Not So Dead: Why Studying Latin Makes Us More Alive in the Present
By: Shiloh Ryker-Upson
As soon as students discover that Latin is, technically speaking, a dead language, they find several witty, yet tired, arguments as to why learning the language has no merit. I have heard several variations of “the Latin language caused the Roman Empire’s downfall and it’s killing me, too.” Students can find clever ways to complain about any subject you teach them, but Latin (as a language almost exclusively valued by Catholic clergy, classics scholars, and classical Christian schools contemporarily) is a subject many people struggle to recognize the purpose of learning. Classical Christian pedagogy emphasizes the value of Latin for several reasons, including teaching precision in language, development of memory skills, and increasing students’ understanding of Christian theological history. Latin is a crucial component of classical Christian education’s aim to preserve Western cultural traditions and produce precise, accurate, independent thinkers.
The Bible tells us that “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his son” (Galatians 4:4, NKJV). Scholars and theologians have written essays and entire books, explaining the myriad circumstances that make Jesus’ birth a perfect time. One of those aspects of the fullness of time was the presence of a universal language. Jesus’ birth happened in the Roman Empire, when Koine (or common) Greek was a language that spanned continents. People were able to understand one another throughout the empire via Koine Greek, hence why it was the language of the books of the New Testament.
As the influence of Greek culture waned in latter years of the Roman Empire, use of Koine Greek was replaced by Latin. The center of Christianity became Rome, home of the Latin language. Subsequent church writings and liturgies from the fourth century AD and beyond were penned in Latin. The Latin Bible is called the Vulgate because “vulgar” refers to the common man; the language we now view as lofty, exclusively used by classics scholars and scientists, was once the universal language of an empire and its commoners. Just as our Savior was the savior of the common man, so too was Latin the language of the common man. As Christianity spread, Latin remained the official liturgical language of the Catholic Church, thus unifying multiple continents’ worth of believers.
Latin in medieval and Renaissance times was not merely the language of monks and priests, either. Its purpose was far more expansive than merely the liturgical; Latin was a cultural language. When Catherine of Aragon was engaged to England’s Prince Arthur (elder brother of her future second husband, Henry VIII), they corresponded in Latin. Although both royals were polyglots, this was their only shared language. For over a millenia, Latin defined Western culture, giving birth to handfuls of Romance languages and leaving behind verbal legacies throughout the English language. Shakespeare, by no means an Oxford man, was indubitably taught Latin at the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. Translations of the great classical writers and orators were all but unavailable, but the ability to read Cicero in his native tongue was pervasive.
As classical Christian schools give even our grammar level students pieces of Latin, we are giving them pieces of Western culture that have united believers and Westerners alike for millenia. Suddenly, Latin ceases to be a language only heard in historical films and becomes a part of students’ connection to centuries of history and religion. Nor is Latin merely a connection to Catholic heritage; when Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses and nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg, he wrote them in Latin. As we study Latin, we are better able to understand the expansive history of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, giving our children better ability to form a vision for where they should lead Christianity in their own lifetimes.
Furthermore, the grammatical and linguistic merits of Latin studies are not to be disregarded. An inflected language, one in which a noun’s ending (rather than word order) signal its function within a sentence, seems foreign and bizarre at first. Yet, it exposes young learners to more flexible ways of thinking and more precise grammar. It is difficult to create the same confusion about direct objects and to whom a pronoun is referring with Latin’s noun declensions.
Just as Latin grammar calls for precision, it require the same precision of one’s thoughts. As Latin models precise grammar and precise thoughts, we are modeling more precise grammar and thinking for our students. When students move into the logic stage of learning and take a logic class, the precision they already know from studying the Latin language and grammar couples well with molding their thoughts to adhere to the rules of logic. While Latin itself does not necessarily mold our students’ thoughts, it gives students of classical Christian pedagogy a vehicle for expressing themselves clearly and engaging with those who disagree with them in a more precise manner.
It should then come as no surprise that this precise language, unchanged for centuries, also serves as the language of science. When a scientist is looking to name something with precision, to accurately describe it, they call upon Latin to give an object its name. The periodic table’s odd abbreviations become less confounding as a student realizes that many elements are abbreviated by their Latin names, rather than their English ones. Similarly, students with a grasp of Latin will better appreciate the scientific names given to all the flora and fauna they encounter. As discussed earlier, at one point, Latin was the language of scholars; Latin’s purpose in science functions as a universal language, giving precision and understanding for an object or creature, no matter what one’s native language is. As students begin to appreciate God’s creation in higher level sciences, they will be able to understand the ways in which we name and classify his creation with an easier understanding than peers who have never interacted with Latin before.
Lastly, Latin opens the door for increased language studies. There are virtues to be found in studying a foreign language, and it is true that there are numerous benefits to the mind for studying any language. Latin was the third foreign language I studied, but I wish it had been my first. My first foreign language was Spanish, one of the easiest for native English speakers to pick up. I could hardly contain my excitement, as I compared Latin’s “caseos” to Spanish’s “queso,” or noted the way Catullus’ poetic line “da mi besia mille” was eerily similar to “dame mil besos,” a Spanish translation. However, I wish I would have worked through an inflected language in my younger years. With a Latin background, it is quite simple for students to pick up Spanish, Italian, French, and others in their later studies. However, it is best to give students more difficult language concepts in their younger years, when their minds are more flexible and open to the nuances of an inflected language.
Classical Christian education is, by its very definition, countercultural to the modern public educational model, and reviving Latin in schools is a crucial aspect of the return to what has worked in education for centuries. Our pedagogy is necessarily the opposite of a secular movement, one that treasures the things Western culture has held dear for centuries. As we preserve tradition and seek truth, we hearken back to the methodology that brought up great thinkers for centuries, the same pedagogy that produced St. Augustine, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, and even America’s founding fathers. Latin connects us with the tradition of our past, gives us more precise grammar, helps us scientifically classify our world, and provides students an intimate knowledge of the foundation upon which our societies and churches were formed. Just as tracing one’s lineage across continents and centuries gives us a more solid understanding of who we are, we are connected with the generations of believers and scholars who preceded us through studying the language of their liturgies and histories.