The Phrontistery

De Utilitate Latinarum

Linguistic Disquisitions
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One of the complaints often levelled at youth today - youth seemingly being loosely defined as anyone too young to remember the moon landing - is the lack of standards in education, particularly with respect to the so-called "classical" education of our forefathers and foremothers. A cornerstone of this argument is that the lack of education in the classical languages (particularly Latin) has left the youth of today bereft of culture, moral sensibility and - particularly relevant for the present discussion - linguistic ability.

What are we to make of this argument? How helpful is Latin for improving our knowledge of the English language? To investigate this point, I performed a perfunctory web search and, to my great dismay, found that the debate has been hopelessly politicized. The loss of Latin from the curriculum is used as further evidence of the moral and cultural decline of civilization and, ironically, a return to the study of pagan authors is touted as the road to a revitalization of Christian morality. Eventually, I found what I consider to be a well thought out, cautiously optimistic analysis of the subject from the National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Languages. I strongly urge you to visit the site.

I love the Latin language. My high school did not offer Latin courses during the time I was there, a condition that was far from unusual for the late 1980s. At one point, in order to remedy this deficiency, I even tried to set up an independent study course in Latin, but the only tutor that could be found for me was an octogenarian World War II veteran with profuse ear hair. It's not that I have anything against veterans or ear hair, but the situation is grim indeed when not only is there not enough interest in the language to offer a course, but there are no teachers available either. My frustration was immense, and I truly longed for the days when Latin was readily available, if not required, for every budding youth of a scholarly bent.

During my undergraduate studies, I found that the teaching of Latin was alive if not exactly well at the university level, and took the opportunity to take a full-year intensive course. It was well-taught, comprehensive, and at the end, some of the better students were able to translate short and not-too-difficult passages of classical Latin. I performed very well, possibly in part because I had already taken many years of French. But, like most students of Latin, I realized that there was simply nothing in Latin as a career. Classical philology was obsolescent at best. While Latin is an asset for some scholars, it is no longer the lingua franca that it used to be. The literary canon is far more diverse than it ever has been, and unless you're studying pre-modern European history, there simply is little need for you to become fluent in Latin.

I have not yet dealt with the argument that, while Latin may lack direct utility, because it has had such a great influence on English, it should be learned because of the contribution it makes to the enlightenment of youth concerning their own mother tongue. This is the primary argument of the NCSSFL (see above), and it is in some ways a very cogent one. The obscure word vexillology is easily defined if one knows that "vexillum" is the Latin word for flag, or so the argument goes. Everyone knows that 50%, or 60%, or 70%, or 80%, of English words are taken from Latin - as with all urban legends, the figure varies, but the story and its moral message never do. Learn Latin, and your English will improve.

It is undeniable that someone who is fluent in Latin will be able to discern the etymology and meaning of a large number of English words. The exact number is unimportant - the difference in figures above is basically due to the fact that some people count English words that have any Latin cognate as being "taken from" Latin, while others count those that come from Latin via French, and others only those that derive directly from a Latin antecedent. My own personal experience is that, throughout my high school education, I picked up a lot of Latin root words from reading in English, and that, when I finally turned to learning Latin, I found that I already knew much of the vocabulary. A thorough knowledge of English semantics gave me a head start on Latin, rather than vice versa.

The proper question in all of this is not whether knowledge of Latin will improve your English vocabulary. It certainly will, and however we manipulate the statistics, Latin and Greek have both contributed numerous root words to English. The real question is whether, pound for pound, word for word, learning Latin is where we should be putting our education dollars, rather than into improving the quality of English directly - by reading and writing in English. In the 13th century, when the Bible was written solely in Latin rather than in the vernacular: yes, of course. In the 17th century, when almost all academic discourse was in Latin: yes, of course. In the 21st century, for the sole purpose of improving one's English and reading a small percentage of authors in their original language: absolutely not.

Every hour spent teaching the classics in the classroom is an hour that could be better spent teaching English, or, for that matter, living languages such as French or Spanish. One of the advantages of learning any foreign language is that it allows the learner to think consciously about the grammar of his native language. It teaches a person to think critically about language, improves memory and, in the case of Indo-European languages, can improve one's vocabulary. However, there is nothing special about Latin as compared to, say, Greek, Spanish or French, any of which will accomplish all these goals, and will be far more useful in daily life. I don't give much weight to the statistic that students who take Latin have verbal SAT scores about 150 points higher on average than those who don't take Latin. Let's face it, students who take Latin are much more likely to be those who are already verbally and linguistically inclined, even more so than those who study living languages. If you study French or Spanish, you're probably doing so to acquire a useful skill; if you study Latin in high school today, I'll wager it's because you love language. Linguistically capable students take Latin, rather than Latin making students linguistically capable. I believe, even though I have profited from Latin, that much time and energy has always been wasted in the "classical" education system by teaching Latin to those who despise it and correctly point out their time could be better spent. To quote Winston Churchill, "Naturally I am biassed in favour of boys learning English; and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat."

It is worth noting a bizarre irony in all this discussion. One of the nits that prescriptivists like to pick is the use of split infinitive - "to boldly go" instead of "to go boldly". To insert an adverb willy-nilly into an infinitive verb such as "to go", it is said, is to commit an unpardonable sin against our language. What is forgotten amidst the carping and whining is that English did not originally prohibit split infinitives. However, in the Enlightenment, with the rise of classical scholarship, the English language underwent a transformation, picking up a veritable cornucopia of Latin words as well as Latin grammatical habits. And, while in English, infinitives are expressed in two words, such as "to complain", Latin infinitives require only one "queri". Of course, you can't split a single word. Thus, in a desire to make English more like Latin, grammarians decreed that henceforth, thou shalt not split thy infinitives. Similarly, in Latin, one cannot end a sentence with a preposition; thus, it was forbidden to end English sentences in that way. Ask yourself whether these Latin rules of grammar truly contribute to comprehensibility and clarity in English, or whether it might in fact be an impediment. I think you will conclude, to again quote (to quote again?) Winston Churchill, that "this is the sort of impertinence up with which I will not put."

If you, like me, honestly yearn to learn the tongue of Cicero and Caesar, by all means do so, no matter what your age. There are any number of autodidactic textbooks if you want to teach yourself. It is a rewarding personal experience, and may even prove useful someday. I admire and applaud efforts such as that of Nuntii Latini, a weekly news review broadcast in Classical Latin on YLE, Finland's national broadcaster. However, do not believe for a minute that the re-introduction of Latin into the curriculum is anything but a reactionary attempt to revivify the "good old days" - days which almost certainly never existed. If you want to improve your English, read and write in English. Leave Latin to the scholars.

I hope you have found this site to be useful. If you have any corrections, additions, or comments, please contact me. Please note that I am not able to respond to all requests. Please consult a major dictionary before e-mailing your query. All material on this page © 1996-2014 Stephen Chrisomalis. Links to this page may be made without permission.

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