I am just restarting my schoolgirl Latin, but have already become fascinated with its links to Greek. According to Wheelock, whom I have absolutely no right to question, both Latin and Greek are independently descended from PIE, with no direct input from Greek into Latin until the Hellenistic period. However, it goes on to say:

Today we are in the habit of distinguishing the Roman alphabet from the Greek , but the fact is that the Romans learned to write from the Etruscans, who in turn had learned to write from Greek colonists who had settled in the vicinity of Naples during the 8th century BC.

There is early Latin epigraphy written in Greek letters, (and boustrephedon) and I cannot escape the suspicion, pace the experts, that even early Latin owes more to Greek than mere common ancestry.

Have I completely missed the point? I'm prepared for the answer "Yes!"

2 Answers 2


Latin and Greek share a common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, which scholars believe was spoken in the 4th millennium BC or earlier, and then began diverging into separate languages by 3500 BC. Many PIE children have been identified:

  • Anatolian
  • Proto-Greek
  • Indo-Iranian
  • Italic
  • Celtic
  • Germanic
  • ... and others

Linguists can reconstruct PIE with some precision based on the common features of its child (and grandchild) languages. Then, by examining how each individual language diverges from the "standard" or "original" PIE language, the languages can be categorized and their development traced.

The search for "relatives" of Latin has gone on for a long time, and Greek has often been proposed. However, modern scholarship does not see a close connection between the two. Clackson and Horrocks write:

The IE language groups which we know to have been spoken adjacent to the Latin speech area in historic times are Germanic, Celtic and Greek. In the nineteenth century scholars grouped Latin closest to Greek and Celtic. [...] It later became apparent that the features shared by Latin and Greek reflected common inheritances from the parent language, lost in other IE languages, rather than new developments, and were thus not significant for their relationship.

That is, most of the original similarities between Latin and Ancient Greek are due to them having the same ancestor, centuries prior, and not due to "borrowing" occurring between them. In fact, if we must select the closest relative to Latin, it would not be Greek:

Latin shares more features with Celtic than any other IE language branch outside Italy.

For much more on the story of this development, see Clackson and Horrocks, The Blackwell History of the Latin Language (2007), chapters 1 and 2.

  • Brilliant explanation for a tiro like me - thank you!
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 1, 2016 at 23:55
  • 2
    Just wanted to add that Clackson and Horrocks reject the Italo-Celtic hypothesis and, grounding their analysis on most recent research, explain the Latin-Celtic isoglosses with contact (see pp. 32-34).
    – Alex B.
    Apr 2, 2016 at 16:33

Do not confuse relations of languages with relations of writing systems.

Both Latin and Greek descended from PIE in oral form, prior to the introduction of (a preserved and widely used) writing system. Latin indeed borrowed its writing system from the Greek via the Etruscans, but this tells nothing about the relation of the languages involved.

By analogy, consider the situation in today's world. Many languages around the world are written with variants of the Latin alphabet although many have no relation whatsoever to Latin.

It should be noted, though, that heavy cultural exchange led to words (and structures to some extent) being loaned between Greek and Latin. This brought the languages slightly closer together, but writing in both languages was established before this really happened.

  • Excellent point, thanks for helping a novice out!
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 2, 2016 at 3:59
  • 1
    +1 for this. I recall once seeing a statement to the effect of "The history of a language is altogether separate from that of any alphabet used to write it" (my poor paraphrase). This surprised me when I first saw it because I hadn't thought about it that way before. Now it seems obvious.
    – MPW
    Jun 30, 2021 at 14:46
  • @MPW Thanks! Things, especially those that felt weird or surprising, becoming obvious is a sign of learning. I don't think many teachers ever take a minute to stress that writing is much younger than speaking and that therefore language is primarily spoken and secondarily written.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 30, 2021 at 14:54

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.