Why Learn Latin?
In 1905, when Pius X was pope, more than half
of all high-school students in the United States took Latin. The benefits of
Latin were assumed by all. Even today the educational advocates for Latin are
loud. Among them:
· Bernard Knox:
The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics
· E. Christian
Kopff: The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition
· Victor Hansen,
John Heath & Bruce Thornton: Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics
in an Improverished Age
· Tracy Lee
Simmons: Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek or Latin
The religious, cultural, and literary benefits of Latin are astounding, far
surpassing even algebra:
- Law: As Western law is steeped in Roman
jurisprudence, so is its legal vocabulary steeped in Latin. Such terms as
prima facie, habeas corpus, nolo contendere, corpus delicti, and
amicus curiae are part of the everyday Latin vocabulary of practicing
- Medicine: For over a millennium and a half, the
language of medicine was exclusively Latin. Today, medicine remains heavily
Latin based. A knowledge of Latin can provide a pre-med student or student
nurse with the winning advantage in extremely-competitive medical-school
- Pharmacy: Like medicine, pharmacy is also
steeped in Latin terms and phrases -- terms and phrases Latin students will
not have to spend precious college time memorizing, like their
- Ministry: Latin is the language of
Judaeo-Christian thought and tradition. The Bible in Hebrew and Greek was
rarely read in Hebrew or Greek, except in certain pockets of the Middle
East. It has been the Latin version, which has a sounder text in many cases
than the corrupted Hebrew and Greek forms, that was read, prayed, sung, and
commented upon (in Latin, of course).
- Journalism: The ability to communicate with an
extensive vocabulary and a thorough command of English is essential to
success in journalism. The contribution of Latin to these skills is
- Archaeology: To become a working archeologist,
a student will find a reading knowledge of Latin and Greek to be as
indispensable as the tools that he will use for field excavation.
- Linguistics: If a student enters the field of
linguistics -- the study of how languages work -- he will find that Latin is
one of the most significant of all the Indo-European tongues.
- History: To be a serious student of history, a
student will have to be able to read in Latin, both for the original sources
and for the commentaries upon them.
- Teaching: In case a student is interested in
becoming a teacher of any subject, the study of Latin will equip him with a
depth of understanding that will be invaluable to him in his own classroom.
Even in its practical benefits, although algebra is good, Latin is far
better -- both for verbal and even mathematical skills. In the United States,
Latin students score 134 points higher (of 800) on the verbal section of the
Standard Aptitude Test, used for admission to colleges and universities. But,
what is even more interesting, they score 119 points higher on the mathematics
section. Latin students far outperformed students of all other languages,
including Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, and Russian. What other subject
offers the cornucopia of benefits that Latin does:
- Latin builds English vocabulary like no other
language. Some 85% of English vocabulary is derived directly or indirectly
- Latin prepares students for the study of modern
foreign languages. The Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian,
Portuguese, Romanian) derive 90% or more of their vocabulary from Latin, and
students of inflected languages like German or Russian will benefit from the
training that Latin provides.
- Latin teaches grammar far more effectively than any
English curriculum. You need only look at the masters of English style from
the Renaissance onward and ask what they all had in common. The answer: They
did not study English, a subject not even available in their grammar
schools, but Latin. Lots and lots and lots of Latin.
- Latin trains students in valuable habits of mind:
memory, order, and attention to detail.
- Latin translation provides admirable training in
English composition. In addition to mastering the grammatical exigencies of
the language, students of Latin must learn to choose words with care. They
are encouraged to understand and imitate the beautifully balanced sentences
of stylists like Cicero. They learn to appreciate the brevity of the Latin
maxim and proverb. Again, some of the English language's greatest writers
cut their teeth on Latin composition exercises, not English.
- Latin study increases our knowledge of the past and of
our own history. It is quite impossible to study Latin without delving into
Roman history. This history is our history, the history of the West and
substantial portions of the East as well. We cannot understand the roots of
our own government, legal system, or religious traditions without reference
to Rome and its deathless Latin.
- Latin study increases cultural literacy. European
vernacular literature, art, and music take for granted a knowledge of the
Latin language and history. Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Keats, and
the rest -- there is no understanding them without a thorough grounding in
Latin mythology, literature, and history. And that is to say nothing of the
rich traditions of Christian Latin: theology, religious poetry, liturgy, and
the musical delights of Gregorian chant, Bach's High Mass, Mozart's
Requiem, and the countless Masses and Oratorios that crowd our
classical music playlists.
- Latin literature and history offer outstanding models
of moral insight and virtue -- and their opposites. The Latin student keeps
before himself the "habitual vision of greatness," his mind and spirit
inspired and uplifted toward the Good, while examples of perfidy and cruelty
stir up his sense of justice.
- Latin provides us with a lifetime's worth of reading.
A person who has sojourned with Latin works as a teenager may well find
himself returning to them again and again throughout life, for their wisdom
is undimmed by age.
- Latin is, quite simply, beautiful. At its best, Latin
is a model of ordered, polished, and balanced language. It is a pleasure to
read, to write, to sing, to pray -- and, yes, even to speak, as it is in
many places yet today.