Latin: An ancient language with timeless application
Though it was once commonly taught in America, Latin has been virtually eliminated from school curriculum over the last few decades. The prevailing view today is that because it is not a spoken language, there is no good reason to study it. By contrast, we say it is essential to study Latin and that we should start in the early grades of our Grammar stage.
English’s biggest tributary
Although English has words imported from a variety of languages, it remains primarily a hybrid of Latin and Germanic ancestry. At RCA, we first lead young students to master the concrete, everyday words of Germanic descent using phonics. Words with more syllables, abstract meanings, and more difficult pronunciation and spelling, however, need further study. The
words in this second category largely come from Latin.
Why is Latin so pervasive in English?
For many centuries, Latin was taught as a non-native language wherever the Roman empire spread. As a result, Latin was used by diverse and widespread peoples to communicate with each other, beginning with the western Mediterranean region and later, around the world. For this reason, Latin is embedded all throughout Western cultures. The fields of law and
government, medicine, math, theology, and science are saturated with Latin terms. History, philosophy, and literature all have deep Latin influences. There is Latin on our currency, on our government buildings, and abbreviations we use every day (etc: et cetera “and the others”; lb:
libra “scales”; vs: versus “against”; per cent .: per centum “for each one hundred”; AM: ante meridiem “before midday”; PM: post meridiem “after midday”).
Fifty to sixty percent of English vocabulary is derived from Latin, and so when students master Latin, they can “see” the Latin influences all throughout the English language. This gives them a tremendous ability to infer the meaning of words they encounter for the first time and use the
words they do know more precisely and compellingly when speaking and writing English.
Four examples of Latin words and their English derivatives
Latin: Manicula (hand)
English: maintain, management, mandate, manifest, manipulate, manufacture, manuscript
Latin: Pars (piece)
English: apartment, bipartisan, counterpart, particular, parse
Latin: Sigilium (mark, sign)
English: assign, designate, insignia, signify
Latin: Vocula (voice)
English: advocate, convocation, equivocal, provocation, vocabulary, voice, vowel
A programming language for languages
When someone begins learning to code, often they first learn a foundational computer programming language. This initial step allows them to discover the concepts that underlie all computer programming before applying those concepts to different programming languages. Once the student learns that first programming language, he or she can learn other programming languages more easily by comparing and contrasting the new language with the foundational one.
By analogy, learning Latin is like learning a foundational programming language but for the concept of language itself, not just computer code. Latin is structured and precise in a way that modern languages simply are not, and so students who study Latin undergo a kind of rigorous mental training in clear thinking and compelling expression. The result is that learning Latin helps one use one’s own language and learn additional languages better than if one only learned a modern language.
When a text is translated from one language to another, it always loses something, which is the origin of the phrase “lost in translation.”. Sometimes we lose meaning through grammar, sometimes through syntax, and sometimes the words just don’t translate into another language. Reading a text in its original language, whether it be Latin, French, German, Hebrew, or Greek, can open up a whole other dimension of insight to the reader. Not only can the reader perceive beauty in the author’s use of the language, but there are concepts that can only be uncovered by reading the text in its original language. By reading the great works that have shaped our civilization, such as those by Cicero, Dante, and Augustine in Latin, students experience the authors’ ideas more deeply, and absorb their mastery of language more completely.
As RCA grows into the upper years, we will offer modern languages, but the benefits of studying Latin first and early are immense. When coupled with a biblical worldview, students of Latin are equipped to engage the world with the powerful tool of language, loving others with the grace and truth of their words. For this reason, it is an essential component of classical Christian education.
For additional stories about the benefits of Latin, we invite you to listen to this episode of Basecamp Live.
For more on the history of Latin and how it came to be such an effective tool for teaching communication, click here.