Dr. Mark W. Graham defends the study of Latin for the exposure it gives to the rich beauty of human creativity in a world very different from our own.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

For several years now, Latin has been making a steady and decided comeback. Not just classical schools, but private schools of various stripe as well as some suburban public schools, inner-city schools, and everything in between have Latin again as an option – sometimes even a popular one – in the curriculum. This semester at my college I am teaching “Latin 101: Beginning Latin” to an eager group of twenty-four students, none of whom are using the course to meet a language requirement; they simply want to learn Latin. The last time introductory Latin was offered here was nearly thirty years ago, when it died due to simple lack of interest. A few years ago several students circulated a petition asking for signatures from students “who would take beginning Latin even if it did not fulfill a language requirement”; they quickly amassed more than sixty signatures. Latin success stories from struggling inner- city schools to prestigious private academies are common enough, and, of course, the classical school movement essentially has made the study of Latin for its students a sine qua non.

Well-worn responses to the old “Why study a dead language?” have returned with vigor. We all know the pragmatic answers which once tried, in vain, to prop up dying Latin in school curricula of the 1960’s and 1970’s – Latin teaches logical thinking; Latin builds English vocabulary; Latin will raise your standardized test scores (thereby helping you get into top colleges, professional programs, graduate schools). In some classical circles, these answers likely mask another necessity-driven, usually unspoken, one – Smart young hires at small private schools can usually teach themselves enough Latin in order to teach elementary students, something they could not do for modern spoken languages like French or German. Many of us could probably give plenty of examples of the latter, even if the reality of it does not thrill us. I have, many times, taught upper-level “Reading Latin” to college students who could boast four or more years of middle or high school Latin (partly from teachers who more or less taught themselves Latin) yet who have not even encountered the Subjunctive Mood.

It is not easy to deny the validity of any of the above answers, even if the idealist in many of us probably balks
at the crass pragmatism at play. School administrators, teachers, and board members, no doubt, know they have to give the above answers (minus, of course, the final one) to inquiring parents. Such a message, in some circles, unfortunately tends to get absolutized. Once again, some administrators are heard arguing that Latin (and/ or sometimes Koiné Greek) is essential to learning logical thinking skills. There is rich irony at play whenever parents (who have never studied Latin) parrot this claim which they have heard from teachers and administrators (many of whom have never studied Latin either). To be quite frank, there are many very effective and efficient ways to learn logical thinking skills, to build vocabulary, and to soar on standardized tests without a single day of studying Latin. To suggest otherwise borders on the naïve, on the one hand, and the dishonest, on the other.

So, without muddying the waters by arguing that Latin should be required for all students, let me suggest some reasons why I love Latin (and Greek), and why the study of dead ancient inflected languages is an excellent pedagogical option. In doing so, I will try to avoid the Scylla of elitism and the Charybdis of populism. The former, which I see in some students coming from classical school backgrounds, is rarely backed up by substance (see note on the Subjunctive Mood above, for one of many examples). The latter, the essence of Americanism, ignores the fact that truly learning Latin takes sustained thought, hard work, and dedication, and most are not going there, even given the most energetic of teachers and supportive of parents.

First, the study of Latin exposes one to a truly foreign culture, a beautiful world outside of our own. In this respect, Latin does something that teaching modern languages generally does not. Learning any language is never just about grammar and vocabulary, but rather about getting access to a different world. While I refuse to pit learning Latin against learning French, and remain a firm believer in students learning modern languages, I would argue that there is a fundamental difference between the two in terms of foreign exposure. Modern languages, in spite of the occasional and very welcome exceptions (bless them!), are taught primarily in a touristic and consumeristic way. High school modern language classes are ultimately geared toward preparing you to check into a hotel, to rent a car, to order a meal, to buy a trinket. The point is to bring their world to me in a way I can negotiate it, touch it, enjoy it, take it home. The point is not to truly enter a foreign culture. There are exceptions, but the pattern remains, and implicitly or explicitly serves as a justification for requiring modern foreign languages in schools.

In our modern globalized world, moreover, even those who truly immerse themselves in a contemporary foreign culture begin to see how foreign it is not. Discussions about western pop stars, western “restaurants” (is McDonald’s a restaurant?), western politics, western television shows, western movie stars, western sports figures, etc. tend to dominate. By contrast, note what happens when even a beginning Latin student encounters a line from Vergil, Livy, Cicero, Ovid, or Seneca. No longer is the student thinking about how to order a sandwich or how to find the train station (as important as these are), or talk about One Direction or American Idol (as important as these aren’t), but rather he is pondering a question about natural law, the nature of friendship, or the role of the divine. To the extent that some of this is not explicitly foreign, it at least remains timeless. Emphasis on Rome as part of something we call Western Civilization can blind us to how truly different those people were from us in worldview. Even a brief study of Roman religion or cosmology would show the gulf between us and them. Through the study of Latin we can encounter a glimpse of the beauty and sheer variety of human creativity across time and space – and the Roman world is a truly foreign place.

Second, the study of Latin can teach us about grammar in a way that spoken language does not necessarily do. This argument has a long history, but we should not forget it. With spoken languages, most of us learn by imitation, by hearing. Is it, “If I were you, I would be glad to study Latin” or “If I was you, I would be glad to study Latin”? Our first impulse is to hear which one sounds correct (admittedly, a poor method if our community / family / peer group does not take grammar seriously). With Latin, understanding Tense (e.g. Present, Imperfect, Future, Perfect, Pluperfect, Future Perfect), Mood (e.g. Indicative, Subjunctive, Imperative), Case Usage (Direct Object, Indirect Object, Subject, Means, Manner, etc.) comes from learning how the grammar works. No one who has ever taught Latin (or Greek) at any level has not frequently heard “this really helps me understand English grammar a whole lot better.”

To be sure, all languages, ancient and modern, have a rigorous grammatical logic. Learning Latin, though, is rarely if ever about learning by hearing and imitating, but necessarily about understanding the grammar intrinsically and extrinsically.
that they use the logic of Latin every day to think about relationships between words, about syntax, about grammar. All of this comes in addition to learning vocabulary terms (which might or might not help one on the SAT). Additionally, grammarians and philologists have long noted that languages tend to devolve over time in terms of grammatical complexity. The earlier phases of a language (and what are French, Italian, and Spanish but living Latin?) tend to be the most complex, again giving us insight into the rich beauty of human creativity in ways not necessarily observable in current forms of any language.

 

Finally, Latin expresses itself in ways which are impossible in non-inflected languages such as English. Of course, English does things that Latin (and Greek) cannot (like make an art form of rhyming poetry, for example), but inflected languages show us, again, a beauty and creativity which we cannot ever experience in English or any language readily accessible in American educational systems. To illustrate, I will take an example from an Attic Greek text and then move to a Latin counterpart. Early in my studies of Attic Greek, I was assigned a section from Book Two of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The scene was a dark, rainy, night battle in a city. Like many parts of Thucydides, the passage was very difficult, but this one seemed more intractable than any passage I had yet encountered. Word order, of course, in highly inflected languages, is far more flexible than English, which depends closely on the order of words in a sentence (another point to support the argument in the previous paragraph, incidentally). Even with flexibility, though, there are patterns into which Latin and Greek sentences generally fall. One learns where to look for the verb, the subject, the object(s), modifiers, etc. When they are not where one expects, it is for a purpose such as emphasis, and one learns to recognize this. The Thucydides passage, though, was convoluted well beyond my neophyte powers of recognition. Verbs were positioned where I expected nouns; modifiers were far away from words they were modifying; participles flew at me from odd directions. I began to get frustrated, angry, exhausted as I tried to translate the description of this night battle.

Then it hit me – I was being brought into the thick of the battle! Nothing was where I expected it, just as the fighters in the dark, rainy streets did not know who was on what side as they came upon a person in the dark chaos, slipping and falling through the wet streets. Was that a foe or a friend rushing at them? Nothing was where they expected. Such was the beauty of the passage – I could translate the words (eventually), but more than that, I could feel the action. Latin does the same, because it can. Working in a similar way would be Cicero’s famous descriptions of conspirators where he employs word order which illustrates immediate danger, yet allows the reader to picture the conspirators in the hills around Rome, in the city itself, and, ultimately, in the Senate house itself.

Rhetoric, of course, was the basis of higher education in Rome, and Latin (and Greek) formed the essential structure from which to launch their verbal fireworks. While modern education is oriented toward “facts,” education in the ancient world was oriented toward the rhetorical presentation of facts. Originality, for them, was primarily not a matter of thinking up new material,
but rather handling old and well-known material in a rhetorically new and interesting way. All classical literature was thus rhetorical, and relied on picturesque means of conveying a message. The tropes and figures for doing so were more or less canonized by the Romans.

To truly appreciate these tropes and figures, it is necessary to encounter them in the original languages, for much depends on word order and grammatical inflection. I would maintain that this goes well beyond simply “Vergil reads better in Latin just as Camus reads better in French.” Just to give one example, how about Hypallage?4 Vergil’s Aeneid (6.268), Ibant obscure sola sub nocte per umbram (“they set off through the shadows, the dark ones, beneath the lonely night” is but a poor shadow of a translation) represents a brilliant double Hypallage. Or, turning to the Silver Age, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis (3.4), iam medium curru Phoebus diuiserat orbem / et proprior Nocti fessas quatiebat habenas (“Phoebus in his chariot had already passed mid orbit, and, nearer to Night, was shaking his weary reigns”). No doubt J.R.R. Tolkien’s own classical language training inspired his own Hypallage (The Hobbit, chapter 11): “The others went down the valley and up the newly found path, and so to the narrow ledge. Along this they could carry no bundles or packs, so narrow and breathless was it, with a fall of a hundred and fifty feet beside them on to the sharp rocks below.”

So, why should we study Latin? Certainly it can help teach logical thinking and build vocabulary, and perhaps boost standardized tests scores. But why stop there? In a word, why not extend to our students the offer of encountering a beautiful and creative world otherwise currently beyond their ken. Latin is not for the select few any more than is algebra. Yet neither is it for everyone, just as astrophysics is probably not for everyone. But it remains a window into a lovely foreign world, and we would do well to emphasize this aspect more often. There is nothing elitist about all this. Hard work brings with it rewards, and beautiful ones.