Why do we have to learn Latin, sir?”
It has been an immensely rewarding first half of term and the weeks since the beginning of September have flown by. Everyone at Cargilfield, adults and pupils alike, has made me feel very welcome and could not have done more to help me find my feet, often quite literally as I have wheeled my trolley of text books and jotters through the corridors and up the stairs. I have been impressed, as I expected to be, by the standard of Latin and the enthusiasm of the pupils. The efforts that the Form 6s have made to grapple with a complex and highly inflected new language have been heroic. Inevitably this leads to questions about the language, some of which I can answer and some I cannot. What’s the point of deponent verbs? Good question. Is it important to know that the genitive plural of 3rd declension monosyllables whose genitive stem ends in two consonants is an exception to the rule? Possibly not, but I am keen to maintain the reputation of Classics at Cargilfield when its pupils reach senior schools. I want the Classics teachers at the prestigious schools that Cargilfield pupils move on to to know that its pupils have been well taught. What is the point of learning Latin? Ah, that is a very good question indeed.
The teaching of Latin in Britain is initially bound up with religion (the pun is intentional), and I was delighted to find out that the Form 6s were beginning their history of sacred music with Panis angelicus, Thomas Aquinas’s 13th century hymn. Originally missionaries led by Augustine were sent by Pope Gregory in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Teaching Latin so that the Anglo-Saxons could read the bible was integral to this. The teaching of Latin flourished for several centuries but then declined. Alfred the Great played an important part in the resurgence of Latin in the late 9th century. We have a Latin grammar from c1000AD used to teach monks Latin. The clergy were also struggling with their Latin. In Renaissance times, Latin was still the common language used across Europe.
Renaissance humanism began In North Italy in the 13th century with the aim of promoting the study of classical antiquity and this movement spread across Western Europe in subsequent centuries. Classical authors such as Virgil, Horace and Ovid became popular. Other authors became known. The invention of the printing press meant that Latin texts became more readily available. Classical authors were widely admired and even imitated. Neoclassical writers in the 18th century such as Dryden with his translation of Virgil had a large influence. Latin influenced rules for English grammar. Split infinitives were frowned upon because the present infinitive in Latin is only ever one word. Dryden himself is said to have created that rule that sentences should not end with a preposition because in Latin the noun always follows the preposition. This is not a rule I am a fan of.
So why do we still invest so much time and effort into learning Latin? When I have interviewed scholarship candidates and the topic has cropped up, the arguments tend to be utilitarian: Latin is useful in that it helps you with English spelling and grammar; or it is useful because it helps you with Modern Languages. This may be true, but does Latin have no worth in its own right? My answer in a nutshell is that we learn Latin so that we can read its literature and, through it, explore its culture. No translation can capture the rhythm of Virgil’s hexameter, the intricate wordplay of Ovid or the audacity with which Tacitus manipulates the language.
So why do I not hear this argument put forward more often? The answer is simple. If I told the Form 6 pupils that they were learning Latin in order to read the literature, one of them might rightly ask how long they will have to study Latin for to know enough grammar to be able to read literature in the original. If I were to reply that they should be ready after five years, I can well imagine heads going down. It is much safer to fall back on more immediate arguments and focus upon the intrinsic satisfaction of translating accurately and how Latin is useful for English, French and other romance languages. But in my heart of hearts, I know that the reason why I love Latin is the same one that captivated Milton, Dryden, Pope and all those other historical figures in. Hang on in there, Form 6!
Head of Classics