Sunday, 1 August 2021

Who needs Latin?

Oh come on! Who needs Latin? It's a dead language isn't it? Nobody uses it any more do they?

I am old enough that Latin was a compulsory subject if you wanted to go into either Law or Medicine. The Senior Cat studied Latin, English and History for his degree. (We worked under something like the more broadly based Scottish system at the time he did it.)

I grew up with lists of Latin vocabulary stuck to the shaving cabinet and the Senior Cat muttering the words as he wielded the razor each morning. He would sometimes say something to my mother in Latin - if he did not want us to understand. He had to stop that when I was about nine because both my brother and I had started to guess what was being said. 

We knew that the Catholics "talked Latin" at church. We thought the Pope talked Latin all the time.

When I was ten we went off to live in a then very remote community. My parents were the two teachers in the two teacher school. The Senior Cat decided it was time to teach me some Latin. 

I was not terribly impressed by the just published text book, "An Intermediate Latin Grammar" by JP Giles and EN Pfitzner. The Senior Cat knew both authors. He had actually spent a lot of time with Giles discussing what should and should not be in the book. I should have been far more impressed but I was not interested in soldiers and spears and war. Farmers were mentioned but where was all the useful vocabulary that would let me talk about sheep and wool and wheat? 

The Senior Cat persisted. He kept telling me, "It will be useful one day." 

He was right. Over the years I have used my Latin. I have, like so many Law students before me, used it to understand the meaning of a Latin phrase. When reading a medical report preparatory to working with medical personnel on a communication board I have used  it to understand a medical term. Occasionally I have come across an unfamiliar word elsewhere and understood it because I have recognised the Latin root. It has helped me understand languages like Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish. I have seen written Sardinian and wondered if I was reading mediaeval Latin. 

A friend of mine who is a monk, while thoroughly approving the move away from the Latin mass to something people understand, also regrets not being able to walk into a Catholic church anywhere in the world and participate fully in the service. He has spent time in the Vatican library and is perhaps more fully immersed in the joys of Latin than anyone I know. For him Latin is a living language.

There is a move in England to reintroduce Latin into some state schools. Of course this has produced some fierce arguments but is it really any more a "waste of time" than teaching students a bare minimum of Chinese or Japanese, Thai or Korean? I suggest it is less a waste of time. Learning Latin can teach us a lot about our own language. It can prepare us for learning other languages. There is now far more awareness of the need for a vocabulary outside soldiers, spears and war.  

Professor Mary Beard has been advocating for a return of Latin to classrooms. She has also recognised the need to update what is taught and how it is taught. 

And, if you want some fun, go hunting for "Minimus Mouse" adding the search term "Latin" as well. Barbara Bell and Helen Forte have created a wonderful family of Latin speaking mice - and this Cat is becoming rather fond of them. 

1 comment:

Hilde said...

Our sons (35 and 40 years old) both learned Latin as first foreign language (in 5th grade, aged 11 years) and when they started with English a year later, they "knew" so may English words from Latin that they had no problems whatever with the vocabulary. Of course, it was the same with French two years later.
I found the Latin grammar quite horrible, but the vocabulary I aquired in my only three years of Latin lessons was helpful with French, Italian and of course all medical things.