Skip to comments.What Is a Dead Language Doing in the 21st Century?
Posted on 12/05/2004 7:12:01 PM PST by nickcarraway
Across the nation, schools are re-introducing Latin into their curricula. While Latins visibility is highest in private and homeschool settings, it is mounting a comeback in the public school system as well. This remarkable phenomenon brings to mind our often-ignored connection to the Roman and Greek civilizations of the ancient world.
What Is Old Is New Again
Latins stability makes it unique among languages still in use. Although centuries ago its grammar and vocabulary became essentially frozen (thus earning the designation dead), this language of the Roman Empire did not disappear thanks largely to its status as the Roman Catholic Churchs official language and its inclusion in standard school curricula into the 20th century. Only in recent decades did Latin become less prominent. Today, however, Latin is staging a comeback and stirring fresh interest.
One cause of Latins revival may be a conscious or unconscious longing for a sense of permanence in a world of accelerating changes and fads of every type. Latin is the ultimate un-fad, and is part of the bedrock of Western heritage. Greek, a language of an even older civilization, is receiving renewed attention for the same reason.
There are many signs of Latins resurgence: in films (blockbusters such as Gladiator, and The Passion of The Christ), in music (brisk sales in recent years of Gregorian Chant CDs), and in worship (Latin is returning to many Catholic Masses, after decades of absence), and impromptu courses offered in Catholic churches.
Latin offers some very practical benefits that modern educators confirm. For starters, Latins historical relationship to modern languages makes it an excellent tool for introducing vocabulary and grammar principles that help students to learn English as well as Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French, among other languages. As Fairfax County (Virginia) foreign language coordinator Paula Patrick observes, As students familiarity with Greek and Latin words and word components increase, they learn strategies for understanding new vocabulary they will encounter in all disciplines they are studying. Laurie Dabbieri, a high school Latin teacher in Fairfax County (where Latin has been taught in high schools for more than 50 years) notes, Latin re-introduces students to grammar concepts that make their English writing better.
Latin and Greek open doorways to the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations, and the minds of philosophers and statesmen who created the Western world. Ms. Dabbieri remarked that she sees her students scaling the intermediate and advanced Latin courses with better thinking and organizational skills as they read works by Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Cesar, Virgil, and Ovid.
Our Roman Bridge to the Greeks
Latins importance in world history becomes clearer if we consider the predecessors of the Romans the Greeks, who handed on a civilization, religion, and vast learning of their own. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and Alexander the Great are but a few of the Greeks who profoundly affected world thought, ethics, and history.
To understand the magnitude of the Greeks knowledge and achievements, consider the example of Archimedes a Greek mathematician and scientist who lived three centuries before Christ and his enduring influence on life in the 21st century. Archimedes wrote on and advanced almost every mathematical discipline except algebra. His special interest in geometry laid the foundation for progress in other mathematical and scientific arenas. Archimedes discovered the numerical value of pi and concepts of trigonometry, calculus, and specific gravity, and he studied the behavior of gases and liquids. His achievements accelerated progress that led to modern achievements in navigation, architecture, physics, engineering, agriculture, mineralogy, and hydrostatics.
Archimedes was by no means the only ancient Greek who excelled. The Greeks also left their mark in the fields of medicine (giving us the Hippocratic Oath, which defines basic medical philosophy), ethics, literature (such as national epics, dramatic tragedy and comedy), politics (the basic theory and first practice of democracy), and principles of art.
We can only speculate about what drove the ancient Greeks curiosity, which obtained so many insights for them and for us, but it is evident that they had confidence in their ability to use observation and deduction to understand the world.
The Romans conquered the Greeks, inherited their legacy, and built upon it. Roman achievements in law, administration, governance, and civil engineering remain in use today. Latin, the language of the Romans, spread widely and served as a conduit for the dissemination of knowledge and culture in the classical world. The precision of Latin, which is rather unforgiving of sloppiness, supported clarity of thought and expression, and served as an Internet-like bridge among diverse ethnic groups whom the Romans encountered in their push to build an empire. In this way, Latin propagated an entire worldview and can-do attitude that put the West on the road to modernity.
Why Is Latin Becoming Popular Now?
The Roman Empire was not the last organization to need a common denominator to unite different peoples. Consider Daniels Run and Providence Elementary Schools in Fairfax City, Virginia, which has children from diverse ethnic backgrounds. When the school and parents decided to pursue a Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES), it became difficult to agree on an alternative to English. Finally, Latin was suggested and approved. This school now has a partial immersion Latin program for 3rd through 6th graders that has made teachers, parents, and students proud, edified, and eager to learn.
The schools core disciplines of math, science, social studies, and language arts are benefiting. As Ms. Patrick said, Because of the interdisciplinary nature of classical studies, and because of the heavily Greek- and Latin-based vocabulary of the content, Latin (along with Greek) is a natural and logical integrating force for the core disciplines. For example, when students study the phases of the moon, they are first taught the Latin root of the word for moon (luna), which is also reflected in the French lundi (Monday) and the English word lunatic, lunaticus or moonstruck, crazy; and the English word, lunar.
"Celebration of Veterans' Day causes children to ask, What does Veterans Day mean? In response, the children learn about soldiers and the word legion, which goes back to the Roman word for fortress (the structure of the Roman army) and related vocabulary. In social studies, a legal document is presented with Latin-derived terms highlighted. The program also enables students to recognize Greco-Roman influences in their own world and to compare and contrast ancient Mediterranean civilizations to our own.
Competition and the search for excellence are driving the resurgence of Latin. Among many observers, there is a belief that much of the radical experimentation that has taken place in society during the last decades, especially in education, has not produced the excellence that was anticipated. There is also a growing desire to make commonsense adjustments. As competition to enter colleges and universities stiffens, students must perform better on college entrance exams, important parts of which focus on vocabulary. Latin helps accomplish this goal.
Rigor, according to Ms. Dabbieri, is the buzzword in education and Latin is considered rigorous. She added that Latin is academic, so students who take Latin have an edge over other college-bound applicants.
As Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century, Sir Issac Newton in the 17th century, and Stephen Hawking in the 20th century all noted, we stand on the shoulders of giants. By becoming reacquainted with the languages that were such important parts of earlier achievements, we strengthen our capacity today to learn and accomplish new things.
Sue Reilly owned and ran an editorial business outside Washington DC for approx.15 years. She will finish a Masters Degree of Theology from Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College this month and has accepted a Director of Religious Education position at Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria, VA
Illegitimi Non Carborundum.
No ebonics and other bad grammar being passed off as "new slang" or dialect?
Mens sana in corpore sana!
In Vino Veritas
Good. Maybe students will learn that fetus = baby.
I just wish I could have gotten their numbering system down well enough
so I can get the date on old movie credits.
Asperges me, Domine, hysoppo, et mundabor; lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
Pondus familae ante alter.
I don't remember much of the one year of Latin I took as a sophomore.....but, I'm the one who can ALWAYS decipher word meanings/definitions in our family, and I believe it is because of that BASE, and probably because I've always been a READING Freak.
MMIV = 2004 :o)
"Latins stability makes it unique among languages still in use. Although centuries ago its grammar and vocabulary became essentially frozen (thus earning the designation dead)....
On the other hand, some might say that it continued to evolve like a normal language, until its dialects turned into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.
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