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Why Latin in School: First Stop, Words

Updated: Jan 17

by: Joshua Shaw

In the next few posts, I’ll be taking on one of the thorniest problems surrounding classical Christian education: Latin. Isn’t it a dead language? Isn’t it impractical? Most of us have considered these and other hesitations about teaching Latin, sometimes for many years, to our students. They only have one life; one childhood. Why waste it on something so useless?

To convince you (and myself) otherwise, I’ll treat this and the following blog posts as stops on a train route: going, say, from Zurich to Rome.

First stop: Milan.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo answerng Why Latin in Schools

If your child “gets off” at any of these stops, he or she will still gain much from their journey. Milan isn’t Rome, but the northern lakes are gorgeous; the people are already speaking Italian; and the espresso is stupendous. I call that a win.

Latin Vocabulary and Latin Grammar are the first two stops, the Latin language itself the destination. I pass over the benefit of Latin common to all foreign language study: the gift of discovering a wider world. Experiencing a different language, like traveling to a far country, is worthwhile apart from its utility. Just to hear the Word refracted through countless human cultures and their several “words” is a joy itself.

But on to the first stop: Words.

Words are windows to other worlds; words uncover reality; God created all things by his Word. God proved Emmanuel when the Word became flesh. Words matter.

In theory, sure, you may say; but, you ask, how can we observe this concretely? And how does Latin help us to the souls of words?

To see through a window the glass must be transparent, but a word whose origins are obscure to us is a foggy window.

What, for example, does the word focus mean? What about diligence? Does it change your understanding of these English words when I tell you that focus meant “heart” and “diligence” comes from the Latin verb “to love”?

It has been therefore said that learning Latin vocabulary brings color into an English literature otherwise black and white to us; I would go further for some authors, John Milton especially, and say that it turns a mime into film with sound and full Techni-Color. Much of the color, tone, feeling, and meaning of English literature from Chaucer to Jane Austen is lost on the Latin-less. But how did this come to be?

Here’s a history and a bag of chips: the dastardly French spelled the ruin of our language in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. When the French conquered the English, they conquered our language as well. Because the upper class knew Latin and often spoke French (a modern descendant of Latin) it became increasingly indispensable for great achievement to use Latin (or French) words in English. Here is a short list of examples, taking only words I used in the first paragraph of this post: surrounding, classical, education, language, impractical, considered, hesitations, students, waste, useless. The result, as you can see, was that about one half of all English words, give or take a few, is Latinate.

As I said before, it was often a matter of class to use Latin words: one wanted, in our terms, to sound “fancy.” Germanic words like sweat and lore gave way to Latin words like perspire and doctrine. It still tends to be the case that the shorter, earthier, and more basic a word, the more likely that it is Germanic (hand, foot, head, heart, love), while longer, abstract words tend to be of Latin origin (science, affection, piety, demonstration, argument). This process carried on so long that much of even our daily vocabulary (like vocabulary) became Latin. At the same time, since Latin was the language of the learned elite, it was used for technical terminology: law, medicine, science, theology and grammar all developed their jargon (habeas corpus, tibia, cranium, creatio ex nihilo, per se, nominative, genitive, gerund) from the Latin language.

To pull many strands together, Anthem’s students, simply by learning Latin vocabulary, will gain access to countless footnotes, have a hand up in all their science courses, and more easily and more completely appreciate the English of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and CS Lewis – I do not even have time to mention that Latin vocabulary forms the basis of all modern Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.).

But, as my Latin professor would smilingly say, in an accent I cannot hope to imitate, “All these are merely ancillary reasons for studying Latin; Latin is a beauty in her own right, and we should study her for her own sake.”

Next stop, Florence: or, in other words, Lady Grammar.

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