For the love of Latin

Classical languages are facing a long and steady decline. finds out what we’re all missing out on

The ancient world: birthplace of philosophy, of history, of theatre. Modern thought, the kind that has sculpted our identity and the nature of our politics and institutions, is the result of a long intellectual journey which started with the Antiquities.

Once a compulsory part of any education, today Latin and ancient Greek die silently.

The number of GCSE Latin candidates, has, over the past ten years hovered at just below the 10,000 mark and approximately 70% of these entries are from private schools. Currently OCR is the only board in England to offer the subject at both GCSE and A Level. Managed decline appears to be the watchword in the UK, but what about elsewhere?

Outside the UK, there remains great support for ‘resuscitating’ the dead language through the Living Latin Movement. In Rome, the Accademia Vivarium Novum goes one step further and encourages all teachers to speak in Latin and Ancient Greek continuously. Students, ranging from 16 to 25, flock to the college from across the world in order to benefit from a rare chance to become fluent in the ancient languages. The “Living Latin” movement holds a conference in which these two institutions and many more attend an annual meeting. Not surprisingly the conference is run entirely in Latin.

Professor Tunberg, a senior lecturer at the University of Kentucky, is renowned for placing emphasis on the importance of teaching Latin through speaking, rather than simply working from paper alone. Currently in the UK, Latin is taught through the translation of works of Latin orators and authors. Occasionally, students are encouraged to translate from English into Latin, known as Prose Composition. Professor Tunberg believes speaking the language deepens understanding. “If you can use the language easily and correctly to express your thoughts in speaking and writing, you know it better. Being able to speak, write and read Latin helps one develop a closer relationship with the language.”

Latin offers an understanding of the roots of the institutions, ideas, and assumptions of western culture

Professor Tunberg also claims that the Roman world has sparked a vast literary tradition, with heydays of literary production during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the early modern period. “Latin education, at all stages, should take account not merely of the great classics of Roman literature but also the other periods of Latin’s literary importance. This should be attempted even if it is only possible in most curricula to study a few selected examples. A Latin student, however, should have at least an idea of the whole traditions and its major monuments.”

And Latin is not only in literature, for as the primary root of most European languages, it acts a significant aid in learning them. Daisy Dunn, the Executive Officer of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT), points out the specifics. “A qualification in Latin illustrates an aptitude for languages and a keen eye for detail. I think a foundation in the Latin language makes the process of learning other languages easier, and quicker, and employers are aware of that. A job in the Civil Service, for example, may require the potential employee to learn a new language in a short amount of time. Familiarity with the sort of grammatical constructions one encounters as a student of Latin should put the candidate in a good position to do that.”

But he also believes that Latin be a good deal more: “a background in humanities, with Latin as their core subject, offers understanding of the roots of the institutions, ideas, and assumptions of western culture – which even today, in a multicultural world, is still important. In brief, citizens in Western European societies and their offshoots (including America and Australia) who have a humanistic training are better informed about the evolution of their own institutions, and therefore better citizens.”

So is Latin the pathway to a broader understanding of today’s politics and culture? Professor Tunberg asserts the advantages of discovering Western Culture through the language. According to him, the language can offer, “Access to the fundamental institutions and most sophisticated thoughts for two millennia of the western tradition (obviously I am including more here than just ancient Roman Latin), and a key to basic linguistic features and vocabulary in many modern national languages of Europe.”

Mary Beard is leading figure in both the academic and public world of classical studies. She has worked hard to bring the historical discourses surrounding the subject back into the public eye. Mary’s graphic BBC documentary “Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town”, explored Roman civilisation as well as documenting the infamous Mount Vesuvius eruption.

Mary Beard is a Cambridge academic and Times columnist

She is realistic about the future of the Classics, writing in a recent article, ‘I’m not trying to convince people that classical culture, literature, or art is worth taking seriously; I suspect that would be preaching to the converted. I merely suggest that the cultural language of the classics continues to be an essential and ineradicable dialect of “Western culture”.’

It is all very well preaching the classical world’s influence on modern day society. But why not leave the study to someone else? Academics such as Professor Terence Tunberg and Mary Beard have made a career out of the subject. A reluctant Latinist would be within his bounds to argue that these are exceptional cases and do not represent the majority of people holding classical qualifications. Professor Tunberg emphasises the large number of professional opportunities a qualification in Latin can lead to: “Latin improves prospects not merely to find jobs not just as educators and teachers, but also in law, tourism, museums & conservation, archive work, editorial work, libraries, and perhaps even in medical fields.”

Although few would link Latin to medicine and other seemingly unrelated professions, Terence’s argument is backed up the by the example of several former Latin scholars. The Latin incarnations spoken at Hogwarts in JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series pay tribute to the author’s degree in Classics and French at Exeter University. Dido, taking her stage-name from Virgil’s “Dido and Aeneas” in “The Aeneid”, the UK pop-singer can celebrate an A Level in Latin, as well as selling 10 million copies of her first album. Finally, one man proved that gaining Latin as a GCSE can lead to earning over £7.5 million a year. Frank Lampard, attacking midfielder of the England team, even named his daughter “Luna”.

Whether Latin remains merely an intellectual choice of tattoo dialect or the language of catchphrase and cliché, the key remains that students throughout the UK have at least the opportunity to get into the classical world. Today, just 15% of schools offer Latin, compared to 60% of independent schools. Professor Tunberg is more realistic than over-optimistic about the future of the language. “I don’t think things will get worse, and I have some hope they might get slightly better”. JACT nourishes the hope that schools will take up the language even if it’s only offered through extra-curricular courses. One of Daisy’s favourite aspects of Latin is finding new and exciting things within the so-called ‘dead language’. “Though centuries have passed since the texts you read were written you can still find things hidden there all along that no one else, in all those intervening centuries, has ever noticed. It’s not every day that you make such discoveries, but that makes those moments in which you do all the more special, and exciting.” M

5 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this – an interesting read!

    For those of you who may be interested, we are still flying the Latin flag here at LFA!

    We offer 19 week courses (running every year from October to June on campus) in Classical Latin (Levels 1 and 2) and Medieval Latin (Level 1). Courses are open to everyone – students of the university, students from other universities, members of the general public and members of staff so please be in touch if interested and spread the (Latin) word…

    Gratias vobis ago!

    Gem, Languages for All, University of York.

  2. 28 Apr ’12 at 3:48 pm

    Jennifer Nelson

    In addition to Dr. Tunberg’s program and that of Mr. Miraglia (Acc. Vivarium Novum) there are other institutions and workshops that cultivate and promote an active approach to the language. SALVI holds a summer workshop called Rusticatio (www.latin.org – full disclosure: I am past president of this organization), and Dr. Nancy Llewellyn speaks only Latin in her classroom at Wyoming Catholic College. High school teachers such as Dr. Robert Patrick in Gwinette County, Georgia, and Mr. Luke Henderson at Santa Monica High school (among many other middle and high school teachers in the U.S.), speak largely or exclusively in Latin in their classrooms. Using Latin actively still may not be a “mainstream” approach, but there seems to be a growing interest in it.

    Aside from the issue of speaking, Dr. Tunberg brings up a very important point, in that Latin did not just come to a screeching halt in late antiquity or in the middle ages. Many texts were produced in Latin throughout the early modern and into the modern period. It is very hard, however, to find institutions that support the study of this “long tail” of Latin. The University of Kentucky is one of those places (hear hear!). UCLA is now hopefully going to be on the map, as Classics professor Shane Butler and English professor Debra Shuger have launched a program in Neo Latin, funded by a Mellon Grant: http://uchumanitiesforum.org/2012/03/19/1710/. It is a great time to be a Latinist, I should think.

  3. You say “few would link Latin to medicine”, how is Latin not related to medicine? Surely most people would connect the two. Lots of medical conditions and descriptions derive from the classical languages. Medics use Latin words everyday.

  4. As a literature UG having learnt Classical Latin and Anglo-Saxon (“Old English”) this year I really think your argument should extend to A-S.

    A-S is such a wonderful language, is so much more British!

  5. 2 May ’12 at 2:32 pm

    Amateur classicist.

    Great article!

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