You Should Take Latin: Pragmatic Reasons for Studying a Dead Language

By Steven L. Jones, Ph.D

“The best grounding for education is the Latin Grammar.”

“You should take Latin.” I bombard almost every student I meet on campus with this phrase. So much so that normally students see me coming and instead of running away turn to meet me and see how long it takes for me to turn any conversation into an apologia for the Latin language. They think they are impervious to my wiles. They think they won’t be the ones to give in. But they are wrong. Eventually many relent. Frequently it’s the ones who put up the biggest fights up front that tap out first. But what is my secret?

My favorite line of attack in recruiting Latin students comes from “The Lost Tools of Learning,” an essay written by Dorothy Sayers which advocates for a return to more ancient mode of education. Amid her other argument for Classical Christian Education, she gives this succinct articulation of the importance of learning Latin:

“The best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and Medieval, but simply because…even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences, and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization together with all of its historical documents.”

Over the years I have realized that unbeknownst to me, my advocacy for Latin has followed Sayer’s line almost exactly. So instead of presenting my own arguments, allow me to breakdown and expounded upon Sayers’s artfully articulated apologetic.

Not Because Its Old

“…not because Latin is traditional and Medieval…”

When Dorothy Sayers says, “The best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this not because Latin is traditional or medieval” she makes a controversial statement since most people assume that the only reason for studying Latin is because it’s old.

A lot of people think: if the only reason that we should study Classics or Latin is because it is old and interesting, then “Well, guess what? I’m not interested. And therefore, I’m excused. I’ve seen Gladiator, so I’m done with Latin… right?”

This viewpoint assumes that Latin is just one of many possible fields of study. You may say, “You’re passionate about this, but other people are passionate about other things. Why can’t we build an education around something else?”

This has been the reaction to Latin over the last century and a half. Latin and Classical Studies in general have been seen as the bastion of “dead white men” and an icon of detached, irrelevant, ivory-tower academics at their worst. But the reasons for studying Latin go beyond knowing random facts about a bygone culture. There is a place for preserving ancient artifacts, but it isn’t at the center of our educational philosophy. If studying Latin is nothing more than an exercise in antiquarianism, we should let it go.

A Bench-press For Your Brain

“…even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent…”

Sayers continues: “The best grounding for education is in the Latin grammar, I say, not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent.”

One of the most interesting and fun debates that I have with students occurs when I say, “You should take Latin.” What do you think they say in response after that?

All of us can hope to be as smart as most college freshmen think they are. So they are free to tell me “new” things on an almost weekly basis. The first thing many of them say is “Why? It’s useless. No one even speaks that anymore…”

Sometimes I’ll reply sarcastically with “Are you serious?! I made it through all those years of graduate school and no one bothered to tell me no one speaks Latin anymore? I’m… I’m at a loss! My life is in ruins. I’m in an existential crisis. I’m going to sit and quietly rock back and forth, holding my knees, because I am going to have a heart attack and die over the surprise that you just gave me!”

Snarky comments aside, my usual response is along the lines of: “Yes, Latin is useless. It’s useless in the same way as something else you’re familiar with. You know what else is completely and utterly useless? Exercise!”

Think about it. How many of you are runners? It’s a waste of time! You go out from your house, you run around somewhere, and you end up right where you started. You didn’t go anywhere! You didn’t take a trip. You didn’t go on a journey. It’s completely a zero-sum game.

Weightlifting? That’s pointless, too. You pick up things off a shelf, move them around, and put them exactly where they were. You did no work. You’ve changed the world not at all, right?

But we know that’s completely and utterly ridiculous because exercise is important even if the reductive descriptive I gave makes it seem silly. Exercise changes you. That’s why you’re doing it. The first thing that we need to realize is that Latin is like a bench press for your brain.

Latin will train your brain the same way that running and weightlifting will train your body. Latin is like a bench-press for your brain. It builds mental muscle and intellectual stamina that enables you to train your brain to learn other things. Strengthened by Latin, your brain will find it easier to absorb, organize, and assimilate massive amounts of information as well as to perform multiple simultaneous calculations. The strength gained from these mental workouts will make learning anything else much easier.

The Foundation for English

“…It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages…”

Studying Latin isn’t just a “healthy bench press” for your brain. It’s a guaranteed way for English speakers to develop our understanding of how English grammar works. As Sayers continues: “It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic language.” Teutonic languages refers to languages related to German. English is a combination of German and Latin.

A great deal of the English vocabulary comes from Latin through Old French (Thank you, William the Conqueror). But the structure of English is based on Latin as well. In the process of learning Latin grammar, students finally end up learning English grammar along the way. It is not an uncommon occurrence for Latin students say, “I’m a better writer in my English classes; I write better research papers now; I understand sentence structure better; I now know how to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ correctly because I am learning Latin.”

Knowing Latin is going to structure your thinking and your understanding of the language you currently speak and give you a depth of expression that you might not normally have.

Gateway to the Sciences

“…as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences…”

Latin helps with the technical vocabulary of all the sciences. Latin just happened to have been the global language of the scientific revolution. Therefore most of what passes for scientific vocabulary derives from Latin.

One specific example is the language of Medicine. Anybody who has anything to do with the countless subfields that make up the health care professions has to take a course on Medical Terminology, where they will learn a language based on Greek and Latin.

If you are going into any medical field, an understanding of Latin will be an important part of understanding the technical languages. Medical Terminology is more than words you’re supposed to memorize, it’s a culture’s way of thinking…like a language. And it’s based on Latin.

Grounded on Greece & Rome

“…and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization
together with all of its historical documents…”

Latin is also central to the literature of the Mediterranean civilizations. We live in a multicultural society, truly, but at its root, America is grounded upon the thinking of Greece and the social structure of Rome. It’s important for us to recognize that heritage. The more we understand our past, the better will be able to understand who are and how we got to this moment in history. Our society at its root is derived from the societies of Greece and Rome. And those societies were asking some of the most foundational and pivotal questions about what it means to be human. The more we are able to understand those cultures on their own terms, the better grasp we will have on who we are. One of the things that I lecture on, in addition to classical education, is the continuing legacy of ancient Rome on Modern American political life. You will understand American politics better if you understand more about Rome.

There you have it: a starting point for thinking about the importance of studying Latin. I have tried to avoid nerdy, somewhat detached, ivory-tower answers. Those exist, and I am happy to offer those us as well. But that is the subject of another paper. The ones I have offered here are radically pragmatic reasons for a person to study this ancient language. It will prepare you for life in a modern world. Sayers said it best. I happen to agree with her. You should too.

 


About the Author

Steven L. Jones, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Classics at Houston Baptist University, the chair of the Department of Classics & Biblical Languages, and the program coordinator of the MA Program in Classics & Early Christianity. Dr. Jones teaches courses on Latin, Greek, Classical Civilization, Early Christianity, and the Classical Roots of Medical Language.

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