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Why Latin in School: Second Stop, Lady Grammar

by Joshua Shaw

In the previous post we saw the importance of Latin words for the full employment of our language. If a student only gets a deeper appreciation of the English language roots, this is a win, no matter what some may say. If you get off in Milan, you are still in Italy. But if you can push on and wait till the Tuscan hills appear on the horizon and the countless cities-on-hills seem to grow out of the mountain tops and then, wonder of wonders, the Florentine Duomo rockets above the surrounding cityscape. This we’ll liken to the lovely Lady Grammar.

Lady Grammar explains why Latin in schools

Lady Grammar, it has been said, holds the keys to the liberal arts; the father of American Classics said that every author and every student has a grammar in their heads and that one must adjust to the other; and Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s right-hand man and the praeceptor Germaniae (“teacher of Germany”), said that theologia vera est grammatica quaedam divinae vocis (“true theology is a certain grammar of divine speech”).

Grammar matters.

The lady who wrote the flagship essay of Classical education, Dorothy Sayers, said, “I always thought it cruel to be made to learn grammar in an uninflected language.” But what does “inflected” mean and how could this be cruel?

As my students know from their Latin Catechism, an “inflected” language is one whose endings, beginnings, or stems change or “bend” according to grammatical roles.

In other words, nouns and adjectives tell their number (singular or plural), gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) and case by their various endings. Case is a technical word for the “job” of a noun in a sentence (subject, object, indirect object, possessor, etc.). English has a few fossils from former days when our language too was inflected: “whose,” at the beginning of this paragraph, is the “genitive” of the relative pronoun “who” - it tells possession. Consider our pronouns and how and why they change: I, me; we, us; he, him, etc.

Now, for the second claim of Ms. Sayers, think about these two sentences: I gave her a nasty look and I kissed her. “Her” does not change, but the meaning does. In the first sentence her is an indirect object, whereas in the second it is a direct object: in Latin the words are different, ei and eam. You know simply by the way a word looks what its job is.

This scenario repeats itself a thousand times over with verbs as well as nouns. To have to learn the different meanings of “her” in these two sentences (and all other examples) without a different inflected ending is what Dorothy Sayers called “cruel.” Because she knew Latin, she found it so much easier to understand the grammar of English; how to use it well; how to read it well and understand a sentence like the following (which my sixth graders have memorized):

...Only he who girds the earth in the cincture of the sea divine Ulysses ever did envie and made the fixed port of his birth to flee.

Who or what is the subject of the main clauses? Who is the object? There are sentences in Shakespeare, Milton, and Paul the Apostle much harder than this one. It matters how we interpret these things (in all great texts, the Bible not least) and the careful study of Latin grammar will make us grammar ninjas.

It is in this context that one can understand the apparently baffling statement that “Latin is a logical language.” No language is logical in the sense that all its forms and meanings make sense according to some universal rule (as the rules of logic). That’s like calling a rock logical. Huh? Yeah, exactly.

But once you accept the basic data of Latin (as of the universe): that puella is girl in the nominative singular, puellae genitive and dative, puellam accusative, and puella (long a) - once you accept all this, you can begin to manipulate the language according to its internal logic. In fact, to understand and, further still, to produce intelligible Latin, you must apply this logic. For example,

If this is the nominative ending and its singular, then it must be the subject; if singular, then my verb must be singular; if masculine then any adjective modifying it must be masculine, singular, and nominative, etc. etc.

Few things have taught me the rigor of inexorable logic like countless hours of reading, studying, writing, or translating Latin.

But again, as my Latin professor would say with a grin, “These are only the ancillary reasons for studying Latin. The real reason is the language itself.”

Next stop, Rome and the lingua Latina.

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