If you ever visit Paris, you cannot miss the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame. It is essential to any tourist’s list of places to visit. Not only is the interior spectacular, but the exterior is as well. If you approach the church from the front, you will be struck by the imposing façade designed to reflect the majesty of God. If you see the church from another angle, however, it is less imposing and has an intricate, beautiful quality about it. In the midst of the stained glass windows and the detailed stonework, the flying buttresses are impos- sible to miss.
They were not in the original plans for Notre Dame. As the builders raised the walls higher and higher—taller than the building convention at the time—they started to notice cracks. They solved the problem with flying but- tresses. These flying buttresses are not in contact with the wall except for where they meet at the top. Buttresses had existed before but they were always up against the building, effectively forming massive walls. Flying buttresses added to the beauty of the building and provided support to the tall, thin walls.
Latin is the support holding up English. It adds a beautiful dimension to our language. And without Latin, English would be nothing like we know it today.
Possibly the most important influence of Latin on our language is the alphabet. Old English was originally written in runes borrowed from other Germanic tribes. Around the 9th century, Irish Christian missionaries applied the Latin alphabet to the Old English language.
In addition to taking Latin’s alphabet, somewhere around 60% of English vocabulary is derived from Latin. Over half our words come from the Romans. In fact, it is rare to find a Latin word that has not been brought into English in some way. The lexicon of English pays daily tribute to Latin. Take a look at words like “rebel,” from the Latin rebellare meaning “to fight back,” “imperial” and “em- pire” from imperare meaning “to command,” and “force” from fortis meaning “strong.” And lest the examples give one the impression that it is mainly military terms that are from Latin, check out “deciduous” from decedere meaning “to retire,” “turbulent” from turba meaning “crowd,” and “eject” from jacere meaning “to throw.”
The grammar and style of English also owe a lot to Latin. Rules such as not splitting an infinitive—whether you agree with it or not—come from Latin where the infinitive is just one word and thus cannot be split. Requiring subjects and verbs to agree in number, even if it might sound odd to the native speaker, is also a holdover from Latin (e.g., “None of us is perfect” instead of “None of us are perfect”).
This dependence of English on Latin is rooted in the time of Julius Caesar. He was the first Roman to lead an expedition into Britain, and his political dealings with the Britons were a precursor to the relationship Latin would have with English. After his second invasion he chose to install a local king who would be an ally, ceding all territory back to the Britons instead of setting up a Roman governor- ship. It would be a full century before Claudius conquered Britain. In the same way that Rome did not rule Britain in Caesar’s time, Latin has never ruled English but has guided, informed, and changed it.
It would be negligent not to note that Latin was present in Britain before English arrived. Before the Romans brought Latin with them, the Britons spoke Brittonic, a Celt- ic language. Throughout the Roman occupation, Latin was spoken by the upper classes while Brittonic lasted as the common language in many parts. When the Anglo-Saxons came, Old English, the ancestor of our language, became the primary language throughout the land.
While the English language itself owes a debt to Latin, the major support Latin gives to English has to do with instruction. English has by some estimates over one million words. It also has a grammar that is, in a sense, in- tangible. Because the language is built around word order, the very concept the word conveys as well as its context must be examined to find what part of speech it is. In con- trast, an inflected language like Latin shows its grammar through the word itself.
If a student were to be confronted with the English sentence “The girl desires a lamb,” he must ask himself, “What is a ‘girl’? Is it a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or other part of speech?” He has to remember that a noun is a person, place, or thing, and check “girl” against those con- cepts. Only after he figures out that “girl” is a noun can he deduce that it is the subject. And he must go through that process for each word in the sentence. This is a very difficult task for any student in middle school or younger. If, how- ever, the student was given the Latin sentence Puella agnum cupit, he immediately knows that puella is a noun and is most likely the subject by the “a” on the end of it. The “um” on the end of agnum tells him it is also a noun and must be the direct object. The “-it” ending of cupit is clearly the third person singular present active indicative form of cupio. The grammar is tangible.
Every English teacher can vouch that year after year the same students need to be retaught grammar concepts covered the year (or years) prior. That inability to grasp these concepts fully is the crack in the wall of our English cathedral. We try to build higher and higher, cracks start to form, and we don’t know what to do. Latin should be the support.
Different methods of building such a prop are available. Some people choose to study Latin and Greek root words as an English vocabulary building exercise. They learn roots like docere which means “to teach” and the English words that come from them like “documentary” and “indoctrinate.” This method of leveraging Latin to help students of English can be likened to the original buttresses in Romanesque architecture: big, bulky, and not all that beautiful.
Others choose to study part of the Latin language.
They learn vocabulary and its derivatives and begin memorizing grammar forms. They may even start doing simple translations like “Mary walks” or “The boy jumps the fence.” However, they stop before they complete their study of all five declensions or call a halt before they even reach the passive voice. Parents and students feel they have learned Latin because they can recite amo and servus.
In this case, while this limited understanding of Latin grammar helps the student understand basic concepts of English grammar, it falters when the student really needs the help: for the complex ideas of participles, gerunds, sub- junctive, subordinate clauses, et cetera. Through imitation, students use these constructions but do not know what they are. They are unaware of the rules and thus are ignorant of the errors they themselves make. Studying these advanced grammatical concepts in Latin allows the student to play with them in a controlled environment. They can experi- ment with participial and gerund phrases and realize that while the present participle and gerund in English have the same form (e.g., “praising”), in Latin they are different. “He rejoices in praising God” would be translated Laudando Deo gaudet while “He is killed praising God” would be Laudans Deum occiditur. In this way the student learns the verbal qualities of a gerund and a participle.
You can imagine the beauty that would be lacking, and the perilous position Notre Dame would be in if it only had half its current flying buttresses. It would be like the first construction of the Roman Pantheon: Lacking support, it crumbled to the ground.
Rather than only learning roots or part of the language, the best way to reinforce the English cathedral is to study the entire Latin language. This means learning vo- cabulary and derivatives, as well as the complete morphol- ogy and syntax of Latin. Some start it in Kindergarten, but it is preferable to begin in second or third grade. It will take at least through seventh grade to complete such a study of the Latin grammar alongside a normal course load. It would be a shame to spend all that time and not dedicate time in high school to reading the classics in Latin.
This seems overwhelming, but a serious study of Latin will alleviate the struggle to master English vo- cabulary and grammar. The effort needed for a student to conceptualize that a participle is a verbal adjective disap- pears when they see that a participle is formed from a verb but has adjectival endings. It is obvious—it has both verbal and adjectival properties. The idea of agreement (between subject and verb, noun and adjective, pronoun and ante- cedent) becomes second nature to them because they must implement it over and over. Grammar becomes their daily bread. They become familiar with it and their learning spills over into all their other writing. Most adults who studied Latin for enough time to master the entirety of the grammar will say they don’t remember much of it, but what they do remember is their grammar.
After all this discussion about how Latin bolsters an English speaker’s knowledge, it must be pointed out that Latin should not be learned purely for its secondary ben- efits. To assume otherwise would be to think that the flying buttresses at Notre Dame are not beautiful in themselves. Even without the benefits of supporting English, people still study Latin because there are other reasons to learn it, among which are access to the original works foundational to Western civilization and a host of mental skills trans- latable to other disciplines. That, however, is a topic for another day.
The development of mental skills is why Dorothy Sayers advocates teaching Latin in her speech “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She laments that people just learn facts and are no longer taught how to think:
Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a “subject” remains a “subject,” divided by watertight bulkheads from all other “subjects,” so that they experi- ence very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon—or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philoso- phy and economics, or chemistry and art?
Later on she states explicitly, “Although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamenta- bly on the whole in teaching them how to think.” She then proceeds to lay out the three stages she sees (Poll-Parrot, Pert, and Poetic) and draws the analogy to the Trivium. In the Grammar stage she states “Latin should be begun as early as possible,” having defended it earlier because “the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar” and “even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent.”
In accord with Sayers, it seems the Grammar student is most adept at learning the Latin grammar forms. But a Logic student must begin to translate in order to practice the skill of analysis. In Puer bonus sororem docet, the nouns must be identified, their number determined, their gender remembered, the case ending recalled, and the case use established. Then the same must be done for the adjective, with the difference that the gender has to be identified from the ending. The verb has to be parsed out into person, number, tense, voice, and mood. Adjectives and nouns must be found to agree, subject and verb must agree. Only then can all the information be synthesized into a translation: The good boy teaches his sister.
Complex and compound sentences add to this skill- building exercise. Those comfortable with Latin start to for- get the amount of work it takes to translate a Latin sentence; it can become second nature and happens unconsciously. But the student learning Latin will have to walk consciously through each and every step time and time again. The habit of examining words and their endings in Latin transfers over into examining words and ideas in literature, details in math, evidence behind scientific theories, and motivations of historical figures.
Just as the flying buttresses aren’t only about hold- ing up the walls of Notre Dame but are beautiful in them- selves, learning Latin would be worthwhile even if it didn’t have the vocabulary and grammar benefits for the English speaker. So, once you have mastered the language, don’t forget to go read Cicero, Augustine, Vergil, and Tertullian exactly as they expressed themselves.