Latin is a Dead Tongue

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“Latin is a dead tongue,

Dead as dead can be.

First it killed the Romans,

And now it’s killing me!”

 

This old rhyme used to be sung by school children who were sick and tired of their Latin lessons. While it is humorous, it also makes a bit of a point – Latin is a dead tongue. It is no longer a language spoken in any country, and is almost exclusively a scholarly language. Unless you wish to pore over ancient documents and spend years of your life reading and translating classics (most of which already have been translated into English), why on earth would you learn Latin? Most educational institutions have this mindset today, and it is very rare to find a school, especially a grade school, in which Latin is still taught.

But just because Latin is a dead language, does that make it completely useless?

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I grew up homeschooled, and for reasons of which I am unaware, my mom decided that my brother and I would be learning Latin. And so, while other children endured basic French or Spanish, from grade 1 until grade 6, I endured semi-regular weekly Latin lessons. I still remember long mornings of chanting nouns in the singular and plural forms of five different cases (puella… puellae… puellae… puellam… puellas… puellae… puellarum… puellis… puellas… puellis…) And anyone who has taken any sort of Latin will remember this horrendous chart…latin-i-lesson-07-12-728

I learned to put together simple but highly impractical sentences. Agricola laborat. The farmer works. Bestia appropinquat. The beast approaches. Mostly, I remember dreading Latin. It seemed like a lot of monotonous work for no real practical reason.

And yet, in spite of myself, I began to put things together. My first true lightbulb moment was when I was learning the verb “to see”: spectare. Mom asked, as she often did, what english word it sounded like. Suddenly, a whole bunch of words jumped into my head. Spectator, someone who sees something. Spectacles, something you can look through to see better. Spectrum, a range of things that can be seen. Inspect, to look at something carefully. Respect, to see someone a certain way. Specter, a ghost or optical illusion. All these words came from this one Latin verb? I cannot deny that my juvenile mind experienced a certain thrill of pleasure and satisfaction upon this discovery. Another instance came upon learning the word for “window”: fenestra. I despaired of ever remembering such a strange word, to which I think of absolutely no links to English; however, in my history lesson later that week, I learned about the Defenestration of Prague, in which a couple regents were thrown out of a window. They were literally de-windowed, de-fenestra-ted. Had I not known Latin, such a word as “defenestration” would have had not really meant anything. I still didn’t like learning Latin – but I was learning.

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As I got older and began to sing older choral music in choirs, it never really occurred to me that I could roughly understand what Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis* meant without having to look at the English translation. Gloria was obviously “glory.” Excelsis was clearly related to “excelling” and “excellence” which basically means to aim high, ergo it was likely about height. Terra means earth, as in terra-forming, terrain, terrarium, and subterranean (sub meaning “under,” so literally “under the earth”).  Hominibus perhaps a little more difficult, but think no further than the slang word “homie,” which literally comes from Latin homo meaning man**. Voluntatis is related to “volunteer” and “voluntary,” both requiring an act of will. My brain would still make subconscious connections automatically, even though my days of Latin lessons were behind me.

When I was studying for the SAT test, there were often words I didn’t know on the vocabulary section. But for the most part, I was able to hazard a pretty good guess at what they meant or didn’t mean thanks to my Latin knowledge. Obviously Latin is not the only language that contributes to English. English is basically a large conglomeration of a whole bunch of languages. But Latin is the root of many languages that influence English, such as French. In fact, even though I never took French lessons, I can still make sense of French because of its Latin roots. And when I took Italian in highschool, it was almost like taking Latin 2.0.

Even though Latin isn’t spoken anymore, it still permeates our world in many ways. Anyone who has ever taken a basic biology class knows that when it comes to the genus and species of plants and animals, they are almost always classified with two Latin names. (Binomial nomenclature, remember?) Most of these Latin names are actually quite simply translated. Ursus Arctos, for example, is a Brown Bear. Ursa is the Latin for “bear” while arctos means “north” or “northern” (also where we get the word “arctic” from).  Thus, you have the Brown Bear, which generally lives in the colder, northern areas. Latin phrases are also thrown about more than you realize. Ever used the term alter ego? That is literally Latin for “other I/self.” Ever written “P.S.” on a letter? That stands for post script, Latin for “after the letter.” Even the continent of Australia gets its name from Latin australis which means “south” or “southern.’

While it’s true that Latin isn’t terribly practical from a speaking perspective, from the perspective of better understanding English, Latin has proven to be an invaluable resource. It has stimulated my love of words and given me a deeper understanding in so many areas, from music to critical thinking. Ultimately, I think that Latin is a good thing to learn, at least in part, and that taking Latin out of schools was perhaps not the best idea. Latin is a dead tongue, but it has never truly died, and I think it never truly will.

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~~~~~~~

*Gloria to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace and good will towards men

**Not to be confused with “homo” meaning “same” as in homosexual. That definition of “homo” comes from Greek roots, but that is a blog post for a different day.

One thought on “Latin is a Dead Tongue

  1. This was very interesting to read! I’m homeschooled too, and have been attempting to teach myself Latin for a while. This was very inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

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