English is receiving loanwords in the process (despite being dead). Modern Latin is still dead and fossilized; its grammar hasn't changed significantly since the time of Cicero, we still use all the old case endings that Romance lost, etc.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 17:21
  • 1
    Ah, I see. I can't agree with you because my point of view (and I suppose that this should be a common academic opinion) consider all languages which don't have native speakers dead. Therefore, if anybody adds new anything to Proto-Slavic, this is not the heritage of Proto-Slavic culture but it's the language game of modern scholars.
    – Aer
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 17:32
  • 1
    @Aer Oh absolutely. I absolutely consider Latin dead as it has no native speakers. Yet still, these language games of modern scholars have their place: the Vatican still makes their announcements in Latin, the biologists name all their species with Latin spelling and case marking, etc. I guess it comes down to your definition of borrowing words; I'd say that manul in biological Latin is a borrowing, because it's been shifted to fit Latin phonology and spelling and is used in a Latin context, even though there's no native speaker to approve it.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 17:34

The key is that "Or, at least no longer used outside of the Church or science."

If a language is actually dead—not being spoken or written by anyone—then there's no way for it to borrow words. However you choose to define what "language" means, there's no speech or text that will use the new words, no speaker who will ever think them…1

But medieval and post-medieval Latin was only dead as a vulgar language—as you said, it continued to be used in the Church, and in science (and in other areas, like international diplomacy and often even internal bureaucracy).

Theologians, scientists, engineers, etc. were obviously coming up with new ideas that hadn't occurred to the Romans. So, how did they express those ideas in the Romans' old language?

You can always use circumlocutions to avoid needing new words. But when you're talking about the same concept over and over, that gets annoying fast. So, what do you do? Invent a new word. You can try to invent it from first principles as you think a native Latin speaker would have, or you can calque a German or French word into Latin, or you can just borrow the word. All of these happened in Latin, just as they did in, say, French.

Borrowing into Latin isn't exactly the same as borrowing into French. Most borrowings into French are probably colloquial, and may spread to a sizable subset of the French-speaking community before anyone even stops and takes notice. Most borrowings into Latin, on the other hand, are done consciously, and explained directly in the paper that first borrows them, and spread by people being consciously convinced of the coinage's value. But they're both borrowing.

1. Even this isn't quite true. In theory, even a totally dead language could be resurrected. I don't mean just cases like Modern Hebrew (which is usually considered a different language from the older languages it was constructed from), but people who have taught themselves to, e.g., speak Old Franconian fluently, the same way others have taught themselves Klingon. They may have very small speech communities, and no L1 speakers—but if they're actually using the language at all, they could end up borrowing words. At that point, do we say that Old Franconian has borrowed a word from Modern Dutch, or do we say they're actually speaking a new language, Zombie Franconian? Or does it only count if they raise their kids speaking L1 Old Franconian, and their kids borrow words? I think it's really just a question of definitions, not facts. If cases actually arise that push the borders of our definitions, we'll come up with new definitions, or new words (and then they can borrow them into Zombie Franconian).


If a language community is borrowing words into their language, then I can't see how there would be any way that it should legitimately be considered a dead language. If languages which people are productively using and developing can still be called "dead" then language death is meaningless.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.