“Amo, amas, amat…amamus, amatus, amant.” This is the mantra of every current and former student of Latin. Last week, as my 5th grade class chanted this verb, a hand shot up to ask a pressing question: “Why do we study Latin since it’s a dead language?” Well, young one, I’m glad you asked!
How can something so ubiquitous be dead? (ubiquitous, from the Latin ubique, meaning everywhere) Latin is a language (language, from the Latin lingua, tongue) that is hard to escape. Its remnants (remnant, from the Latin remanere, to remain) litter our English language like shells on a beach, each one a wonder to find and investigate (investigate, from the Latin investigare, to track or investigate). I propose that this language is far from dead, but vibrantly alive in the language we use every day.
True, Latin is not a modern spoken language. The Roman Empire from which it sprang has long since disintegrated. However, the Romans left behind ideas that shaped Western civilization, including their prolific language. The structure of English comes mostly from German (as well as many of our monosyllabic words), but even so, 60% of our vocabulary has a Latin origin. An even higher percentage of our words that are two or more syllables come from Latin. There are two main reasons for this abundance.
First, in the 4th century, St. Jerome translated the Bible into the vulgate (or common) Latin. Then in 1382, John Wycliffe translated that work into English. At the time, English was a new and somewhat underdeveloped language. Words like propitiation and sanctify did not have an English equivalent, so the Latin words themselves were adopted into the malleable English language. A thousand Latin words slipped into our language through the door of the Wycliffe Bible.
The second reason we have a generous amount of multi-syllabic Latin-based words is that all of academia in Europe knew and communicated in Latin during the Enlightenment. It was the international language of the well-educated. New ideas created a need for new vocabularies in science, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy, and thus found their expression in the “dead” language of Latin. The academic preference for the common “lingua Latina” spawned vast amounts of vocabulary. Today the fields of law, medicine, and science are filled with Latinate lexicons.
But why do we study Latin today? Are there still good reasons, even if you will never become a doctor, lawyer, or scientist? Educator Dorothy Sayers, whose essay The Lost Tools of Learning has inspired the resurgence of classical education in our country, offers us this startling perspective on the importance of Latin during a 1952 speech entitled “Ignorance and Dissatisfaction,” given in Cambridge, UK, “...If I were asked what, of all the things I was ever taught, has been of the greatest practical use to me, I should have to answer: the Latin Grammar.”
Classical education fosters sound thinking, writing, and speaking. These skills are not merely philosophical niceties, but benefit the student in practical ways. Latin has a positive and profound impact on the acquisition of these skills.
At first glance, you may wonder, as my young student did, "Why do we study Latin since it's a dead language?" As we look closer at this language of weighty influence, we realize that Latin is not dead. It's immortal.
“The Adventure of English: Birth of a Language,” BBC Documentary, 2003. YouTube, 2014.
*Note: This is a wonderful series, but due to some language and content, parental discretion is advised.