Latin Isn’t Dead


Phoebe Ciocca, Editor, Reporter

Latin Isn’t Dead.

Immo (on the contrary), it’s living and lives on. 

When I say I take Latin, the most common reaction is a confused look and a sardonic “but it’s a dead language”. While Latin no longer has any native speakers, it controls and influences how the Western world communicates. English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese are all directly derived from it: over a billion people communicate through the legacy of Latin. Yet, there is still a cloud of skepticism that surrounds the language: why learn it if nobody speaks it? Why invest time in something dead? Latin has a crucial role in the etymology of Western languages. It’s central to many fields in modern life: music, medicine, biology, law, and, of course, linguistics. Its beautifully logical and intricate structure changes and develops the minds of those who study it. It’s time to change Latin’s “dead” status. 

In terms of etymology, knowing Latin is like holding the master-key to Western civilization. This is the basis of some of the most spoken languages in the world. For those learning European languages, Latin helps even in the most informal situations. In Roman dialect, “mo” is used as an informal way to say “now” or “soon”. A non-Roman will not know what this means, even having studied Italian. No dictionary can help, but Latin can: in this case, “mo” derives from the Latin adverb mox, meaning “soon”, or “immediately”. It’s everywhere, even modern slang. An estimated 80% of English vocabulary derives from or is shared with Latin. In the previous sentence, all the key terms are of Latin descent: “estimate” derives from aestimare, to evaluate; “derive” comes from derivare, which itself has Latin etymology. The term is composed of the prefix “de-”, meaning down from, and “rivare” stems from “river” (rivus), hence to “stream down from”. While modern languages evolve, Latin remains stable and reliable. It can always be consulted, whether you are deciphering a scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or trying to understand the Terms of Service of a website. 

The complex nature of Latin literature is another reason to admire (ad+ mirare: look towards) the language. In Italy, the study of Latin is very common in highschools, and when teachers are asked why, they explain: “ti apre la mente”. Latin opens your mind. Reading a Latin text requires a very different approach from that of a modern language. One isn’t just reading, they are decoding. Each sentence must be carefully deconstructed with surgical care and a detective’s acuity. As it is a declined language, it possesses a sophisticated sentence structure: each term can take many forms and meanings, depending on grammatical context. Only with intuition and strong critical thinking can one solve the Latin puzzle. The first lines of Pyramus et Thisbe, a tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, exemplify the labyrinthine quality of Latin literature: 

 “Pyramus et Thisbē, iuvenum pulcherrimus alter,

altera, quās Oriēns habuit, praelāta puellīs”

Each line cannot be translated independently; every word is entangled with the next. Following a word-for-word translation, the first line reads “Pyramus and Thisbe, young one beautiful other”. The next reads “other, who East held, above girls”. Alone, these lines are incomprehensible. Yet, when the two are considered together, and each term is held in context, the lines read “Pyramus and Thisbe, the first, the most handsome of young men, and the other, preferred to all girls, whom the East held”. Only through the view of Latin lens can these lines properly introduce the tragic Pyramus and Thisbe. With a modern approach, they are meaningless. Studying the works of Ovid, Virgil, Cicero and more, the mind develops an entirely different and advanced pattern of thought. Latin forces you to think open-mindedly, bringing the mind to a whole new depth of reasoning. The intuition and interpretative skills that Latin gifts us are what help the most successful scientists, politicians and sociologists understand and navigate through modern life. The language cultivates the mind of a polymath. It keeps you on your toes: one suffix could change the meaning of an entire paragraph. Its layout is unlike that of any modern language; Latin deserves a different level of attention, and a great deal of appreciation. 

Much of the reluctance to learn Latin is related to the stigma that surrounds it. Not only is Latin dead to the world, it’s a status symbol for the elite. Throughout history, noble families would teach their children Latin to ensure a higher education. Hence, the language became associated with the elite, snobby and inaccessible. While understandable, this stereotype overshadows all the beauty and vast culture that remain unstudied. In Italy, most state schools teach students Latin. It’s not a luxury, but a standard. Here, Latin is imperative for the development of young minds. The language mustn’t be buried with its founders: Latin is for everyone. 

Another factor that “scares people off” is the stringent way it’s taught. Marije van der Vorm, the Chair of the Classics department at St.Stephen’s, discussed the importance of teaching Latin with me, and the importance of how its taught: “if we teach it as a dead language, we’ll treat it as a dead language”. When someone asks if Latin is dead, they already have an answer in mind. But van der Vorm explains that Latin never died, it has been spoken for 2500 years, and even today there are communities of Latin-speaking people. The modern Vatican still relies on the language to communicate, and schools all around the globe teach Latin. Linguistically, we rely on the foundations it set for every language to come after it. We must try to see Latin “in a different light”: as long as language is alive, Latin lives beside it. 

At St.Stephen’s, the Classics department takes a nuanced and enthusiastic approach to teaching Latin. The school employs the methodology of modern language learning. Rather than memorization and rigorous translation, there is an emphasis on interactive learning: students participate in speaking and listening exercises, and are even introduced to colloquial Latin. The program “changes the way you look at languages”, van der Vorm comments. Students are immersed into the ancient world, which equips them to later face Ovid and Virgil. Latin isn’t just epic poetry and orator’s speeches, but everyday interactions: graffiti on the streets of Pompeii, markets at the Forum Boarium (forum of cows). All forms of Latin are included, and all reflect the elaborate nature of the language. But it isn’t easy, “Latin forces you to sit down”, says van der Vorm. It’s a puzzle waiting to be solved. She states that “language is a vehicle to understanding a society”: studying Latin opens a door to the ancient world, a door that will otherwise remain locked. 

The study of Latin is the appreciation of civilization. It’s a tribute to thought and curiosity. The will to understand the past and to develop the mind are reflected in the study of Latin. The language is the blueprint for modern Western communication. Even if you don’t plan on getting a PhD in Classics, take Latin. As long as language and thought live, Latin lives.