Mary Claire Stockebrand, Campus Carrier photographer
“Latin is a dead language, dead as dead can be, first it killed the Romans, now it’s killing me. All are dead who spoke it. All are dead who wrote it. All are dead who learned it. Lucky dead, they’ve earned it.” This little poem has been found in countless Latin textbooks for despondent students struggling through their conjugations and declensions, but I propose that the reports of Latin’s death are greatly exaggerated. Latin is still an immensely valuable piece of a well-rounded classical education for many reasons, including a fuller understanding of history and literature, language and professional vocabulary.
First, the study of Latin and its history and influence helps students to more fully understand and appreciate the Roman Empire, which has had profound and continuing effects on Western civilization. Countless great works of philosophy, theology, science and culture were written in Latin, so studying the language allows students to enjoy these great works in their original languages. Even works of English literature are replete with phrases and references to Latin. Proficiency in the “mother tongue” of Western civilization is vital to fully understand the history, culture and literature that shaped our world.
Second, Latin is extremely helpful for learning other languages and expanding knowledge of English. Latin never truly died but evolved into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, the Romance languages. Because of Latin education, a student could understand simple phrases in any of the romance languages without ever studying them. To study Latin is, therefore, to begin a study of six languages at once. Because English evolved partially from the Romance languages, it is the linguistic grandchild of Latin, and at least half of our English vocabulary is made up of Latin words and roots. Learning Latin enables students to quickly pick up other languages and vastly expand their English vocabulary.
Third, the study of Latin prepares students for a plethora of important professions in law, science, mathematics, medicine, government, theology, logic, music, philosophy and art. The entire classification system of life in biology and the table of elements in chemistry are made up of Latin and Greek terms. Theological phrases like Imago Dei, Ex Nihilo, and Sola Scriptura are Latin. The plural of fungus is fungi, and the singular of bacteria is bacterium, because they possess the Latin neuter and masculine endings. All legal terms are Latin. The first step to learning any new subject or profession is to learn the vocabulary. Simply learning the Latin vocabulary can help students immensely in their professional development.
Learning Latin is a difficult and daunting task, but its rewards are invaluable. Students who study Latin can attain a fuller understanding of the Roman world and its lasting impact, appreciate the great influential works written in Latin or with reference to Latin, quickly learn other widely-spoken Romance languages, expand their English vocabulary and prepare for professions by learning the Latin vocabulary of almost every field of education. Students should feel empowered by their study of Latin, because if you can learn Latin, you can learn anything.