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Latin is not a Dead Language

Julian - Education Consultant and Latin Teacher

Someone who thought Latin was of little value once told me it should have been kicked in the b***s long ago. To say I was affronted would be an understatement. To be more honest, it was like being stabbed through the heart by a large obelisk. But what if he was right? Well, that would put the cat among the pigeons. I’d be out of a job, for a start, and you wouldn’t be reading this.

Anyway, what was his reasoning? Was Latin only for the clever people? After all, “Nobody likes a clever-clogs,” he might have said. But what if you are clever? (asking for a friend) Or just wanting to expand your mind?

Let’s give this some serious thought. There’s a long history of mixed feelings about Latin in this country. It goes back further than Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives shoving Latin to one side in their brand new National Curriculum in 1988. Clearly there was a time when it might have been cool or super-useful to speak some Latin, like if you’ve just been invaded by Romans and you want to sell them some stuff. On the other hand even in the First Century there would have been those advising against such treachery, and accusations of ‘selling out’ (apologies for the pun). 

Move on a thousand years and we’ve been invaded again: it’s the Normans, and they’re staying for good. This time Norman French becomes the language everyone needs to speak if they want to sell goods, or win a court case, or apply for official permission. French, not Anglo-Saxon. That becomes the language of the down-trodden. Rich in its own way, as Chaucer proves, but not the language of the powerful. And the connection with Latin? Quite a big one, as it happens, for the Romans left a huge mark on the French language, and now that mark is evident in our own language, mixed with Anglo-Saxon, seasoned with a pinch of Norse and Celtic. We are such a concoction, in our culture and our language.

With such riches at our disposal, we have the luxury of choice. Often between a homely Anglo-Saxon word and a more sophisticated Norman French synonym. e.g. deep v profound, friendly v amicable, gloomy v saturnine. It’s worth checking out that last one if you don’t know it. Sometimes a (longer) Norman word works better if you need a polite tone, e.g. ask v request; or more weight, e.g. nag v aggravate; or an extra layer of meaning, e.g. heavy v ponderous. With this variety we can match words to any occasion, so where the Latin-based word might be showcased on a political platform, the Anglo-Saxon derivative might lend itself more to a family TV dinner. Often, as you may have found, when we write in a formal, academic style we have to leave behind our more conversational language. That’s when we find ourselves dipping into that Latin-based vocabulary.

The untrained eye doesn’t pick this up, but training leads to absorption. And this training can start with the Latin words and phrases all around us. Let’s start with mottoes: we find that those schools that like to aim higher prefer Latin mottoes. There are some good ones in existence. For example futura aedificamus (‘we are building the future’ – this is a comprehensive school in Somerset); abeunt studia in mores (‘studying leads to good character’ – Sidcup Grammar, my alma mater); and (my favourite) aut disce aut discede (‘either learn or leave’ – The King’s School, Rochester, the second-oldest school in the world). In these short aspirational phrases the reader is encouraged to raise their aim and unpick the meaning. It works for football teams too: audere est facere (to dare is to do – a well-known North London team), or nil satis nisi optimum (nothing but the best is good enough – Liverpool supporters would argue this is nothing but ironic). The Latin motto per ardua ad astra (through hardships to the stars) is still good enough for our Royal Air Force, the University of Birmingham and plenty of others. Truth and brevity are widely respected. Evidently veritas isn’t only available in vino

You probably already use quite a lot of Latin. Unless you’re on night shift, I imagine you wake ante meridiem (before midday) and perhaps work right through the post meridiem (after noon). You might be paid so much per annum (each year), and pro rata (in proportion) if you’re part time, unless your work is pro bono (for the [greater] good). You may have your own modus operandi (way of doing things), perhaps ad lib[itum] (making it up as you go along), but hopefully not ad nauseam (until someone throws up). Such abbreviations as NB (nota bene), PS (post scriptum), etc (et cetera), i.e. (id est) and e.g. (exempli gratia) need no introduction, but knowledge of others is often needed in research, among them passim. This is usually translated as ‘everywhere’, but also ‘here and there’, ‘up and down’, ‘far and wide’ and ‘indiscriminately’.  This example might illustrate better than any other why Latin terms are still in use: it concisely indicates, as no English word or phrase can, that you may find what you seek on various different pages in a book.

When we read or hear long words in English it can take a while for the meaning to become apparent. Latin helps here too. Take the following words which are sometimes applied mistakenly  – aggravate, exacerbate and exasperate. They are linked to the following Latin adjectives: gravis (heavy), acer (sharp) and asper (rough).  Looking at the word formation will reveal whether something or someone is being made more serious, more acute or more rough, for example ‘surfing has aggravated my lumbago’, ‘the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand exacerbated tensions in Europe’, or ‘the poor waiter service finally exasperated me’. It’s doubtful that I was exacerbated by the waiters or that my lumbago was exasperated!

As we have seen, the ability of Latin to be precise helps with our communication in English. Let’s have some fun with the Latin verb vertere (to turn). It can after all be converted or subverted to a diverse range of purposes. Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, your attention can be diverted by many an advert on TV, or you can avert your gaze; coins in your pocket will have an obverse and a reverse (though not an inverse) face; and we’ll try to avoid perverting the course of justice. To say it’s a very versatile word would not be controversial! You can try it yourself with adding similar bits onto other verbs like ducere (to lead), ferre (to bring, bear or carry) and iacere (to throw). You might be surprised to meet translate and conjecture this way – but not education (it’s not about leading things out of people!).

Sometimes Latin will help us explore the heart of a word’s meaning, as well as its variations. Take for example the words respire, inspire and conspire. We can at once see the letters they have in common, but what is the connection? The Latin verb spirare means to breathe, so respire would mean to breathe again (i.e. out, not just in: it’s the second movement that means we’re alive), inspire suggests that spontaneous ideas occur when we inhale them out of thin air, and those who conspire breathe the same air while plotting closely together (unless they expire from bad breath!). 

The precision of Latin has made it a mainstay of legal language around the world (habeas corpus, cui bono, prima facie, caveat emptor, to name but a few examples), and Latin technical terms abound in zoology, anatomy, botany, astronomy and architecture. I’ll bet you’re delighted to know the Latin term for a blackbird is turdus! European scientists published their findings in Latin for hundreds of years and were prone to coining Latin-based words for their new discoveries. Finally, of course the difficulty of writing intelligibly about electricity and quantum mechanics in the language of Cicero defeated them. Horses for courses, perhaps. 

One such scientist, a physician named Edward Jenner, gave us the word vaccination. If, like me, you have struggled to distinguish vaccination from inoculation and immunisation, help is at hand. Around 1800 when Edward Jenner first protected people from the nasty smallpox virus, he used a new method which he called vaccination. He coined it from the Latin word for a cow, vacca. Behind Jenner’s word was the concept of injecting people with a small dose of a milder virus, cowpox. Before Jenner, people had got their protection from inoculation. This word was derived from the Latin for eye, oculus. Pustules from an infected area on Body A were introduced – perhaps through the nostrils - to Body B in order to produce a small infection. This would prompt resistance to infection. The technique was borrowed from gardening, where a bud or eye of one plant was grafted onto another. Though inoculation was replaced by Jenner’s technique, scientists still use it in test tubes when making antibiotics. Immunisation is the easiest to explain: it comes from the Latin immunis, meaning exempt. Its use is not confined to a particular method, but simply looks at the outcome. Though originally applied to being exempt from duties, such as taxes, the word can be adapted to other unpleasant things such as diseases. So, to apply this to 2021: to defeat the Covid 19 virus a vaccination programme is being rolled out, in order to immunise the population. Your nostrils will be spared!

And what of other languages and cultures? I’m pleased to say that Latin can help here too. Here’s an unusual example: a colleague of mine was helping out with the school choir trip to Poland. The choir were to be singing in a church and it was my colleague’s job to find out where they were to stand. She needed to communicate with the priest, but he didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Polish. They somehow found that their common language was Latin, and the problem was solved with something like “ubi debemus stare?” (‘Where should we stand?’) and a little sign language. 

I admit Latin wouldn’t help much with Australian Aboriginal languages or Croatian (as I found from personal experience), but certainly French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian (the Romance languages), and to some degree German and Finnish. For some curious reason Europeans can share common words for “to have” and “oil”, but not “to buy” or “money.” With so much variance it makes sense to welcome any help you can get, and Latin derivations are ubiquitous. Not just help in vocabulary but in grammar too. Latin has always been welcomed by Modern Languages teachers because they know their students receive a good grounding in grammar. It’s handy also to be able to explain little curiosities such as the French words like maître, hôpital etc which are spelt with a circumflex accent (it’s because of a missing ‘s’ from the Latin words – magister and hospes – from which they are formed). Many ex-students of mine have enjoyed Latin benefits such as these when studying or working aboard. The English tourist abroad who tries to communicate by speaking English slowly and loudly has long been a cliché, but really we shouldn’t be struggling with our neighbours’ languages: they are not as alien as we might think.

Latin can also be something to enjoy in its own right. Choosing the right situation and audience, you could try introducing Latin phrases ad hoc (“for this [specific purpose]). Instead of pointing out something is off the point, say “non sequitur” (“it does not follow”). Or to save the time taken by “I'll do something for you, if you do something for me,” say, “What is your quid pro quo?” (‘what for what?’) And there’s verbatim instead of ‘word for word’. You may find in switching up to Latin you use fewer words. And the world could do with fewer words. I’d better stop here or risk ruining my point by going on ad infinitum…..

To summarise, Latin may not be with us in the fashion of previous eras, but I maintain that it’s still around in abundance and offering plenty of assistance to us. It can help us to aspire to greater heights and to luxuriate more in the joys of language. The anonymous insult at the start serves to warn that there may be some who would seek to disagree, but - Latin lives on, and you have the chance to pass on the torch. VIVAT LINGUA LATINA!