I have the impression that the names Columbus and Copernicus are not the forms actually used on a daily basis by those people, but rather Latin forms used to identify them in in scholarly or academic connection.

The vast majority of Copernicus's surviving works are in Latin, which in his lifetime was the language of academia in Europe. Latin was also the official language of the Roman Catholic Church and of Poland's royal court, and thus all of Copernicus's correspondence with the Church and with Polish leaders was in Latin… The surname Copernik, Koppernigk is recorded in Kraków from c. 1350, in various spellings… During his childhood, about 1480, the name of his father (and thus of the future astronomer) was recorded in Thorn as Niclas Koppernigk.[41] At Kraków he signed himself, in Latin, Nicolaus Nicolai de Torunia (Nicolaus, son of Nicolaus, of Toruń).[42] At Bologna, in 1496, he registered… as Dominus Nicolaus Kopperlingk de Thorn – IX grosseti.[43][44] At Padua he signed himself "Nicolaus Copernik", later "Coppernicus". The astronomer thus Latinized his name to Coppernicus, generally with two "p"s (in 23 of 31 documents studied), but later in life he used a single "p". On the title page of De revolutionibus, Rheticus published the name (in the genitive, or possessive, case) as "Nicolai Copernici".


The name Christopher Columbus is the Anglicisation of the Latin Christophorus Columbus. His name in Ligurian is Cristòffa Cónbo, in Italian Cristoforo Colombo and in Spanish Cristóbal Colón… Columbus never wrote in his native language, which is presumed to have been a Genoese variety of Ligurian…


I’ve noticed too that the mathematician Gauss is sometimes called Karl (with a K, that seems more German), and sometimes called Carl (with a C, that seems to associate it with the Latin name Carolus.

How, when and why did Latin cease to be the language of international scholarly communication?


To expand the answer of b.Lorenz with few examples: it was a slow process, and the speed in various areas was very different. Some examples. Proceedings of St. Petersburg Academy (mid 18th century) had the following rule: papers in all sciences are published in French, except mathematics, mathematics was published in Latin.

The last important mathematical book that I know which was written in Latin is Fundamenta Nova by Jacobi (1829). But no one wrote on physics or chemistry in Latin in 19th century.

In medicine the importance of Latin lasted much longer. In the middle of 20th century Latin was a mandatory subject in the curriculum of Soviet medical institutes, recipes for pharmacies were written in Latin and a surgeon normally spoke in Latin with his/her assistants during the surgery. (Of course in many cases this was a mixture of Latin and Russian, but it was prescribed that they speak in Latin. One reason I was given for this is that the patient does not understand what they talk:-)

But most journal papers were not published in Latin since the middle of 19th century, in all sciences.

Latin disappeared from the mandatory curricula in high schools and universities in the beginning of 20th century (in many European countries like Russia and England).

  • 1
    This is very interesting. Could you add some sources (e.g. for when Latin was spoken during the surgery etc.)? – 0range Jun 7 '18 at 18:38
  • 2
    Proceedings of SPb Academy are available online, as well as Jacobi's book. The rest is my own experience. (Both my parents were professors in a medical institute, and my mother was a surgeon, and many times I had drugs prescribed for myself). – Alex Jun 7 '18 at 22:28

It come about at different times in different subjects, for example Latin names of conditions and anatomical objects are still used in medical science. It generally happened in the 18th and 19th century.

The answer of Alex gives some nice examples on when it happened.

The reasons are manifold and somewhat complex:

  • In the Middle Ages the only subject considered worthy for scholarly interest were theology and philosopy and ancient history (this is a stereotypical oversimplification, there were books on medicine, herbs, art, etc... too), so the main occupation of scholars was to read works of ancient auctors writing in Latin. (or rarely Greek, Hebrew or Arabic) After the 17. century new disciplines and fields emerged, many of them based on experiments or newly invented everyday activities (like economics or engineering). It would have been cumbersome to invent, introduce and learn latin worlds for all these new concepts.

  • In the Middle Ages 'everyday' languages were divided into many dialects and often lacked fixed spelling, leaving no other choice to a humanist living in Florence and writing letter to his peer in Paris (and perhaps even in Naples) than to use Latin, which both of them knew from their ecclesastical education. Later as modern nations emerged and started to take pride in their culture and ancestry, and printed books become common, the national languages were unified, their grammar fixed and their wordbase enriched. (Sometimes words were purposefully invented to make the language fit for science, as it was the case in Hungary)

  • As the nations grew powerful, each of them created it's own Accademies, Royal Societies and similar national scientific institutions, which often encouraged works in native language. Meanwhile the numbers of scientist and scholars waxed rapidly, allowing meaningfull cooperation in the same country. (Earlier there were often just three scholars in the whole Europe researching some marginal topic, so international cooperation was unavoidable)

  • The Reformation made it possible to work in native tongue in theology and religious teaching, and after that the use of modern languages slowly permeated all the other areas of written word like law, governance or high literature.

  • The possibility to reproduce images and mathematical formulas (which also became an unified language) in litography and later in print decreased the need for lenghty written decriptions (did you ever tried to read a 15. century aritmetic book? or reconstruct the Temple of Salamon from the desription in the Bible? The figures and illustrations in modern scientific publications are a great gift.)

  • In the most critical decades of the 18th and 19th century it was expected from an educated European man to understand French, so there was a replacement international language ready.

  • When the international cooperation needed for 'big science' became important in the 20th century, Anglo-saxon countries had already grabbed the lead in many modern sciences and technologies, so their language became the standard.

  • Latin was considered 'cool' in Renaissance and Classicism, while it was definitely 'uncool' in Romanticism.

  • Some of the Latin (and Greek) words survived assumed new meaning: proton, electron, momentum, integral, nucleus, equilibrium, quantum...

  • 1
    Good answer, but: "It would have been cumbersome to invent, introduce and learn latin worlds for all these new concepts" doe snot apply, given "Sometimes words were purposefully invented to make the language fit for science, as it was the case in Hungary", and indeed "Some of the Latin (and Greek) words survived assumed new meaning". – Nick Nicholas Jun 8 '18 at 1:23
  • 1
    @NickNicholas So you say I have contradicted myself? It is quite different thing to enrich the wordbase of a living language by construction, translation from French and German or inclusion of dialect words, than violating the traditional corpus of Latin by needlessly inventing new latin words. And about surviving words: it is true that the word quantum originates from the latin world 'quantitas', but all the related concepts (like eg wavefunction, eigenvalue) are in modern languages. And even quantum is now treated in English by English grammar: quantized, quantization... – b.Lorenz Jun 8 '18 at 5:54
  • I'm not as convinced that Neo-Latin would have been as reticent about novel coinages and as strictly confined to the classical lexicon; what little Neo-Latin there is nowadays does do new coinages, after all. If 18th century Latin was able to deal with scientific neologisms, there's no intrinsic reason 20th century Latin wouldn't. So I disagree inflexibility was a factor. (Modern Greek, for that matter, was classicising in its scientific vocabulary up until the 70s; the change in the 70s was political—the abandonment of Katharevousa—and cultural; it was not linguistic.) – Nick Nicholas Jun 8 '18 at 9:09
  • @NickNicholas You appear to know more than I do. But still, I maintain that for example when the thougt of 'electric field' occured for Farady, he chose the intuitive english word instead of trying to invent something like 'Campus electricus'. Maybe I should have said that the new disciplines pulled the science of the 18-19th closer to the everydays, directing ones mind to try to describe scientific concepts in his native language. – b.Lorenz Jun 8 '18 at 13:29
  • Or putting it otherwise, Latin was the natural choice when the subjects of the study were Latin texts, but living languages were the natural choice when the subject of the study were things happening in the nature or in the society. And I could imagine that latin scientific words became 'overloaded' with meanings that were reminescent to for example Aristoteles (extant in Latin translation in the MA), so Enlightened scholars started to shun them. When they wrote 'matter' they only wanted to evoke the idea of some material, not the 'matter' and 'form' pair of the philosopher. – b.Lorenz Jun 8 '18 at 13:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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