By Erin Caldwell, Professor of Latin & Greek.
At least once a week, someone asks me, “Why study Latin?” or “Why do you like Latin?” or “Why is Latin still useful?” These questions are usually followed by, “Isn’t Latin a dead language?” In response to that, I say yes and no.
Yes, Latin may be considered dead in the sense that it is no one’s first language, and no one acquires it from a young age just by listening to adults talking around them. Yes, Latin may be considered dead in the sense that it is not regularly spoken as an auxiliary language, except perhaps in the Vatican and in certain isolated groups of people (usually found in colleges and universities, with some trickle-down into secondary schools) who like to talk to one another in Latin. Cambridge has a “Latin Lunch” every Wednesday, at which time students and teachers may gather to discuss Latin in Latin.
On the other hand, Latin is still thriving. During the last few decades, classical education has made a resurgence, a big part of which is the teaching and learning of Latin. In addition, whenever new discoveries are made in the various fields of science, technology, medicine, law, theology, and others, very often the discoverers will name it using Latin (and Greek) roots. Here are a couple of quotes: “Latin is both a classical and a liturgical language, a dead language that never died…Latin also has not died because it was reborn and renamed as – the five Romance languages” (Classical Academic Press). “Latin is not dead; it’s immortal” (Memoria Press).
Thirdly, pocket Latin dictionaries are full of fun, newly-invented words like “pedifollis” and “minutal” (soccer and hamburger, respectively) that capture the attention of curious folks.
Regardless of the deadness of Latin, here’s a few short reasons why we still study it and why I enjoy it.
First, it is a major component of classical education, and a foundational part of Western civilization. Most writers of English, American, and Romance language literature were very familiar with Latin (and Greek) literature; they regularly drew from and referenced various works. For more on this and the following points, please also refer to Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.”
Secondly, Latin forms the basis of all the Romance languages, and has many English derivatives. Over half of the English language comes from Latin (and Greek) word roots. Those who study Latin are much better equipped to learn other languages, especially the Romance languages. However, the skills needed to master vocabulary and grammar apply to the study of every language.
Thirdly, by studying Latin, we refine our critical thinking skills. It uses all parts of the brain to break down the relationships between stems and endings, while keeping in mind all of the parts of speech. Given that the English language does not function in the same way as Latin, it’s a great brain exercise.
Fourthly, by studying languages we learn about people, cultures, and civilizations who have gone before us. As Goethe said, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” Given that English vocabulary is at least half Latin (and Greek), it makes sense to study it; not only does it unlock more of English, but more of other languages, histories, and cultures as well. It is commonly said in history classes, but is applicable here, that “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana).
Why do I like Latin? Besides the aforementioned reasons, Latin is like a giant puzzle! Between stems, infixes, and endings, there are so many possible combinations of meanings, and it’s a joy to unscramble. Yet despite it’s seemingly scattered nature, especially compared with English, Latin is very orderly. English depends entirely on word order and has few grammatical inflections; Latin depends entirely on grammatical inflections, and while there is some word order – different than that of English – it is very loose. By following the endings, however, one can properly assemble the pieces of the puzzle. Prose literature has more grammatical variation and its structure can be baffling to young students. Many of our Latin Literature students struggled through Cicero (as did I, when I first started, but I can see its beauty now); that struggle not only sharpened their faculties of analysis, but also increased their appreciation for “easier” Latin authors. Poetry is beautiful in a different way; the grammar is less varied, but the meter and word order convey other ideas. I find, perhaps because I have studied more Latin, that I understand Latin poetry more than English poetry.
I shall conclude with a quote from a former Cambridge faculty member. In a reflection from 2004, former assistant headmaster Bryan Smith wrote, “It is again generally acknowledged that Latin is uniquely suited to training the mind in basic linguistic structures, cultivating precision and style in the use of words, while also unlocking the meaning of much of our native tongue. All of this is part of the “formative” argument for Latin and does not even address its cultural benefits… Many of our students at Cambridge, due to their studies of logic, may recognize the implied argument of this essay as an argumentum ad profundum. It’s true; I confess. Nevertheless, what these authorities are noting may be more than a matter of mere appearance. Students who persist in their studies of Latin may find that, in time, they not only present the appearance of diligence, depth, and intellect; but also have, in fact, the real thing.”