By Grace Gilson
Last year, around the end of the year, the editors of this magazine were looking for material. Frantically, I put together an article titled “Why You Should Care About Latin.” It was not very good, likely my weakest submission of the year. Unfortunately, it was published. Far too brief to give justice to the language, and far too rushed to have thoughtful conclusions, it was not good. This year, I am setting out to make a better version of that article.
Oftentimes, Latin is seen as ‘the dead language,’ a complete waste of time. What does someone even do with a Latin education? Scholars have already translated great poems and epics into English. No one speaks Latin. No one writes in Latin. It seems that there is really no use in knowing Latin.
You may not think you are a language person: you see yourself as more of a ‘science person.’ Science needs language; in fact, Science necessitates a sort of universal language. Latin happens to have become the basis for a lot of modern scientific terminology. You could simply memorize every term, without regard for its root, and that would be fine. You also could look at the Latin word and understand why it was put there, which would give meaning to the study and likely lead to better memorization. Additionally, names are often met with stories. Understanding a name gives a unique insight into the mind of the scientist who named the phenomenon.
Historically, proofs and other discoveries were written by intellectuals in Latin. It created a sense of exclusivity and academia to the discoveries of the age. The only people who knew Latin were the educated elite. German for a while was the science language. Today, it is English. Yet, in order to appreciate the great scientific literature of the past in its original form, Latin is the key. Although taking the time to read something in the original language may seem unproductive when translations are available, I think that seeing original texts gives an important look into the writer’s diction and intention that translators may struggle to interpret.
Maybe you appreciate languages, but struggle to see how learning Latin would have value. It is not spoken anymore, y Yet, knowledge of Latin aids profoundly in especially the study of all of the romance languages, and lends itself to a lot of other languages due to the wide-reaching influence of the Ancient Roman Empire. Also, if you appreciate English grammar, or if you know you need to improve your English grammar, Latin will help you profoundly. Whom is not a fancy form of who: one describes a direct object, an indirect object, or an object of a preposition, and the other describes a subject.
Learning Latin is comparable to reading literature. Although it seems pointless: too specific to apply to modern times, or esoteric for no reason, it reflects truths of the human condition. It can be artistic and philosophical. In Latin, sentence order is not set the way it is in English. Sometimes the subject is the last word to appear in a sentence; sometimes it is the first. This flexibility lends to intriguing figures of speech that are not as easily employable in English. Chiasmus is the term for word order of the form ABBA, with a fantastic use of this figure of speech being found in Ovid’s metamorphoses: frightened Thisbe in a scary cave, where scary and cave our separate and frightened Thisbe is inside. Latin has the power to build imagery into its sentence order. This design is lost in English. Learning Latin is a way to learn to appreciate art.
One of the most influential pieces in the Western Canon is Vergil’s Aeneid. Even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the poem’s twelve books have stood the test of time. They survived the Christian World, even though it was technically pagan poetry. Learning Latin provides the opportunity to understand this poem in its native language, a valuable perspective on a central element of the evolution of literature.
For this article, I interviewed Mr. Kollin, the high school Latin and Greek teacher at HB. He is passionate about teaching students about the classics and introducing them to the study of Latin. I figured a Latin educator and scholar would give a good insight into the importance of the language.
A big barrier to studying Latin is the beginning. At a school that offers so many different languages, choosing to study “the dead one” is difficult.
So, “What made you interested in the study of Latin and the Classics?”
“I chose to take Latin in high school for a very simple reason: my parents made me. But then I discovered that translating Latin sentences was kind of like doing a puzzle, in a challenging but interesting way. As I got to the higher levels of Latin in high school and then college, I also liked that studying Latin literature was very similar to studying English literature… exploring themes, figures of speech, historical background, etc.”
It is notable that it took encouragement to begin studying the language. I have to wonder how common it is that people avoid looking at Latin, thinking there is a lack of interest, when, in fact, they don’t realize they would enjoy the subject matter! Preconceived notions about certain areas seem to keep people from studying them. If you are hesitant, give it a chance! You could find something you end up liking!
So, “What do you think interests your students in the study of Latin?”
“Lots of Latin students like exploring the many connections between Latin roots and English derivatives (words that come to English from Latin). It almost feels like a superpower to read unfamiliar English words and figure them out from Latin vocab, and also to look at familiar English words in a new light when you know their Latin origins. Many students also like Latin because we spend a lot of time learning about the culture, history, and mythology of the ancient Romans, which is an endlessly fascinating world.”
It is an opportunity to look at the past with fresh learning. Suddenly, English words become more clear, and their double meanings become apparent. If you appreciate the complexity of language, Latin is an excellent way to give it meaning. If you wish to learn about the Ancient Roman Empire, which influenced a lot of international developments whose effects we still see today, studying the classics is an amazing way to do so.
There is also a lot of practicality to Latin, which I have mentioned above. Even though it is not quite as applicable as, say, learning arithmetic, there is a value that is present in almost all areas of study.
“How do you think Latin helps with other school subjects?”
“It can be very helpful to have a Latin scholar in any classroom, no matter what subject you’re studying. In English class, tons of vocab words are derived from Latin, and many works of literature refer to Greek and Roman mythology. Math and Science use many abbreviations, terms, Greek letters, etc. that come straight from the Classics. Latin students are also experts on the ancient Romans, so there is a strong connection in History classes as well.”
The study of Latin is present in every subject listed above, but I think that, most prominently, it helps with the study of other anecdotes. Most recently, I was able to give a (very) rough translation of a peer’s Spanish homework!
“Some people call Latin a “dead” language since it isn’t used conversationally, but anyone speaking Spanish, French, Italian, or another Romance language is basically using a form of Latin that transformed over time, so it actually is very alive in that sense. “
I’ll end this article with some wisdom from Mr. Kollin:
“Whether you realize it or not, you are surrounded by the influence of Latin and the ancient Romans on a daily basis, so why not spend some time learning a little Latin…or at least hanging out with a Latin student?!”
Kleinberg, Aviad M. (2008). Flesh Made Word: Saints’ Stories and the Western Imagination. Harvard UP. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-674-02647-6.