Taking young minds seriously

Why Latin?

The Latin Language: Dead or Alive?

October 2003

by Terrence Moore

Latin is a dead language.  No one speaks Latin as his native language, and this has been the case for more than a millennium.  In fact most teachers of Latin, even very good ones, cannot say more than a few sentences of Latin in succession.  Latin has not been required for admissions into American universities for more than a century.  Even Harvard, whose motto is “Veritas” (Truth) and The University of Chicago, whose motto is “Crescat scientia vita excolatur” (Let learning increase and thereby life be enriched), and a host of other prestigious institutions with Latin mottos do not require any knowledge of Latin for admission.  Classics departments at universities are usually the smallest and least funded.  Short of becoming a Latin teacher, and there are fewer of these jobs than any other position in schools or universities, there is not really anything you can do with Latin.  So why bother with Latin?  The language had its day, a very long one.  Sed nihil ad infinitum vivit.

But hold the postmortem.  One curious phenomenon of contemporary school reform is that Latin is making a comeback.  Recent press releases indicate that nationwide certain schools are experiencing growth in their Latin programs, the number of students taking the AP Latin Exam has doubled in a decade, and students are actually enjoying their study of the language.  The reasons for taking Latin are various, but they all stem from the advantages of either utility or pleasure.

First, to say that Latin is dead, though in some sense true, is not a particularly helpful observation when it comes to education.  Plato and Cicero and Shakespeare and George Washington and the rest of the Founding Fathers are also dead, but we still study them because they have important things to say about human nature and have shaped our civilization.

In a similar way, Latin has influenced the way we get along in the world, namely, by talking and writing to each other.  For about a thousand years a vital people in the history of the West, the Romans, spoke and wrote to each other in Latin.  After the fall of Rome, Latin remained the language of learning until the end of the seventeenth century.  Most learned treatises were written in Latin.  Schoolboys in Europe and to a lesser extent in this country studied mostly Latin in school until the end of the nineteenth century.  The “Latin Quarter” in Paris is so named because that is what students at the Sorbonne spoke rather than colloquial French.

This history has made important marks on modern languages.  The Romance languages derive directly from Latin and thus are more easily learned when one has studied Latin first.  English, though it grew out of Germanic dialects, owes about sixty percent of its words to Latin derivatives.  Knowing Latin thereby gives the student a real command over the English language.  The words “pulchritude” and “pecuniary” stump most of today’s high school and even college students, though they are the kinds of words that appear regularly on college admissions exams.  Any eleven-year-old who has had a month of Latin, however, knows they derive from the Latin words for beauty and money.

The structure of Latin requires the study of the language to be intensely grammatical.  The necessity of conjugating verbs and declining nouns causes the student to use memory and logic with the translation of every sentence.  Moreover, the student must soon confront his own native language grammatically or Latin will make no sense to him.  The Latin dative case requires an understanding of the English indirect object, for example.  Whatever today’s students are learning in English class, grammar seems not to be the leading concern, as a conversation with most any young person will reveal.

Having a critical and historical knowledge of one’s own language that comes through the study of Latin is plainly useful.  Knowing Latin itself is also enjoyable.  One can begin to make sense of the Latin found in public places: e.g., “E pluribus unum.”  From there one can move onto pithy sayings of the ancients: “Philosophia est ars vitae” (“Philosophy is the art of life.” Cicero).  Soon the scattered pieces of Latin throughout Western literature will not seem so obscure.  Finally, after much study (from the Latin stadium, diligence, application), the student will be able to read some of the best poetry, history, and oratory the world has ever known.  The standards of excellence set by the ancients will unavoidably shape his own.