Why Study Latin?

“Latin is a language 
As dead as dead can be. 
It killed the ancient Romans 
And now it’s killing me.”

This is a common reaction to Latin. Why study a “dead” language? Classical schools are trying to resurrect a 1000-year-old corpse. No one speaks Latin, so it is obviously a waste of time. Latin doesn’t allow communication with any modern culture, and it doesn’t provide any job-skills. Much like grandma’s old china collection, it’s a decoration on a transcript not to be used. So why is a 21st century school subjecting its students to a 1st century language? Despite the rumors of its demise, Latin breathes its spirit across our culture still.

Latin: The Next Step after Phonics

Latin is a natural next step after phonics. Once students have learned the building blocks of words through phonetic combinations, they should then learn larger blocks that can be combined into new words. Since so many English words are derived from Latin, learning Latin roots can quickly teach many complex vocabulary words. One Latin word sheds light on ten or twenty English words. Also, by learning Latin pronunciation, students can anticipate the shifts in accent between nouns and verbs such as REfuse and reFUSE, as well as between words like deMOcracy and demoCRAtic.

Learning Latin is also useful for learning English grammar. For most of us, English is our native tongue, so we speak it instinctively without understanding. By meticulously declining and conjugating each word for its intended use, we are more nimble at producing the exact meaning that we desire in English. Dribbling a basketball with ski-gloves or practicing soccer with a kickball can expose our weaknesses in technique. By thinking through what must be communicated and then what the appropriate Latin construction would be, our mastery of language itself increases. Too often students can slide through grammar classes without really understanding how words are used.

Latin: The Molder of Minds

Like no other language, Latin follows order and structure. The Greeks, the great thinkers of the classical world, explored every discipline and science and gave the fruit of their labors to the Hellenistic world. Then the Romans came and built the roads. They assimilated Greek philosophy and donated a robust backbone so it could live in the world. The Romans were the efficient, hardy farmers who conquered the world by summer, just in time to return to their fields. They were pragmatic, ordered, and meticulous. The Latin language reflects the iron discipline of Roman culture, and, in this respect, it is wholly unlike any modern language.

Languages are both the mirror reflecting culture and the rudder directing culture. Consider the different vocabulary words of each language. The Inuit (Eskimo) language has roughly 50 words for snow.1 English has just … “snow.” No matter which chilly form of precipitation falls from the sky, we are limited to talking about it with the word, “snow.” Because we don’t care about snow that much, we don’t bother to have other words for it. The warlike Romans enlist legions of words for battle and warfare. Their language reflects their culture. Like row after row of marching centurions, Latin clauses and words follow a rigid structure and precision, every ending chosen to communicate its precise meaning. Our modern languages are like our culture and our minds: Loose. Unorganized. Sloppy.

Why hasn’t Latin similarly modernized? Why is it still that old, regimented Latin? Languages, like matter, experience entropy — that is, they break down over time. Rigid rules that once governed English are no longer enforced (e.g. the split infinitive, ending a sentence with a preposition,2 or “dragged” vs. “drug”). During the Medieval Age, however, scholars decided that Ciceronian and classical Latin was the ideal for the language, essentially freezing Latin grammar and syntax to a historical time period. Thus, Latin literature spanning from roughly 50 BC to 1900 AD follows the same rigid structure and order. New vocabulary has been added since then, but the grammar and syntax endure.

Language not only reflects culture, but also directs it. Our minds are only capable of thinking about the objects we have words for. Further, our minds can only think in the structures existing in our minds. Go ahead and try it. You will find that whatever you are thinking of is put in the language and categories you already have. New vocabulary words and categories shape and discipline our minds to create ordered sentences or sententiae — thoughts. We no longer simply think, “is this a relative clause or a subordinate clause?”, but we have to reckon with precisely what kind of clause it is: time, concession, condition, reason, result, purpose, or comparison. The syntax of Latin also established sustained concentration. Programming languages often follow a nested clause structure, often nesting several layers deep. There are some clauses in Cicero that will take you at least seven layers deep as you track the beginning and ending of each clause. Like a complex math problem, you must follow it all the way to the end. Thinking in a regimentally ordered language hones the mental faculties to create precise judgements.

In this way, Latin is the linguistic counterpart to math. It does not merely provide content for the mind to feed upon, but it provides the very structures in which the mind works. Like math, Latin requires mental discipline. Students chant declensions and paradigms. They progressively build on previous concepts. They can’t forget everything over the summer. To learn Latin requires consistency and precision. The linguistic mental discipline created after struggling with Latin is unparalleled by the study of any other language. After wrestling with relative clauses, punching with pronouns, prepositions, and participles, untangling nested clause upon clause, and assigning every article, accusative, and ablative precisely the right use, you come to the end of your training finding your mind as muscular as Milo of Croton.3

Latin: Practical Subject

Latin also provides a number of practical benefits to students. First, it helps improve student vocabulary. It is estimated that roughly 50% of the English language derives from Latin (through French). Rather than devoting dedicated study time to vocabulary words, students who learn the Latin roots of our language can quickly understand vast families of words — even words that they have not previously encountered. Mors leads to mortuary, mortician, morbid, mortify, mortal, and mortality; Debeo generates debit, debt, debtor, devoir, due, duly, duteous, dutiable, dutiful, duty, endeavor, indebted, and overdue. To give you an idea of how many words derive from Latin, all of the Latin-derived words in this section have been underlined.

Second, Latin also leads naturally to the Romance languages. The Romance, or Roman, languages are those tongues which grew out of the Roman empire’s conquests. As Roman invaders settled in new lands, Latin mixed with regional dialects (especially after the Roman Empire fell to the Germanic tribes) to produce (over the centuries) our modern Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. Learning Latin greatly simplifies the process of learning these modern descendants of Latin. Many of the words that are not underlined on this page, usually the shorter words, are from the other half of our language, the Germanic dialect of the Anglo-Saxons. This is also why we often have multiple words for things like pork and pig, or venison and deer. Latin students may quickly intuit many derivative vocabulary words, as in English and understand the sentence structure and inflected nature of the Romance languages more easily.

Third, the Association of Classical Christian Schools has observed a positive correlation between the study of Latin and SAT scores.4 The logical formation of the mind, increased ability to recognize new vocabulary words, and the mastery of grammatical concepts all contribute to positive outcomes on standardized tests.

Fourth, reading old English literature (before 1950). Writers from two generations ago frequently include untranslated Latin (and Greek) quips and maxims that would have been immediately recognized by an educated audience. C.S. Lewis is especially guilty here.

Fifth, Latin helps you get jokes! Consider how the poem of A.D. Godley becomes more humorous when knowing Latin:

What is it that roareth thus?
Can it be a motor-bus?
Yes! The reek and hideous hum
Idicant moterem bum.

I have also heard of a cartoon (although I have not been able to track down the panel) where a pig teacher is instructing his pig students with the text, “Alliagay esthay omnisway ivisaday inhay artespay restay.” The pigs are learning the Pig Latin text of the famous Latin sentence, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.”

Sixth, Latin is a multidisciplinary study. By studying Latin, students also study Roman culture, architecture, poetry, religion, philosophy, and politics, as well as early church commentators on history, philosophy, and theology. Latin is like the tangled web of yarn shoved into a box. No matter where you start, it immediately connects to everything else. Memorizing 4th declension nouns quickly transitions to a discussion of the Julian and Gregorian calendars; gerunds into Augustine’s comments on theatre and pagan literature. The professions of law, medicine, and theology still rely on extensive Latin vocabulary.

Aren’t there better ways of achieving all of these practical benefits? If the goal is to increase SAT scores, buy an SAT prep book. If the object is to learn a Romance language, either learn that language directly or learn one of its modern cousins. If you want to improve English vocabulary, dedicate yourself to derivative study without learning all of the difficult grammar. There are more effective ways of achieving any of these intermediate goals. However, while there are certainly better methods of achieving single goal, Latin reaches all of them. It provides the most effective, time-sensitive way of increasing the logical capacities of students, granting mastery of the English language, boosting student vocabulary, preparing the foundation for study of other languages, increasing SAT scores, and granting a cultural awareness of Western Civilization. When it comes to mediate and practical goals, Latin is the Swiss-army knife of education.

Latin: Cultural Touchstone

In spite of all these other reasons, the greatest reason to learn Latin is Latin itself. Here, we are no longer concerned with what benefits Latin brings to English speakers, or how it shapes the minds of its students, but what Latin is for its own sake. Latin is not simply a means to an end, but is a beautiful and noble end in itself. Those who learn Latin have the marvelous ability to … read Latin. Educators who cut short their Latin program because students have received a smattering of English benefits have robbed their students of the greatest benefit of the Latin language.

There is a gross crassness to mere material pragmatism. Think of how much of life would need to be discarded if we applied this standard consistently. “Listening to great music isn’t listed on a job resume, so don’t waste your money.” “Drawing doesn’t grant admission to college.” “Algebra II or Trigonometry aren’t going to help with your taxes.” “Instead, learn something practical like a programming language.” Against this perverse reduction of everything to its “cash value” is an appreciation of truth, goodness, and beauty for their own sakes (more accurately, for God’s sake).

Far too often, we justify Latin on utilitarian grounds: it increases SAT scores, develops critical thinking skills, expands vocabularies, teaches English grammar, and helps learn Romance languages. These are all secondary goals or means to a further end. Parents desire SAT scores so that the student can get into college. An increased vocabulary is so that a student can read more widely and understand enriching conversations and ideas. A student should master grammar and maintain rigorous logical thinking so that they can communicate persuasively and effectively and delight in the truth. All of these goals are in turn mediate to the greatest end of knowing, loving, and glorifying God.

God instructs his people as their worship to buy the finest meat and wine that they possibly can and to enjoy it to His glory.5 They are not called to be sparse ascetics, restricting themselves to the barest necessities in eking out an existence. God has filled the world with good things, and we are called to embrace and enjoy those gifts with freedom and joy. Latin is one such doorway into worlds of delight as it is the medium carrying many of the greatest works in history. Latin is a noble pursuit in its own right, and not merely a means to some other end.

Latin may be a dead language unsuited for speaking, but because it is dead, it is an ideal cadaver. It is harder to study a living language that is liable to jump off the table. Latin being an unspoken language is no argument against it, for it is not studied for reading. Latin lets us access the vast amount of permanent literature contained in a language spanning over 2000 years. Many of the greatest cultural achievements in mathematics, astronomy, natural science, art, politics, economics, ethics, literature, grammar, logic, rhetoric, theology, medicine, law, and architecture have been recorded in the Latin language. By learning this language, we have direct access to the works in their original language.

But isn’t it enough to read the works in translation? One Hebrew Rabbi reportedly claimed, “reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil” and to spare you any discomfort, I will not elaborate on the metaphor. One of our modernist culture’s mistaken reductions is to identify meaning only with content or matter. Only the ingredients matter, not the finished product. Burritos are different from tacos because of their form, not necessarily content. No one would choose to sit on a picket fence instead of a chair, even if they were both made of wood. What is the difference between an audiobook and a paperback? Both even have the same words, but the experience is different. The material may be the same, but the form has changed.

In language, just as with furniture, the form is essential. You could take any poetic expression, such as “God is a rock”, and rewrite it as a precise prose version that says the “same thing”: “God may not be repositioned by any other agent. He is able to defend me against all enemies that may attack. All finite beings have their contingency from Him.” But this does not have the same meaning as, “God is a rock.” The content or expressed truth may be the same, but changing the form also changes the meaning. This is also why we still read Aesop’s Fables or The Chronicles of Narnia. We could summarize the story, narrating the essential plot points and characters, or, worse still, moralize them into an abstract statement; but this would not be the same thing as actually reading the stories.

It is the same with reading works in translation. The essential content may be the same, but you cannot say you have read Virgil’s Aeneid if you only read an English rendition. All of the metrical music of the dactylic hexameter has been boiled out, distilled down to something new. You may be reading a work of art in its own right — many translations are poetic marvels — but it is not identical.6 Puns and wordplays, rhythm and cadence, shades of meaning, technical vocabulary, and repeated words are usually lost in translation.

Take a sentence from Augustine’s confessions for example:

Tu excitas ut laudare te delectet quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.

Excitas has a double meaning in this sentence. It can mean to “cause to move” or “excite”, or it can mean “to awaken.” Likewise requiescat at the end of the sentence would mean “to cease movement” or “to sleep/rest.” This famous sentence by Augustine was likely intended to carry both meanings: “You have provoked man so that he delights to praise you because you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it ceases activity in you.” Or “You have awakened man so that he delights to praise you because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it sleeps in you.” English translations may only choose one, but by reading in the original the full meaning of Augustine’s writing becomes apparent.

Here is another example from Augustine’s De Trinitate:

Quo enim cadentem non secutus impulit peccatorem, illuc descendentem persecutus compulit redemptorem

“He thrust down into death without following him there the sinner who fell; but he also drove to his death with a savage follow-through the redeemer who came down of his own accord.”7

There is a beautiful economy and symmetry to the language that cannot be replicated in English. Even if you do not read Latin, try to read the sentence using English pronunciation and notice how many words are parallel on each side of the comma (cadentem/descendentem, secutus/persecutus, impulit/compulit, redemptorem/peccatorem). They have similar meanings, but they are not identical.

Here is another maxim from Augustine (notice a trend?):

Nihil est peccato originali ad praedicandum notius, nihil ad intellegendum secretius.

“Nothing is more known for declaring than original sin; more secret for understanding.”

Again, there is a simple economy to the language that becomes awkward to express in English.

Latin grants a precision in some respects that is simply not available in English. For instance, Latin provides two different reflexive possessive pronouns. You can distinguish between “his” as a reflexive possessive, and “his” as another person. One of my students discovered this difference when she wrote, “The man loved his [someone else’s] wife,” instead of her intended, “the man loved his [own] wife.”

Latin is its own language, and the effects it produces cannot be replicated in any other language, because no other language is the same. The same can be said about Italian, or French, or English, or German. Since no two languages are alike, no translation will fully capture everything communicated by the original. Now you may say, “if that is true, then why should Latin be given priority at all? If no language can be fully translated into another, then all languages would be equally valuable to learn.” In the abstract, this would true, but we must look at what is communicated in that language. We do not teach a foreign language to “fight the battle of life with waiters in foreign hotels”8 but to meditate on the true, good, and beautiful. To learn any language, classical or modern, only to converse about the trivial and banal shrinks the soul. Students learn a language to converse with that language’s speakers (both living and dead) about the great ideas of the world. What makes Latin necessary as a language for western culture is what has been communicated in Latin.

God, in His providence, allowed the Roman Empire to expand around the Mediterranean spreading Greek ideas and culture (Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit; Captured Greece captured her savage conquerer — Horace) across the known world. The Roman Empire provided Pax Romana and the roads that enabled safe travel and communication through various provinces and countries. Under Caesar Augustus, Jesus Christ was born, and His apostles quickly were able to spread His gospel to the ends of the earth utilizing the common languages of the empire, Greek and Latin. Many early Christian fathers used Greek to record their ideas and theology, although Latin quickly became the dominant language in the West.

During these early years, the classical world and the Christian world overlap and interact, eventually leading to the synthesis of the Middle Ages as Christians “plundered the Egyptians” taking the best of philosophy and science and using it for the glory of God. Every great idea or work of art from the classical and medieval world was written in Greek or Latin. As the Germanic tribes moved in, the rift between East and West grew, and Latin became the primary language of the West, while Greek flourished in the Eastern Byzantine empire.

Thus, in God’s providence, there are two, and only two classical languages: Latin and Greek.9 They are the gold and silver gates for any movement or institution seeking to recover the wisdom of the past. This especially true for western Christians since the great riches of Church history and theology are composed in Latin. It is only relatively recently that Latin has fallen out of favor—around the 1900s. This means that the language of the classical wisdom, the university, and Christianity was Latin for over 2000 years. When another modern language starts to match the historical record, there may become a third classical language.

For the Christian classical school, the story of classical Greece and Rome is our story; the fathers of the church are our fathers; the culture of the West is our culture. If these sources provide nourishment, strength, vision, and beauty to our souls, we neglect them to our peril. The wisdom of the past could not be more relevant to the present. Classical schools cannot neglect the classical languages. They are the sine qua non (without which not).

  1. “There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow,’” Washington Post, last modified January 14t, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/there-really-are-50-eskimo-words-for-snow/2013/01/14/e0e3f4e0-59a0-11e2-beee-6e38f5215402_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9120207706eb
  2. Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put. – Winston Churchill
  3. Milo of Croton famously followed an ingenious training program. One day, a calf was born near his house. Everyday, he would carry the calf until it was a full grown bull. Needless to say, Milo was one buff dude.
  4. ”Learning a Classical Language has more than just a Pay-off for Intellectual Cultivation,” the Association of Classical Christian Schools, accessed May 14, 2019, https://classicalchristian.org/spanish-chinese-vs-latin-greek/
  5. Deuteronomy 14:22-26
  6. There are two perennial dangers to avoid when discussing translation: the first is to conclude that language doesn’t matter. English or Latin (or Greek)—both say the same thing. The second is to argue that a work cannot be understood or enjoyed at all if it is not read in the original language. This was the position of the medieval church in regards to Scripture. Instead, one should value the uniqueness of a given language, and maintain that translations still communicate much good. A movie critic can observe and enjoy far more in a given film than I can, but that does not mean I can’t appreciate it in any way.
  7. Edmund Hill, Trans., Augustine, De Trinitate, IV.iii.17
  8. Matthew Arnold, qtd. in Albert Jay Nock, Education in the United States, pg. 83.
  9. Why Latin and not Greek? Ancient Greek would be an equally valuable classical language to study in a classical school, but the difference in alphabet and additional flexibility of the Greek language make Latin easier for students.