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Is Latin Coming Back?


A hundred years ago Latin classes were a feature of almost every school child`s education. Learning the way different verbs, nouns and adjectives were inflected was part of regular schooling, along with arithmetic and english. By the end of the second world war however many schools were dropping it from their curriculum. There are only so many hours in a school day, and it was thought the time spent learning Latin could be put to more practical use.

There are tentative signs of a resurgence though, amongst adults anyway, in this dead language. Colfe`s School in south-east London has been offering evening Latin classes, mainly for parents of its pupils, for some years now. Recently though it has been so oversubscribed that begun to offer two Monday evening Latin classes - and every seat has been filled!

Perhaps this resurgent interest in a long dead language is down to an abundance of historical films, televisions series and novels, which manage to bring back to life the splendour of the Roman Empire - at least until there`s an advert break, or the book is closed.

Erudite classicists, who until recently would never have dreamed of catching even a glimmer of the limelight, now find themselves becoming household names - celebrities almost. Bettany Hughes, Michael Scott and Mary Beard - historical writers and broadcasters - all enjoy huge audiences. Their work feeds the huge interest in Roman history, and encourages people to learn more about an empire that once spanned most of Europe.

Is there any argument for reintroducing Latin back into the curriculum though? Foreign languages have been a compulsory part of the curriculum since 2014, and there are many schools that do offer it. 700 state secondary schools and 450 independent senior schools currently teach the subject; a modest number perhaps, but one that has doubled since 2000. These figures are from the Cambridge Schools Classics Project, which also revealed that about 50,000 pupils actually learn latin each year, though only a quarter of that number sit the Latin GCSE.

Is there any benefit to learning a long dead language like Latin though? For certain professions a knowledge of Latin is certainly useful. Almost any kind of judicial work will certainly benefit from a knowledge of Latin - there are hundreds judicial phrases (habeas corpus, in absentia, non obstante verdicto) that are solely expressed using Latin terminology. Many medical terms are also expressed in Latin - so an understanding of the language would certainly be useful (though probably only marginally) to those determined to enter a medical field.

Having a knowledge of Latin will help you learn other european languages, especially Italian and Spanish. This benefit can perhaps be overstated though. It would be trivial to point out that european languages have developed in multifarious ways since the fall of the Roman Empire, and have characteristics significantly different to the Latin of Cicero, Seneca or Horace. That said, the knowledge of how verbs, adjectives and nouns can be inflected through suffixes (a system largely absent in english, which mainly relies on word order to convey sense) will benefit an english speaker wishing to learn one of the romance languages.

Boris Johnson might occasionally drop a few Latin phrases into his speeches - but those who do so in regular conversation are likely to look affected and pretentious. Indeed, there are many who think Latin classes signify nothing more than exclusivity, pomposity, and are a relic of the British class system. If this judgement seems a little scathing perhaps ask yourself this: who would be the greater asset to an international company, someone who can quote some latin phrases, and struggle through, with the help of a lexicon, some of Marcus Aurelius`s Meditations; or someone who can speak Spanish, or even Mandarin?

22 months ago
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