Friday, January 30, 2015

The Etymology of Our Calendar: Part 2

Following an extensive look at the Latin language last week, we started examining the etymology of the calendar months on Wednesday. Today we're looking at the latter half of the year in the final part of our etymological investigation of the calendar months.

Caesar and Vercingetorix, who was depicted
differently in the popular Asterix comics.

You may have noticed while reading Wednesday's post that all of the months of the year originated in the Latin language. July is no exception. What is different about July is that it's the first month in our calendar to not feature the name of a deity. July was originally Iulius mensis in Latin, Julie in Anglo-French and Jule in Old French.

As mentioned on Wednesday, the order of the months hasn't always been the same as it is today. July was originally the fifth month in the old Roman calendar, and was referred to as Quintilis (fifth) before its name was changed to honour Gaius Julius Caesar.


As the sixth month in the calendar, August was originally called Sextilis (sixth) before being named after the founder of the Roman Empire, Gaius Octavius, also known as Augustus. The Latin term Augustus mensis made its way into English either directly or by way of the French term Auguste.


Despite having plenty of gods, emperors, and leaders, the Romans were clearly sick of honouring people by the time they got around to naming this month. In fact, the two months at the start of the year were the last to be created following a reform of the old Roman calendar by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Despite this reform putting everything out of order, the name of the then seventh month was September, with septem being the Latin for "seven".

The octo in "octopus" also refers to the number eight.

If you can count, you'll know that eight follows seven and October follows September. Just like September, October is numeric and came from the Latin October mensis, unsurprisingly meaning the "eighth month", which was directly borrowed into English. If you hadn't guessed, octo in Latin means "eight".


November hasn't changed much over 2,000 years. The Latin term November mensis ("ninth month") or the Old French Novembre gave us the term for the eleventh month in our calendar.


You get the idea! Seven, eight, nine, leaving us with the "tenth month", December mensis. The word decem obviously means "ten" in Latin, and then Old French took it and made it into Decembre before English permanently borrowed it to be the twelfth and final month of our calendar.

That's all of the months. We'll see you after the weekend when we'll be back with a new country profile!

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Etymology of Our Calendar: Part 1

Since last week's extensive look at Latin, I've had Roman culture on the brain. Almost two years ago we looked at the etymology of our week (in English, at least), and we're now finally going to focus on the 12 months that make up the year, at least in the Gregorian calendar. Let's dive straight in...


The first month of the year, like many others, gets its name from Latin. Originally, it was called Ianarius mensis, meaning "month of Janus", the two-faced Roman god of traditions and beginnings. When I say two-faced, I mean that he actually had two faces, not that he was bitchy and gossipy. Janus used one face to look forward to the future and the other to look back into the past.

The Arch of Janus, Rome
While naming January after Janus seems more than appropriate, there is evidence suggesting that the month also belongs to Juno, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, the queen of the gods, and the mother of both Mars (the god of war, destruction, and masculinity) and Vulcan (the god of fire and volcanoes). What a terrible pair of kids!

Ianarius (without the mensis) made its way into Old French and Old North French as Genever and Jenvier respectively before it replaced an Old English term and became the commonly-used term for the month.


February was originally februarius mensis. The name came from februare, which means "purify". This makes February "the month of purification", though after New Year's Eve, I reckon that maybe February should be the first month of the year. In Old English, the month was known as solmonaĆ°, which meant "mud month".

Just like "January", "February" was borrowed from the Old French Feverier before its spelling was altered to February, conforming with Latin in the 15th century.


March is one of the few calendar months in English that sounds like an English word. However, it comes from Latin just like the others. Martius mensis was the "month of Mars",  paying homage to Juno's son and the god of war. The term made its way into English from Anglo-French and Old French marche and marz respectively.

For some goddesses, such as Venus, having a planet
named after you just isn't enough...

April was known as avril in Old French before it was used in English as aueril, the name of the fourth month. Like other names of the months, it was changed to be more similar to Latin at the time and became apprile towards the end of the 14th century.

In its original form, it was known as mensis Aprilis, the "month of Venus", and was the second month in the Roman calendar. This discrepancy between the orders of the months will become apparent later, so keep that in mind for the latter half of the year when we get to it.


May was mai in Old French and Maius mensis in Latin. This name meant little more than "month of May". Original, right? It is thought to be a reference to Maia, a Greek goddess who was the wife of Vulcan and the Roman goddess of earth. However, it may have also been a completely different Maia who happened to share the name.


June, like January may have been, was named after Juno. I feel that this is much more convincing as a month for Juno, basing my opinion on little more than it sounding similar. However, if you need more convincing, the Latin name of the month was Iunius mensis, with Iunius thought to be from Iuononius, meaning "sacred to Juno".

We think six months in a day is more than enough, so we'll be back on Friday with the rest of the year. We'll see you then!

Part 1 | Part 2

Monday, January 26, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Tanzania

A couple of weeks ago we took a look at the languages of Kenya, a country in eastern Africa. Today we're shifting our focus to the linguistic diversity of Tanzania, another African country which borders Kenya to the south.

The Official Languages

Tanzania has two official languages. In fact, they are the same two languages as the official languages in Kenya: English and Swahili. Swahili, a Bantu language, is spoken by approximately 15 million people in Tanzania due to its widespread use as a lingua franca. English, on the other hand, became an official language during Tanzania's colonial era.

In the present day, English is generally used in secondary education and universities as well as in the courts and the technology industry. However, Swahili is preferred for things such as everyday conversation, politics, and primary education.

A Tingatinga painting, which is a type of painting
that developed in Tanzania in the late 20th century.
Other Languages

Despite having only two official languages, Tanzania is actually home to over 120 other languages. As we saw when we recently looked at Kenya's languages, most of these languages belong to the Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan languages. We don't have time to look at all of these languages today, but we will mention a few of Tanzania's most spoken languages. 

Most of the Niger-Congo languages spoken in Tanzania belong to the Bantu language family. A few of the most spoken Bantu languages in Tanzania include Sukuma, spoken by approximately 5.4 million people, and the Gogo and Haya languages, which are both used by over 1 million speakers. The Makonde language is also important in Tanzania. It is spoken by nearly 1 million members of the Makonde ethnic group that resides in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique.

In terms of Nilo-Saharan languages, the Datooga language boasts many speakers. Over 87,000 people living in the Great Rift Valley speak Datooga. The Maasai language is also spoken by around 450,000 members of the Maasai ethnic group in Tanzania, plus many more native speakers in southern Kenya.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Language Profile: New Latin and Contemporary Latin

Since last Friday was the anniversary of the foundation of the Roman Empire, we started looking at the Latin language, which arguably experienced its heyday during that time. We first looked at Old Latin, which predated the Roman Empire, before covering Latin as it was used during the Roman Empire.

On Wednesday we discussed Vulgar Latin and Late Latin, which were the spoken and written forms of the language respectively. While Medieval Latin followed Late Latin, we're going to save that for another time because we'd really like to discuss the birth of the Romance languages alongside Medieval Latin at some length. With that in mind, we're concluding our trip through the 2,000-year-old history of the Latin language by looking at both New Latin and Contemporary Latin.

New Latin

It just so happens that New Latin isn't really all that new. Sure, it's a lot newer than Old Latin, but it's considered to have appeared during the Renaissance as writers sought to change the grammar of Medieval Latin, which was frequently used, back so it was more like that of Classical Latin.

The Principia Mathematica by Newton was
written using New Latin.
These reforms were part of an effort to make Medieval Latin, which had been used as the lingua franca of the Catholic Church for a long time, more useful in other fields. The invention of the printing press and the proliferation of printed media are thought to have helped cement New Latin's place as a replacement for Medieval Latin since works written in New Latin were being printed and distributed across Europe at the time.

New Latin took over Medieval Latin's role as the language of science and education and was firmly established during the 16th century. It was at its most popular for around two hundred years from the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 17th century. During this time, New Latin was also taught as a subject in schools across Europe since it was a prerequisite to joining several universities.

New Latin started to fall out of favour across Europe as national languages began to be used in more and more official capacities. French became more important in international diplomacy, resulting in New Latin falling by the wayside. As time went on, fewer works were published in the language and fewer people read or spoke the language. This marked the beginning of the end for Latin, which had somehow managed to survive the fact that its native speakers had technically died out centuries earlier.

Contemporary Latin

So how is Latin still around today? While there aren't really native Latin speakers anymore, it is still one of, if not the, most widely-taught "dead" languages.

Since the decline of New Latin during the 19th century, Contemporary Latin has taken the role of lingua franca for a large number of nomenclatures in the sciences. For example, every species on the planet happens to have an internatinally-recognised name in Latin.

As we mentioned, universities used to require that students know Latin during the time of New Latin. While most of those institutions no longer teach in Latin, they do still retain their longstanding motto in Latin. In fact, the motto of the United States, "E pluribus unum" ("Out of many, one"), is in Latin.

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
Even if you never learnt Latin in school, studied science, or went to a university, the Latin language is probably far more important to you than you could possibly imagine. If you happen to be a speaker of one of the many Romance languages, your mother tongue will have evolved from Latin. For English speakers, don't forget that over half of the words in the English language are of French origin, which in turn are almost certainly derived from Latin!

In addition, the Holy See uses Latin as its official language and the language has always played an important part in Catholicism. However, if you can't afford flights to the Vatican or aren't that interested in Catholicism, you can always reach out to one of the many groups that are learning and speaking Latin in order to keep the most popular "dead" language very much alive.

Old Latin | Classical Latin | Vulgar Latin and Late Latin | New Latin and Contemporary Latin

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Language Profile: Vulgar Latin and Late Latin

Since last Friday marked the anniversary of the date the Roman Empire was founded, we've been looking at the Latin language in our most recent posts. We started with Old Latin on Friday, before covering Classical Latin on Monday. Today we find ourselves looking at both Vulgar Latin and Late Latin.

Vulgar Latin

We doubt the graffiti featuring Vulgar Latin looked anything like this.
In our last post we discussed Classical Latin, which was defined by a number of writings, including those of Cicero. Of course, those writing in Classical Latin were generally the well-to-do and educated, making this form of Latin relevant to a particular time in history as well as certain socioeconomic classes of people. More is known about Classical Latin than Vulgar Latin due to the obvious reason that the former, as a written form of the language, was written down. Only a few written examples of Vulgar Latin exist, with many of these "writings" being examples of graffiti, much like that brilliant "Romans, go home!" scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Vulgar Latin, on the other hand, was the Latin of the people. It developed around the same time as Classical Latin and was more than just a single dialect of Latin. In fact, Vulgar Latin pretty much refers to all dialects of Latin (excluding Classical Latin) spoken by those inhabiting the expansive Roman Empire at the time, as well as those who wished to deal with the Romans.

Even though there were many dialects across the Roman Empire, the dialects of Vulgar Latin were fairly standardised across certain parts of Europe such as France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. This is considered to be a result of the Catholic faith, which was present in all of these countries.

Much like the speakers of the various vernaculars we see in the English language today, speakers of Vulgar Latin were known to break the rules. Just like today, there were also prescriptivists, those who believed the grammatical rules of Latin should be followed at all costs. You can bet that if they'd had Twitter at the time, they would have been complaining about Vulgar Latin.

The term Vulgar Latin tends to refer to the spoken Latin that existed during the time of both Classical Latin and Late Latin. However, Vulgar Latin changed during the time of both of these written forms of the language.

Late Latin

The exact date that Classical Latin became Late Latin is often disputed. Depending on who you ask, the shift can be said to have taken place anytime between the death of Hadrian, the 14th Emperor of Rome, in 138 AD and the 3rd century. The beginning of the 3rd century is often accepted because it allows for most writers to fit neatly into groupings of either Classical Latin or Late Latin, with little to no overlap.

There are also suggestions that Late Latin doesn't exist and that Classical Latin simply shifted into Medieval Latin around 200 AD until the 16th century, when it became New Latin. For simplicity's sake, we're just going to ignore that because while its exact dates are disputed, it is generally agreed that Late Latin exhibits its own style unique from that of both Classical Latin and Medieval Latin.

Late Latin was used as a lingua franca (itself a Latin term) across Europe and its proliferation is thought to be due in part to the spread of Christianity at the time. To make things easier, we're going to consider it as having lasted until the 6th century, when spoken Vulgar Latin first began shifting towards becoming the Romance languages we know today. This thinking allows us to consider Late Latin as the last form of written Latin to exist during a time when there was a commonly spoken form of the language before we discuss New Latin and Contemporary Latin. We'll see you then!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Language Profile: Classical Latin

Since last Friday was the anniversary of the foundation of the Roman Empire, we took a brief look at Old Latin, the oldest form of the language. Today we're continuing our look at the evolution of this important historical language.

Latin as it appeared after 75 BC is referred to as Classical Latin. This is the Latin used during the later years of the Roman Republic and throughout the span of the Roman Empire. It may sound surprising, but one man, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is given significant credit for a lot of the changes between Old Latin and Classical Latin.

A young Cicero reading.
Cicero lived from 106 BC until 43 BC, and if you happened to write in Latin between 83 BC and 43 BC, you were doing so during the Ciceronian Age. Cicero's legacy includes the transformation of Old Latin, a supposedly dull and frumpy utilitarian language, into Classical Latin, the sexy literary language that was arguably the Marilyn Monroe of languages at the time. He did this through his many works on many subjects which also include a huge number of neologisms.

For his contributions, Cicero was praised and admired by the most important people of the time, including Julius Caesar, who was the dictator of the Roman Republic at the time. Caesar is quoted as saying "it is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit than the frontiers of the Roman empire". While this is clearly a grand compliment, it seems somewhat cheapened coming from a dictator who happened to be in control of a large portion of the known world at the time.

This form of Latin is often considered as Latin at its best, and when people refer to "Latin", they are often referring to this incarnation of the language as it appeared until the 3rd century. It just so happens that Classical Latin existed at the same time the Roman Empire was in control of just over a fifth of the world's population. Mere coincidence? I think not!

We'll be back on Wednesday as we move from Classical Latin to Late Latin. We hope to see you then!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Language Profile: Old Latin

Over 2,000 years ago today, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius was given the title of Augustus by the Roman Senate, an event that founded the Roman Empire. Discovering this fact made me wonder "What have the Romans ever done for us?" Aside from creating the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public baths, and public safety, the Romans were also huge proponents of their own language, Latin.

It occurred to me that in the two years we've been doing this blog, we've never given Latin its own language profile despite having done over a hundred of them. The wait is over: we're finally getting around to covering the world's most popular "dead" language in a series of posts, starting today with a look at Old Latin.

The Lapis Niger is one of the oldest known
examples of Latin in the world.
The earliest form of Latin is now known as Old Latin, which predates the Roman Empire. It was used from the time of the Roman Kingdom (753 BC-509 BC) until the latter years of the Roman Republic (509 BC-27 BC).

You may find it surprising that Old Latin didn't use the language's namesake alphabet. In fact, it was written using the Etruscan alphabet, which had evolved from the Greek alphabet around 700 BC. The location of this evolution is unknown, but is suggested to have taken place in Greek colonies in Italy, the city of Cumae, Greece, or in Anatolia (the geographical area which makes up most of modern-day Turkey).

Since the language was "borrowing" the Etruscan alphabet for its own purposes, Old Latin only made use of 22 of the 27 characters present in the writing system. It is possible that Old Latin took these characters directly from the Archaic Etruscan alphabet, or else possibly from the Euboean alphabet, a variant of the Greek alphabet considered to be the precursor of both the Etruscan and Latin alphabets.

We'll be back after the weekend, when we'll be looking at arguably the most popular and well-known form of Latin, Classical Latin. We'll see you then!