The Joy of Latin

This morning I noticed a story in the Guardian that Latin is to be taught in 40 UK state secondary schools had provoked some rather extreme reactions on social media. I hesitated to comment on this lest it appear that I have any respect or confidence in Gavin Williamson (who is undoubtedly one of the stupidest politicians in living memory) or that I don’t think there may be better things on which to spend £4m, but I have to say that I don’t think this is as stupid an idea as many people seem to think.

For what it’s worth I think that learning Latin (which I did from age 11 to O-level at aged 16, where which it was my best subject. If you’re interested here is the examination paper I took way back in 1979:

I not only enjoyed it enormously but also found it useful for learning other languages as well as helping to understand English grammar. There are many aspects of the English language that I only understood when I learned about them in Latin, and that also helped me with French and German where things like the subjunctive are much more obvious than they are in English and also much more precise, which makes them easier to identify and understand.

Latin has important elements in common with a great many Indo-European languages besides the obvious Italian, Spanish and French, including the Germanic languages (which include English). I did French to O-level too, by the way, but only did one year of German because I wasn’t allowed to do three languages to O-level alongside the full complement of science and mathematics. I have managed to get by during my frequent visits to Italy pretty well without having formally studied any Italian, though I find it easier to read and listen to Italian than to speak it. I have to say, though, that Latin hasn’t helped me much at all in my struggles to learn Irish…

Above all, though, learning Latin taught me that as well as being a tool for communication, language is fascinating in itself. There are strong connections between linguistics and genetics, for example – ideas in genetics on how you can work backwards from common elements in current diverse populations to the “last common ancestor” came from historical linguistics.. Languages evolve through mutation and intermingling in much the same way that populations do.

The relationships between different languages are deep and mysterious but studying their common structures helps bring them to light. That’s how the physical sciences work too…

It has long been an intention of mine to try to re-learn Latin when I retire and have a go at translating some old texts into English. It’s much easier to learn new languages when you are young but hopefully having done it when I was young it might come back reasonably easy. I remember quite a lot actually, but need more practice. Perhaps I’ll get the time before too long.

P. S. I’ve heard it said that, instead of teaching the Latin language in schools, students would be better off learning Latin dance, e.g the tango. My response to that is that “tango” is the first person singular in the present indicative of the Latin verb “tangere” (to touch)…

5 Responses to “The Joy of Latin”

  1. Seems interesting to learn, at least. Since it’s considered a dead language, maybe this will breathe new life into it—but that’s being optimistic, I guess.

    Honestly, I cannot have imagined learning Latin when I was a kid. Then again, I never took to foreign languages that well. 😂

  2. I studied it at school for 3 years and it certainly helped to understand English grammar as you have noted. I believe Latin (or another Classics language?) at O Level used to be a requirement for entry to some UK universities ‘back in the day’ ?

  3. The only bit of Latin(?) I remember is:

    “Caesar ad erat forte,
    Brutus adsum iam;
    Caesar sic in omnibus,
    Brutus sic intram.”

    There’s a substantial amount of Latin in the British aka Welsh language. Some part of this may have been transmitted through the Catholic Church down to the Reformation, and maybe later through the translators of the Welsh versions of the Bible & Prayer Book who would have been very familiar with the Vulgate, but a lot does seem to date back to the Roman occupation. [see for example “the Latin Element in Welsh” by Samuel Evans.]. Conversely some Latin words (eg caballus, vassus) may have Celtic roots so the traffic could have been 2 ways, as you’d expect.

    The Irish language has had a different journey but it would be fun to research any Latin elements there too.

  4. All true, but also true of learning many other languages, which have the added advantage of being useful in day-to-day life where they are spoken. Of course, if your goal is to learn some language related to Latin, while that will be easier if you know Latin already, if you don’t then the fastest way is to just learn the language. For those interested in languages, history, etc., Latin is certainly essential.

  5. Secondary schools in West Berkshire were routinely offering Latin GCSE until very recently.

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