I lived the first twenty years of my life without having guacamole or tasting an avocado. I knew it was out there, and I had heard of it. It simply wasn’t in the circle of my experience, and I never would have thought it relevant to my life. Now I have avocado at least four times a week, whether in my breakfast smoothie, on a salad, or with tacos and chips. Similarly, I lived the first thirty years of my life without knowing any Latin, including all my years of formal education.
When confronted with the question of “Why Latin?” it strikes me as the same kind of question as “Why avocados?” though, to the latter, I can only answer with the shallow “They are delicious and delightful. They are good for me, and they have enriched my life.” Latin is like that too, but more so.
In high school, my best friend tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade me to join him for a dual-credit accelerated Latin course at the University of Minnesota. I declined the invitation, and decades later I count that as one of my greatest regrets in life.
At the time, I had no way of knowing that Latin would have given me a huge assist towards areas that were soon to become many of my greatest personal and professional interests. I do not have space to tell the whole story, but I will try to take you along a few steps of a rather personal journey and showcase a few examples of “Why Latin?” I am a bit of an odd duck and a natural non-conformist, so I suspect few readers will fully resonate with all these anecdotes, but I offer them anyway.
In high school and college, I became a small-group Bible study junkie. The methods taught by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship not only let me dig into Scripture more deeply than anything I had done previously, they also sharpened my reading skills and led to many incredible and life-impacting conversations with friends. In the midst of this, it progressively dawned on me how essential knowing Greek and Hebrew were to understanding the Bible, which was written in those languages. I co-taught a Sunday school class with a graduate student in physics. It eventually dawned on me that trying to interpret the Bible on my own without knowledge of the original languages was like trying to do astronomy with high quality pictures alone, without ever looking at the night sky itself. I had the idea in my late-teenage mind that someday I would learn Hebrew and Greek. No one told me that the resources for learning Greek and Hebrew almost always drew analogies from Latin, and that Greek is so much easier to learn for the typical English speaker if one has learned Latin first.
My younger self’s dream job was to be a judge (or a supreme court justice), and my love of stories turned me into an English major. (The choice of major was also influenced by the fact that my English professors were better than my History, Philosophy, or Political Science professors.) Somehow, learning Old English—Anglo Saxon—the language of Beowulf, wound up on my bucket list. I took a year of Old English in college, briefly surveying the grammar of the language, then reading Beowulf. It was my first experience with an inflected language, and I was completely lost. No one told me that Old English grammar makes so much more sense if one has studied Latin.
I took enough Spanish to fulfill my high school and college language requirements. People told me that it was the most “useful” language. It certainly came in handy when I was on summer mission trips to Mexico, but as a teenager, I never personally resonated with the language, its history, cultures, and literature enough to get sucked in. This year I am reading (and enjoying) an English translation of Don Quixote, one of the classics of Spanish literature, so I may yet be drawn in.
I found Greek naturally enticing, as I wanted to able to read the New Testament in Greek, as well as the Septuagint (the ancient translations of the Old Testament into Greek), the Church Fathers, Josephus, Homer, and others. Greek was hard, and I still do not consider myself to be a proficient reader of Greek, but many of the things that made no sense to me in Greek class I finally understood when I began learning Latin. Latin has far greater tools for the learner, a simpler verbal system, and far more words that are obviously related to English.
Once I acquired a basic Latin vocabulary, so many things in English started to make sense. The irregular verb ferō, which means “to carry,” shows up everywhere. A ferry carries people across water. To transfer is to “carry forward,” to refer is to “carry back,” to prefer is to “carry forward,” and value it ahead of another thing. The list could go on (infer, offer, etc.). The verb ferō is highly irregular, so its stem shifts from “fer” to “tul” or “lat” in other tenses. This is why a word that transFERred from one language into another is transLATed. With the basic vocabulary skills, I also gained the ability to look up Latin words and realize that, despite the importance of books and ideas to freedom, “liberty” and “library” derive from totally different words, having no linguistic connection, just as “infants” have no business in the infantry (nor adults in adultery). I haven’t needed this knowledge any more than I have needed avocados, but both have sure been nice and have enriched my experience of life.
I finally understood why Beatrix Potter calls a baby-buggy a “perambulator” and what Agatha Christie means by those descriptions of “avuncular” gentlemen with “aquiline” noses and “puerile” behavior. Dracula has a lot of Latin thrown in, as does Moby Dick, Isaac Asimov’s pioneering science fiction novels, and all the magic in Harry Potter (with one unforgivable exception). Numerous things in my daily life that I had taken for granted made sense in unexpected ways, and countless times I felt like I was finally getting a joke to which I had been oblivious. I get the “rise” in “resurrection” and “insurrection,” why spring begins with the “vernal equinox,” and why “pound” is abbreviated “lb.” Ditto for a.m. and p.m., post-mortem, post-partum, habeas corpus, non sequitur, ambidextrous, antebellum, or the LN button on the calculator. I noticed the “throwing” into, under, back, and against of subjection, injection, rejection, dejection, projection, and retrojection. The last eight years have been an endless series of discoveries that I never suspected lay latent all around me. In any field of knowledge, it is common to suddenly begin noticing a new concept one has just learned everywhere—this is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (and naturally, since learning about it, I have begun to encounter the phrase “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon” seemingly at every turn). Once students have learned about vanishing points in artwork or question marks at the end of sentences or fractions used in daily life, they suddenly begin to notice these elements all around them. This has been my experience with Latin, but to an especially surprising extent.
Being in the world of classical Christian education, I may come across more works written in Latin than one might in other contexts, as between 25-30% of our 7th-12th grade omnibus curriculum is made up of works originally composed in Latin. We teach Vergil’s Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, Eusebius’ and Bede’s histories, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, among many others. Our choir teacher explains to students that solfège (i.e., “Do Re Mi”) originally comes from a Latin hymn, Ut qeant laxis, which Guido de Arezz used in the 11th century to identify notes, the names deriving from which syllables fell on which notes of the octave.
Students gain historical perspective as they learn when, where, and how ideas were discovered and developed, even if only for simpler facts. For example, only in the 13th century did Europeans adopt the Arabic numerals we use today (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) after the publication of Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci explained their usefulness to merchants, providing place value and the possibility of easily checking calculations. My geekier side wishes that our students learned the laws of motion from Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, or the history of astronomy from Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri VI, or infinitesimal calculus from Euler’s Institutiones calculi differentialis, though that is beyond the realm of our current possibilities.
At a basic level, Latin sheds enormous light on the more obtuse and obscure English words, and at a greater level of competence gives the power for the interested party to delve into the history of music, math, science, and theology, gaining an understanding of whence ideas come and the relationship of knowledge to history. The categories, labels, or nomenclature of most subjects use Latin-based terms whose usage preceded the English language, varying from “genus,” “redemption,” “subject,” “nocturnal,” “subterranean,” “expiation,” “sedimentary,” or “preposition.” Human language is conventional, though it enables us to talk about real things, and I find great value in understanding the history and reasons behind the words, concepts, and categories that we use.
A final comparison that I have used with students in the past is music. At a music conservatory, or in pretty much any college music department, undergraduates majoring in music must learn piano. It matters not whether their emphasis is voice, trombone, cello, or general music education. They all have a basic piano requirement. I have asked musicians why this is, and they tell me that piano develops and requires a greater understanding of music theory than most instruments, enables the musician to play any part of the harmony or melody, and can accompany anything else. In this way, it serves as a multipurpose tool and a general foundation.
In our curriculum, Latin is similar to the piano. Being a fully inflected language, every noun, pronoun, adjective, and verb changes its ending according to its task in the sentence. Latin word order is almost irrelevant (unlike, for example, English, Spanish, Japanese, or French). This requires that students fully understand the major categories of how language works. They also must get their minds around the subjunctive mood, four different participles, six infinitives, and a variety of types of clauses. The level of grammatical complexity of Latin is more than English, Spanish, or French, though not quite to the level of Russian or ancient Greek. Any of these languages could accomplish many of our goals, to a greater or lesser extent, though my experience has been that studying Latin first makes all of them easier. As a classical school emphasizing knowledge of the growth and development of the church, Christian thought, and the philosophical and political ideas that shaped the west from Athens and Rome to the founding of the United States, Latin is a valid choice, if not a sine qua non, for our students. From the decades before the time of Christ until the scientific revolution, there are simply more central texts of history, theology, philosophy, and science in Latin than in any other language. Latin is the best curricular fit for our school, Q.E.D.
At many a house, the question “Why do we have to eat guacamole?” might be answered simply by “because it’s Tuesday.” The question of “Why do we have to learn Latin?”—at least at our school—may have an only slightly better answer. We study Latin, versus another world language, because it develops more analytical skills than most languages, is highly relevant to understanding English and its higher-level vocabulary, and gives access to many foundational texts of over 1,500 years of the Western tradition. And of course, once you have the taste for it, it’s delicious.
―John F. Quant, PhD