Latin: A lost language for a privileged class?

June 13, 2016 | Matthew Tibble

I learnt my first piece of Latin without knowing it was Latin. I was reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Hermione cast the spell ‘oculus reparo’, a slightly tenuous bit of Latin that should probably have been speculum reparo (I repair the looking glass). At the time, however, all I heard was fantastic wizardry.

‘Expecto Patromum’ literally means, in Latin, ‘I await a protector’. Image Credit: Phamoz, Deviant Art. Used with kind permission. 

At my secondary school there was no Latin class, no Classics department, and no interest in history that predated the Tudors. My friends at the local grammar school could say a few broken phrases in Latin – usually sly things like ‘in vino veritas’ (in wine, there is truth) when they were enjoying a pint after the Sunday rugby match. It’s because of this that I never took the language too seriously and, along with a lot of other children from state schools, considered the language an ancient relic of high society.

That was the case until I ended up at university studying history and found that most of the important ecclesiastical, historical and legal documents composed before 1600 were in Latin. I also found that from 1600 onwards Latin was used heavily in both legal terminology, technological innovation, medicine, and scientific discovery and still is today. That seemed to me to be quite a lot of important areas of society where Latin was an integral component of our linguistic development. So, with a dusty dictionary in hand, I started my Latin for Beginners course. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that far from being a language of exclusion for the snobby, Latin was all around me in places I didn’t even think to look, opening up a new world of etymological understanding to me.

I came late to Latin and was lucky to pick it up at all considering the lack of exposure to it during my early education. Private schools in the UK have long taught Latin as a core component of secondary school education. For state schools, however, the language is considered something of a luxury with the number of students taking the subject to GCSE level remaining consistently low.  In 1988, 16,023 students entered for Latin at GCSE level – 53% of which were from state schools. This fell to 10,561 in 2000 with just 37% being from state schools and the figures have remained low until now. So why is it that we consider a language that forms the etymological core of 50-60% of English words, and 70-80% of other Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Italian, to be of such little relevance in a modern society and a luxury of the elite?

Some bold points have been made against the language by Donald Clark in an impassioned article.He, for example, says the Latin is hard and can be confusing – but so is calculus (coincidentally another Latin word meaning ‘small pebble’ or ‘weight’ used for counting) and I doubt you’ll find that dropped from the curriculum anytime soon. 

His argument culminates with the statement that ‘the global reach of English has greatly reduced the need to learn another language, let alone a dead one!’ This is, frankly, a terrible argument. According to him we should all just focus on English in the hope that everyone else will reach out to us and speak our chosen tongue… Finally, his article against Latin betrays his own sense of the language as one of a higher class and reinforces the stereotype that only snobs and academics should pick it up – a language of ‘exclusivity and exclusion’.

Education in schools must be about prioritising what is important for a modern society, and I believe that’s what he is getting at, but this type of argument will lead us to some pretty big oversights – the kind of blunder that Vice-Chancellor of Queens University Patrick Johnston made when he announced that ‘society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.’ Comments like these reduce the value of humanities subjects and undermine the very core values that learning a language such as Latin, or becoming a historian, or studying literature, instils in students. The same values that Patrick Johnston goes on to say that he wants his graduates to achieve: a student who ‘understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.’ Does he think students would not learn leadership, not learn how to analyse politics, and not learn what it means to drive society forward when they read, say, Caesar or Cicero?

The University of Sydney advertises their Latin courses

In secondary schools, getting an E at GCSE level in Latin is harder than a C in most other subjects according to Will Griffiths. He’s the director of the University of Cambridge School Classics Project, and it’s precisely his statement that makes the language worth learning. It teaches complex contextual analysis, it improves memory, it boosts grammatical understanding not just of English but of other languages that are taught in school. It’s partially thanks to Griffith’s project that we now see the number of schools offering Latin go from 600 to over 1,100 with the growth achieved mostly in the state sector. 

His project, and the £5M government-funded key stage 3 Latin initiative begun in 2005, is a tentative start to the rejuvenation of the language, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. What needs to be properly readdressed, however, is not just providing the language courses, but ensuring that a younger generation is aware of how relevant Latin is to a modern society, or even to them as individuals. Unfortunately at the moment, there are too many educated adults who would disagree with that.

What do you think? Is there any point in pursuing a language we can’t even speak properly anymore?


About Matthew

I am currently writing a PhD on ‘Mirrors for Princes’ and methods of counsel during the sixteenth century or, as I like to call it: ‘How to tell Henry VIII he is misbehaving without getting beheaded’. As well as running this site, I have also written for Doing History In Public and have a keen interest in editing and the publishing industry.

Article Edited by Amadeus Chen.

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