WHY STUDY DEAD LANGUAGEs?
by Thomas Caucutt,
ECCS Dean of Classics and Latin Department Head
Whether or not you are new to Classical education you have probably noticed a heavy stress on language study – especially Latin. But Latin is a dead language, right? Why should students be required to spend any time studying it? A fair question, and to answer it we need some definitions. First then, a dead language is one which fewer than 100 persons learn as their first language. As such, Latin and Greek are definitely dead. Second, for our purposes, I will limit myself to three languages traditionally promoted within the classical school movement: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. My emphasis will be primarily on Latin because of those three it is most commonly promoted and taught in classical schools. So, to recast the question: What reason can we possibly have for studying Latin?
Latin students ace standardized tests and are therefore sought after by competitive colleges. Latin Students consistently outperform their peers on standardized tests such as the SAT by as much as 180 points on average – even when compared with students of other languages (for a visual comparison of SAT results from 2005-2015 see here). But how can a dead language help living students? Perhaps because…
Latin increases English vocabulary. An analysis of English vocabulary published by Finkenstaedt and Wolff demonstrated that more than 28% of English words are from Latin, and that the next top contender is French at 28%, but in most cases those French words are originally from Latin.
Latin grammar teaches English grammar. Latin forces you to think carefully and purposefully about something you use every day. Anyone can talk, but the man who can make himself understood has the advantage.
Latin is the basis of technical terms. Whether medicine, law, science, or technology the most technical terms tend to be made straight from Latin. Even computer science uses a Latin vocabulary. Even if research demonstrates only a weak correspondence and the causes are not yet entirely clear, most colleges and universities recognize that students of classical languages such as Latin are better prepared for careers in multiple fields.
Latin unlocks the modern languages. In particular, Latin is a great help to students of the Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. Because Latin is the more difficult ancestor to these languages it they still resemble it in many ways, but especially in vocabulary. Several students who have left ECCS for other schools have studied Spanish (since Latin is not offered). They often surpassed their fellow students. Why? Without fail, they tell me it is because they first studied Latin.
Latin is excellent preparation for any career. Latin itself is not a necessary technical skill for most careers. For instance a journalist needs to be able to type (a technical skill) and Latin is no replacement for it. But the study of Latin offers advantages that no skill can provide: training in clear, detailed, and precise thought. Does it really matter how fast or accurately you can type if you have nothing to say? Or if you cannot say it in a clear and logical way?
Classical history is your past, present, and future. Without a knowledge of classical history (Greek and Roman), it is impossible to gain more than a superficial understanding of modern America and Europe. America’s entire system of government, law, and currency was modeled on that of the Roman republic, and America is more like ancient Rome than any other nation in our world today. Will America last as long? It all depends on how well we learn from the mistakes of that other republic.
Ancient Rome was a successful multi-cultural society. If America is ever to deal with the pressures of immigration, asylum seekers, refugees, and citizenship effectively it will require wise policies. Roman history shows us both what works, and what doesn’t.
Rome fought multiple wars on foreign soil – some against terrorists. Sometimes the Romans were successful. Sometimes they failed disastrously. Sometimes they proved benevolent allies and missionaries of law and order in a lawless world. In other cases they exterminated or relocated entire populations in a desperate bid for security. Often they found that one can not abandon “peace-keeping” operations. Why? Read Latin authors and find out!
The Roman republic was polarized and destroyed by partisan politics, democratic and republican parties, the pressures of a welfare state, struggles between the rich and poor, and issues of religious freedom vs. state security. Avoiding these dangers in our own nation will require knowledge of the Roman republic.
Latin is the key to your culture. Next to a working knowledge of the Bible, Latin literature unlocks the greatest works of art, music, architecture, law, and government in the western world.
Latin is an exercise in logic, precision, detail, and accuracy. It is an exceptionally challenging mental discipline to successfully navigate an inflected language like Latin. Even if a student never gets over his dislike for Latin – even if he never cares to study further than required – he will have had the opportunity to gain skills that are never outdated, always marketable, and always in demand.
Latin inspires integrity and character. Latin literature is full of examples of courage, wisdom, justice, patriotism, lifelong friendship, self-control, and self-sacrifice. These examples (mostly non-fiction) are the heart and soul of Roman literature. Many of these examples are set in times of crisis, fear, danger, and all but certain death. Reading about such examples, a student will not only come to understand Latin, but may also learn to seek virtue in himself and others.
Good company does in fact corrupt bad morals. Latin and Greek literature represent the best of the ancient world. Most of what remains to us is of the highest moral, intellectual, and artistic quality. There are some classical sources that are of little value, but for the most part the fat has been trimmed away by the ages. When you read classical literature you are spending time in the company of the best, the truest, and most beautiful. Doing so helps you to love what is good, true, and beautiful. Beware! If you spend enough real time in the company of the best authors, you will lose all taste for “reality” TV.
Caveat: Holy Scripture is in an entirely different and higher category.
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