Saturday, July 26, 2008

Latin and Leisure

Latin and leisure are two things that have been on my mind lately. In addition to teaching humanities this Fall at Providence, I will also be teaching Latin. When I mention this to inquiring friends and family, someone inevitably voices the obvious: "What is the benefit of learning that?" Latin is, after all, a dead language that only those of us who have resigned ourselves to near-poverty as teachers and professors dabble in, right? I also happen to be reading Josef Pieper's Leisure: A Basis for Culture and in the first part of the book he writes about the cultural mindset of work. We work so we can live, and we "not-work" for the sake of working (resting for the sake of working later). Everything is done for the sake of efficiency and utility. Such a mindset easily explains why things like Latin or philosophy are regarded as trival, at best, and a waste of time, at worst. While true leisure dictates that some things have value, regardless of whether or not you get anything back from them, there are practical benefits from learning Latin.

The most often cited benefit is vocabulary. A significant number of words in the English language are derrived directly, or indirectly (via the Romance languages) from Latin. Studying Latin vocabulary lists will teach you the root and origins of many words and phrases and make decyphering new words easier.

Latin is also tremendously helpful for learning English grammar. Despite the dissimilarities between Latin and English, the same basic parts of grammar exist in both: nouns and adjectives, active and passive verbs, and cases. While it may have been otherwise in the past, today we do not learn English grammar in a very systematic way. We learn English through use and experiece, not through consulting grammar books. Further, in many schools, the process of learning to read has been stretched out over twelve grades by the curriculum manufacturers. When a student learns Latin grammar, it is most often done so by comparision to English equvilants and translation. This is not so much true for Latin as it is of learning a second language in general. I never completely grasped the difference is use between "who" and "whom" and how both function grammatically until I began studying German in college.

Finally, the act of reading and translating Latin requires discipline and attention to detail. Unlike most modern languages which rely on a word's placement in the sentence (the subject noun comes before the verb, and the object noun comes after), word order is irrelevant in Latin. Whether a noun is the subject or direct object can be learned by looking at the word ending. For example the sentence, poeta puellam amat, means "the poet loves the girl." The ending for poeta, -a, means that it is the nominative case, or "subject." The -am ending of puellam shows that it is the accusative, or "direct object" of the sentence. Finally, the verb ending of amat, -at, is the third-person singular, present, indicative, active ending. Learning Latin to encourages you pay close attention to words and what is being said, which is a highly valuable skill in just about any profession.

Clearly, Latin is not a useless subject foisted on students for the sake of tradition. Increased vocabulary, a better understanding of grammar, and a closer attention to detail are all things that a student stands to gain from studying Latin (and Greek as well). Even up into the 18th Century, Latin was the universal language of scholars and educated men. Be he from England, Prussia or Spain, a scholar who knew Latin could interact with his peers from almost anywhere in Christendom. Even as recent as the 18th and 19th Centuries, statesmen such as Edmund Burke were modeling their English speeches and writings off of the great Latin Rhetoricians, Cicero and Augustine, whose eloquence and style is appreciated even today by those who study communication. Latin, despite being a dead language, is not without usefulness. Those who find it pointless would do well to consider what they could learn from learning Latin.


Pat & Bill said...

Hello from Wales! Salve ex Cambria!

I don't disagree with anything you say about the value of Latin. I think we need to make use of a universal lingua franca for international communication: Latin. What do you think?

Take a look at

Elizabeth said...

Latin is quite useful (oh how my mother and father would rejoice to hear me say that). Although I was promised it would help me learn a foreign language (which didn't so much happen with sign language), it has helped immensely just with English. I find that knowing the Latin (and Greek) roots of English words has helped me dissect words I don't know to find their meanings and knowing the endings (like -ology meaning study of) to be the most helpful.