Can Modern-Day Italians Understand Latin? A Youtuber Puts It to the Test on the Streets of Rome

Of all the Romance lan­guages, none is more Roman­tic than Ital­ian, at least in the sense that it has changed the least in its long descent from Latin to its cur­rent form. Whether the Ital­ian spo­ken in recent cen­turies has a par­tic­u­lar­ly close resem­blance to Latin is anoth­er ques­tion, and one Amer­i­can Youtu­ber Luke Ranieri inves­ti­gates on the streets of Rome itself in the video above. In order to find out whether mod­ern-day Ital­ians can under­stand ancient Latin, he approach­es unsus­pect­ing Romans and asks them for direc­tions in that lan­guage, speak­ing it flu­ent­ly and just as their ances­tors would have back in the first cen­tu­ry.

So, can Romans under­stand Latin? “Yes,” Ranieri con­cludes, “but they don’t always enjoy it.” Most of the indi­vid­u­als he address­es claim that they can’t under­stand him at first. But as the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues — in Latin on one side, Ital­ian on the oth­er — it becomes clear that they can indeed fig­ure out what he wants to know.

Ital­ians are almost uni­ver­sal­ly exposed only to the tra­di­tion­al Ital­ian pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Latin (called the pro­nun­cia sco­las­ti­ca), oth­er­wise known as the Eccle­si­as­ti­cal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion,” Ranieri notes in a com­ment. But “in this video, I am using the Restored Clas­si­cal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Latin as it was pro­nounced in Rome two thou­sand years ago.”

He may have had bet­ter luck at the Vat­i­can and the Colos­se­um, but the Ital­ians he meets in Rome do rise to this chal­lenge, more or less, though few do it with­out hem­ming, haw­ing, and of course, attempt­ing to use Eng­lish. For the lan­guage of Eng­land has, one could argue, risen to play the same role in wide swaths of our world that Latin once played across the Roman Empire. This sit­u­a­tion has its advan­tages, but in the heart of many a lan­guage-lover it also inspires some regrets. Though full of Lati­nate vocab­u­lary, Eng­lish arguably falls short of the beau­ty of the gen­uine Romance lan­guages. And even the most obsti­nate Anglo­phone has to admit that, com­pared to Latin, Eng­lish lacks some­thing: a cer­tain grav­i­tas, let us say.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Com­pelling Case That the “Dead Lan­guage” Is an “Eter­nal Lan­guage”

Why French Sounds So Unlike Span­ish, Ital­ian & Oth­er Romance Lan­guages, Even Though They All Evolved from Latin

The Sto­ry of Lorem Ipsum: How Scram­bled Text by Cicero Became the Stan­dard For Type­set­ters Every­where

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Stewart Shipley says:

    That’s rather fun­ny. Actu­al­ly, Ital­ians can under­stand Span­ish quite well, and vice ver­sa. We dis­cov­ered this back in 1997 when I was in Rome with a female El Sal­vadore­na friend (as part of a pil­grim­age).

    I saw a leather jack­et I want­ed, and she nego­ti­at­ed the pur­chase for me, speak­ing Span­ish to the mer­chant, with him respond­ing in Ital­ian.

  • C Murray says:

    You see the com­plete shock as he is asked, you don’t speak Eng­lish, Ital­ian, Span­ish?
    Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in Amer­i­ca you can get screamed at by some foam­ing at the mouth jack­ass if you speak with an accent or worse, in a for­eign lan­guage.

  • Sunil says:

    Would be inter­est­ing to see this repeat­ed on Romanche speak­ers in Switzerland…as far asI know that’s the cur­rent­ly spo­ken lan­guage that’s clos­est to Latín.

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