Latin revivalists try to raise the dead

Statistics show Latin is growing in popularity in different types of schools. So what's the appeal – and the use – of a language no one speaks?

It's a famous comic scene. The group of downtrodden subjects of the Roman Empire sit around moaning about their overlords and asking: 'What have the Romans ever done for us?'

The answers, when they come, end up making the question seem a bit ridiculous: roads, sanitation, medicine, education, wine, the rule of law and more.

What the actors in Monty Python's Life of Brian failed to add to the list (perhaps they would have done if the film wasn't set in ancient Judea), was the rich legacy of Latin in modern European languages, and in scientific disciplines.

After the Roman Empire collapsed, formal, Classical Latin remained the official and written language across much of Rome's former territory. Meanwhile, spoken Latin evolved into the Romance languages: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and French.

Via these languages, and from Latin directly, English and German also derive a large proportion of words. Alongside this natural inheritance, English also has a host of words deliberately invented by writers using Latin (and some Greek) roots. These are known as 'inkpot' or 'inkhorn' words: for example predict, extraneous, deracinated, to name a few sneered at by George Orwell in a famous essay on style.

Now, a much broader swathe of British pupils is getting its introduction to this rich linguistic heritage: more than 500 mixed-ability state schools are offering Latin, partly due to the expansion of online language courses.

The Cambridge Schools Classics Project, which was set up in 1966 at Cambridge University 'to make the classical world accessible to as many students as possible, whatever their age or background,' says that 403 independent schools and 104 state sector grammar schools, which select pupils on academic ability, teach Latin.

But 511 comprehensives are also offering the language, although not necessarily as a timetabled subject. And when it comes to GCSEs, around two thirds of candidates are from private schools.

Dead or alive

Latin is the official spoken language of only one country: the Vatican state. But there's a group of people who advocate teaching it as a living language, where speaking and listening are as important as reading and translating.

To that end, the team at The Latin Quarter has made a series of films which show the language in use, spoken with a lovely Italian lilting pronunciation and convincing naturalness by actors.

It's a trick, but a clever one: are you convinced, like the Government ministers who now say that ancient languages should be held as valuable in exam league tables as living, modern tongues?

You Decide

  1. 'Learning a dead language, that no one speaks, is a complete waste of time.' Do you agree?
  2. George Orwell wrote inPolitics and the English Language: 'Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.' Is using Latin misguided snobbery?

Activities

  1. Watch the film clips below and write your own short film script about a current controversy in the news – then translate it into Latin and act it out.
  2. Research how Latin gave birth to other European languages and make a 'family tree' with a few key facts about each language.

Some People Say...

“Latine loqui coactus sum'(I have a compulsion to speak Latin)”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don't believe you can learn Latin like a living language.
Well, there are some very select courses at the Vatican, and one university in the USA, in Kentucky, offers Conversational Latin. But the Latin films, presented like reports on current affairs, have got me interested.
You and a bunch of politicians, seems like.
Well yes. The UK Government has decided to make some subjects high-value 'core' GCSEs, and either Latin or Greek are included on a par with French, Spanish or Chinese.
How can they justify that?
Well, experts say learning classical languages helps you pick up others much more quickly and easily, and also helps with someone's mastery of written English. Plus it's pretty difficult, so it's a good training in logic, memory and overcoming obstacles.

Word Watch

Rule of law
A set of important principles in relation to the way law is used, for example that all people are equal before the law and that a person can only be punished by the state if they break a law.
Ancient Judea
The southern part of the historic Land of Israel, it is now part of the West Bank.
George Orwell
Real name Eric Arthur Blair, a world renowned 20th century novelist, most famous for his political novels Animal Farm and 1984.

Subjects

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