I have a character who travels back in time to the Roman era. He is an American and does not know Latin (or variants of it). He must communicate in Latin as soon as he arrives in the Roman era, but I cannot figure out how to make this plausible.

How hard is to learn Latin without someone who is fluent in both English AND Latin as a guide? Are the standard ways of dealing with the language problem?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How much does he need to communicate? In real life situations, language is not learned with a flip of a switch. One starts with the ability to control one's environments with a few simple words or phrases, and slowly learn the vocabulary, idoms, and phrases from there. The ability to express onesself goes up slowly, not rapidly. If you need a rapid ability to communicate at a high level, we may need to play some fantasy games to make it happen. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    May 23, 2015 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ I think it is worth noting that during the time of the Roman Empire, a number of different languages were spoken across its various regions. Greek was common, for instance, especially for writing. $\endgroup$
    – jpmc26
    May 24, 2015 at 17:27

9 Answers 9


I'm an English speaker who was taught Latin in school. That used to be common. Perhaps your character was trained in Latin, otherwise you should handwave it by applying TARDIS translation like magic (the time machine translates other languages in your head and makes you speak them).


AFAIK, no modern language is close enough to latin to help communicate directly. I think some of the romance languages, maybe even most, are close enough to speed the learning process quite a lot, but the pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar have shifted quite a lot. It has been almost two millennia and quite a lot change has happened.

Similarly knowing greek modern or classical would probably help, since most educated romans IIRC could understand greek. Unfortunately they probably knew the contemporary version of greek which is different from either modern or classical versions.

I expect latin would be difficult to learn for someone whose native tongue is english and does not know any romance languages. Fortunately it is simple to justify american knowing spanish, french, or portuguese.

I think the common solution is to assume that whatever implausible mechanism allows time travel also gives the language. This is actually reasonable for some methods.

The hard core solution is simply to give the time traveler the time to learn. If he can prove he is literate, has some modern technology, such as say a printed book (printing and paper), and is very lucky where he lands he might be given the time and opportunity to learn the language.

Alternately you might give him time to prepare for the trip in advance. It is still fairly easy to learn classical latin (or greek), vulgar latin might be more difficult.

Or if you really just need an excuse, a father who was a latinist and insisted using latin in normal discussion will be good enough to get some basic phrases and a huge head start in understanding what people say.

Jimmy360 has a very good point with pointing out latin is taught at school. Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. Learning latin is much less common than it used to be, but it is not like it is somehow more implausible than, to pick an entirely random example, time travel. When you get right down to it, from storytelling perspective it would be nice to have some link that makes it so that just this person travels in time and just to that particular time and place. Invert the problem from plausibility of time traveler learning latin to plausibility of latinist traveling in time.

You have to think some reason for the time travel anyway, so this reduces your issues from two to one.

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    $\begingroup$ Italian would give a huge head start toward Vulgar Latin in the same way that Modern Greek would give a head start toward the contemporary Koine Greek. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2015 at 0:47
  • $\begingroup$ Upper class Romans spoke Greek. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2015 at 9:24

Here are some points to consider:

  • Latin's grammatical structure is quite complex and takes time to understand (all nouns take different endings depending on whether they are the subject, direct object, indirect object, possessive, etc.)
  • A few modern languages (like Romanian, Polish, Latvian) have similar grammatical structure, so the speaker knowing such a language would facilitate his absorption of Latin
  • He could still be understood if he gets the grammar wrong, but it might involve a lot of back-and-forth and hand gestures.

And now, here are some ideas:

  • He could have somehow ended up with a Latin dictionary or text book from modern times
  • The Romans conquered many lands, and so would have come across people who couldn't speak Latin or Greek. They tried to "civilise" these peoples and impose their legal system. So I'm sure there must have been some Romans who were experienced Latin teachers. Also, during certain periods soldiers were given land when they retired, so perhaps your time traveller lands on a farm where the man of the house has some experience with non-Latin speakers. Perhaps he even travelled to Germania where he may have encountered some languages with a hint of similarity to English.
  • A good place for him to pick up Latin might be at the theatre... particularly if he watches plays which he studied the English translations of at school, like Oedipus (which although Greek was translated into Latin).

He will need at least a few days (preferably weeks) to build his vocabulary. I think the main problem would be understanding "full-strength" Latin. If people limit themselves to simple words and grammar, knowing he is not a fluent speaker (i.e. "you are here tomorrow. we will dine" instead of "why don't you come over for dinner tomorrow, if you're not busy?") then he'll know what they mean most of the time. If they don't, he'll be hopelessly lost in the words, at least until he gets several weeks or months of good practice.

Also, I have a feeling that a man who can't speak Latin, wandering around Rome without his papers is going to be assumed to be an escaped slave, and would shortly be captured. He might need a cover story or be carrying something impressive (a phone, fancy watch, or firearm) to make it clear he has status. Alternatively his stint as a slave could be his opportunity to learn Latin, and once he has mastered Latin he may explain his position and be freed.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent point about both the danger of being enslaved and the effectiveness of being enslaved as an incentive to learn Latin. ("I said bring me a steak, not bring me the dog, you barbarian idiot. Someone take this fool outside and give him a sound whipping to concentrate his mind.") Though our hero might be able to at least get a position as a superior slave because he would be able to demonstrate familiarity with the Latin alphabet. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2015 at 7:55

I originally wanted to post this as a comment, but I couldn't fit it in there.

I see people suggest pre-existing knowledge based on learning Latin during education. An important distinction is: "WHEN during the Roman age did your American land?" Languages evolve, as anyone who has read an original version of Shakespeare can attest. Even an American in the time of Shakespeare, landing right in the middle of London, could have issues with language, especially with long gone words or expressions, or expressions that have taken on another meaning. Who today knows what "forsooth" means, for example?

Similarly, the Latin that's currently taught in schools is often from a single moment in time. Even more of a problem is that this Latin is sometimes NOT from the Roman age. Latin spoken during the Roman days was one of 3 versions: Old Latin ( pre 1st century BC), Classical Latin (1st century BC - 1st century AD) or Late Latin (from 2nd century AD to about 900 AD). Aside from that, there are 5 other types of Latin: Vulgar, Ecclesiastical, Medieval, Rennaisance and Neo. No school can teach 8 different kinds of Latin completely, so they need to make choices. Most schools will either focus on one or 2 kinds, or give a wide overview of the system.

Another concern is that Latin taught these days is meant for people to read and translate texts written in Latin, since noone speaks Latin anymore. A contemporary Latin course will not prepare people in the slightest for extensive and sometimes complicated discussions with someone like Caesar or Cicero.

Don't get me wrong, being schooled in Latin will definitely be better than nothing, but it's fairly likely that the Latin he knows will need a lot of support.

  • $\begingroup$ Re forsooth, me for one :-) In fact, I'd probably have less difficulty with the English of Shakespeare's time (or at least his plays) than I would if I dropped into any American inner city. And I do remember a bit of the Latin I learned in high school, too. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    May 25, 2015 at 1:02

"How hard is to learn Latin without someone who is fluent in both English AND Latin as a guide? Are the standard ways of dealing with the language problem?"

You might be able to answer this question by researching the experiences of English-speaking soldiers taken prisoner in WWII by the Italians. It's not a perfect parallel because Italian, lacking the declensions mentioned by Artelius, is easier than Latin for an English speaker to pick up. A better parallel would be the experience of any English-speaking soldiers taken prisoner by the Romanians as the Romanian language has stayed closer to Latin grammar, but there cannot have been many of them.

Added later: Does the plot demand that he does not speak Latin? Because unless there is some very good reason why he cannot speak it, I'd just specify that he learned some Latin in school, enough to keep him alive for the first few days. Give him difficulties to overcome by stressing the great difference between twenty-first century schoolbook Latin and Latin as spoken by ordinary Romans back then. If the problem is that you as author don't speak Latin, just have the dialogue in English and apply the translation convention.

(Thanks to Ilmari Karonen for the suggestion to upgrade my earlier comment to an answer.)


This depends a lot on the character's other traits and the exact context he would be entering. For example, if the character knew other European languages than just English, it would enhance his chances of being understood. The Romans administered a massive empire and would have had the facilities to translate the predecessors of most modern European languages to some extent. English itself is problematic, as it is formed of the merging of many languages in a fairly modern time-frame. Hence, proficiency in something with deeper and less muddled roots, like French, Spanish, or especially Italian, would help.

The context really does matter. If the Romans involved are interested in what he has to say (and I suspect a time traveler would illicit such interest), they could find the facilities. However, if they were to mistake him for a slave/barbarian (possible if he pops in speaking a Germanic-rooted language), they might not care what he has to say in the first place.

Alternatively, there are a large list of potential reasons a normal person might know at least a passing amount of Latin. For example, could this character be Roman Catholic? Are they a scientist and might be familiar with Latin/Greek words? Are they a (classical) musician who might have exposure to a range of European languages?

You don't want to strain belief by either having a fluent Latin speaker of modern times ending up in ancient Rome or by having Joe Sixpack suddenly understand classical languages - the answer is probably to strain belief a little on each side to end up with something believable overall. Straining belief is sort of an exponential matter.

That is to say, the actual likelihood of something happening isn't directly proportional to how likely it seems. An archaeologist specializing in ancient Rome randomly getting sent back there is nearly laughable, but an Egyptologist might seem more plausible, even though it is no more likely. Expectation and the appearance of convenience plays a bigger role than actual plausibility.


Douglas Adams used a Babel fish, a small creature inserted in the ear that provides instant translations to avoid having to explain how his characters could communicate with Vogons, etc.


Either you magic it away, or you have your character spend at least a year becoming proficient in the local language.

  • $\begingroup$ At least year to become proficient, true, but a person under the spur of necessity could learn enough Latin to communicate in a basic way after a month or two, particularly since English contains many Latin-origin words that would give him a head start. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2015 at 7:42

Someone pointed out the requirements of holding a vast and varied empire would include facilities for other languages. If arrested or otherwise got the attention of officials, the Romans could summon an interpreter.

I'm thinking others in that time period might be not only polylingual but have a talent for languages, as dialects varied a great deal before wide-spread literacy etc. Those would be traders, perhaps Aribic traders known for spreading knowlege in the ancient world as they moved vast distances through many lands along their routes.

If the traveller piques their interest with kmowlege somehow, I'm reminded of Archemedes. He was famous for his weapons design, and the Romans learned that first hand. Likewise Heron of Alexandrea sold his gadgets far and wide. The Romans were familiar with the Greeks. So, what if the guy was of recient Greek ancestry and knew modern Greek from older relatives and later visiting the Old Country for a time? The library and intellectual crowd would figue he has an unfamiliar dialect (Greek city states were separate, so they did vary) but were well practiced in coping with that especially in places of learning.

In short, have the traveller speak Greek, which is plausible either by being Greek (not all SF features Americans, you know) or plausibility of Greek ancestory. With minimal handwaving that could interoperate with a large population there. Also, Greek was the universal 2nd language before Latin, anyway.


Probably he already knows Latin (he studied to be Doctor of Medecine or lawer )? or at least French language, that is quite close to classical Roman Latin?

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    $\begingroup$ French and Latin are related but not close, not intelligible in any way. Even modern Italian which is much closer is far from that. $\endgroup$
    – his
    May 23, 2015 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ I find I can read Latin ok (from French and general wide English reading), but speaking it is another matter. French doesn't have any declensions. $\endgroup$
    – Josiah
    May 23, 2015 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ I can read Latin but understand it is another matter. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Sep 6, 2015 at 3:35

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