Ave, Latin

Latin isn’t a dead languages, says The Economist. It’s just resting.

If Latin, spoken or written, is ever to catch on again, perhaps it needs justifying. Among the XVIII slightly desperate reasons for learning Latin to be found on Latinteach.com, the most attractive is “Explain the passive periphrastic to your significant other,” and the most topical, “Learn to conquer the world and claim it was self-defence.” Or perhaps, discarding justification, the language just needs modernising. Henry Beard’s handy little tome, “Latin for All Occasions,” is designed to recycle old Latin tags for the present time. (Eg, rara avis: There is no car hire available.) Many have pointed out that “Been there, done that,” was originally coined by Caesar when he proclaimed Veni, vidi, vici, though he did not wear the T-shirt.

The center of Latin news broadcasting is Finland. But you knew that.

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  1. Latin doesn’t need modernizing…people need antiquifying.

  2. My daughter’s in her third year of Latin. My high school French allowed me to translate the charming little stories in her first year book, but after that I was lost.

    She loves her Latin classes, and the Tennessee Junior Classical League yearly meeting. And her vocabulary, already very rich and broad, has exploded.

  3. Veni, vidi, vici…. umm, I forget the rest.

  4. Finland has one of the highest – if not the highest- literacy rates in the world. Something in the ballpark of 98%. I don’t believe it’s an accident that it’s also the top Latin broadcasting locale.

    Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi.

  5. But Finnish isn’t a Romance Language. It isn’t even an Indo-European language; there’s no connection linguistically between Finnish and Latin. I wonder what the attraction is?

  6. Well, the Finns love their tango. Perhaps it’s the attraction to Latin dances that inspires the connection.

    And you’re right about the oddity of the Finnish language. Its closest linguistic relation is Estonian, and Hungarian’s a distant cousin. I grew up in Helsinki and am glad I never had to learn it from books.

  7. I just read today that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” is sparking a reinterest in Latin. As for me I have been looking for a local college or university that still offers classes in the language.

  8. Mark Odell says:

    JJ wrote: Latin isn’t a dead languages, says The Economist. It’s just resting.

    Rita C. wrote: But Finnish isn’t a Romance Language. It isn’t even an Indo-European language; there’s no connection linguistically between Finnish and Latin. I wonder what the attraction is?

    Well, perhaps it’s pining for the fjords.

  9. I am very grateful for my two years of Latin in junior high. Most of the grammar has slipped away by now, but the vocabulary has remained and been enormously useful. Also, I remember at the time, that having to write in Latin carried over into much “tighter” writing in English as well. Because of the case system in Latin (nominative, ablative, etc.) you couldn’t put a noun in a sentence unless you knew how it was functioning (subject, indirect object, etc.) You couldn’t put in an adjective unless you knew what it was modifying. Latin simply didn’t allow the careless moshing of words that casual English does.

  10. Margaret, on the other hand, too much Latin study compared to English study has also led to over-educated nitwits trying to impose Latin grammar rules inappropriately on English. Example: “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”

  11. Um, markm — Latin grammar was superimposed on English a couple hundred or so years ago. The deed is done. English pronouns do have case, by the way, as do some irregular nouns. The second person plural pronoun has lost its case markers, but we seem to try to come up with them in local dialect — y’all, youse, y’oungs, etc.

  12. PJ/Maryland says:

    Rita, Latin grammar was superimposed, but it hasn’t really taken. Here’s the American Heritage Book of English Usage on prepositions at the end of a sentence:

    preposition ending a sentence. It was John Dryden, the 17th-century poet and dramatist, who first promulgated the doctrine that a preposition may not be used at the end a sentence. Grammarians in the 18th century refined the doctrine, and the rule has since become one of the most venerated maxims of schoolroom grammar. But sentences ending with prepositions can be found in the works of most of the great writers since the Renaissance. In fact, English syntax not only allows but sometimes even requires final placement of the preposition, as in We have much to be thankful for or That depends on what you believe in. Efforts to rewrite such sentences to place the preposition elsewhere can have comical results, as Winston Churchill demonstrated when he objected to the doctrine by saying “This is the sort of English up with which I cannot put.”

    Even sticklers for the traditional rule can have no grounds for criticizing sentences such as I don’t know where she will end up or It’s the most curious book I’ve ever run across; in these examples, up and across are adverbs, not prepositions. You can be sure of this because it is impossible to transform these examples into sentences with prepositional phrases. It is simply not grammatical English to say I don’t know up where she will end and It’s the most curious book across which I have ever run.

    Actually, the “end up” and “run across” usage looks rather Germanic to me, but my German is even more forgotten than my Latin.

    Another Latin rule involves the split infinitive, which always struck me as silly. Yes, Latin doesn’t have split infinitives, but that’s because the Latin infinitive is only one word!

  13. I loved that “venerated” comment. Who *wrote* that? Regardless, I appreciate your point, but Latin is very much the basis of traditional English grammar and has been for quite some time. No, it does not match up well and leads to some odd rules, but the contemporary study of Latin is not going to alter any of that. Bravo to your descriptivist tendencies, however.

  14. speedwell says:

    …and those Latin club meetings were something else again, with the improvised togas and ancient food (with grape KoolAid for wine & water), construction paper laurel wreaths, an aluminum-foil atrium pool, and the first-year students playing slaves… what fun. INNOCENT fun.

    Of course, this was in my first year… in my three years of high school in Georgia, Latin wasn’t offered. Bummer.

  15. PJ/Maryland says:

    Bravo to your descriptivist tendencies, however.

    Rita, I’m assuming that’s sarcasm? While I recognize that any teacher is bound to tend towards the prescriptivist end of the spectrum, I don’t see how any serious student of English could avoid “descriptivist tendencies”.

    For those of you not up on the jargon, “descriptivism” is the attempt to deduce grammar from studying how the speakers of the language actually say things. At the extreme, this means there is no “good” and “bad” grammar, just grammar that is used and grammar that is not. “Prescriptivism” comes from the other side, and sets up (prescribes) rules for a language; following the rules produces “good grammar” and not following them results in “bad grammar”.

    I make it sound more black and white than it is. There are advantages to standardized rules in grammar, which is prescriptivist; on the other hand, English is clearly an evolving language, which is more descriptivist.

  16. No sarcasm at all, PJ. I meant that quite genuinely. Why shouldn’t I be a descriptivist?

  17. Margaret wrote, Latin simply didn’t allow the careless moshing of words that casual English does.

    While I think it’s great Latin is making a comeback, as the study of it does indeed improve one’s vocabulary (and spelling!), I truly hope it doesn’t also bring back the old attitudes exemplified in Margaret’s comment: that highly inflected languages are “precise,” whereas ones with less inflection are “careless.”

    It could also be said that English is much more flexible than Latin was. If I remember correctly, ordinary speakers of Latin began to simplify the inflection system around or before the time of Christ. A similar thing happened to our own tongue in the Middle Ages; as it progressed from Old English to Middle Engish to Modern English, we began to lose old-fashioned verb endings such as -est (“Thou mayest”) and -eth (“My cup runneth over”), whose cognates yet exist in other Germanic languages.

    There is a natural tendency for all languages to simplify over time. I believe it was John McWhorter who posited in one of his books that the tonal languages of East Asia may have started off, millennia ago, as polysyllabic, but have since lost so many sounds due to “attrition” that tonality was introduced as a way of stretching out the remaining syllables to encompass all of human experience.

    Regarding “prescriptionism” vs. “descriptionism”: I’m all for teaching proper writing in the schools, by which I mean correct spelling and grammar, as well as how to express oneself concisely and accurately. But languages are not, and should not be, rigidly codified. They are living, growing, and ever-changing things, to the point that any dictionary becomes obsolete once it hits the presses, even if only to a small degree. If some group were to reanimate Latin in the same manner as Israelis have reanimated Hebrew, Latin could be expected to change with the times, like any other living tongue.

  18. Mark Odell says:

    Reginleif the Valkyrie wrote: Latin could be expected to change with the times


  19. As a professor of linguistics who loves dead languages, I could comment forever here, but I’ll stick to the last couple of posts:

    “Latin simply didn’t allow the careless moshing of words that casual English does.”

    One trouble with determining whether a language allows/ed “careless moshing” is the quality of the sample. We see and hear lots of “careless moshing” because English is alive right now and we’re exposed to both the perceived “highs” and “lows” of the language. But our impression of Latin is based upon a limited sample of the “best” of the language. It is improbable that the average Roman *spoke* as “well” as the “best” Roman authors.

    “There is a natural tendency for all languages to simplify over time.”

    I would change “simplify” to the more neutral term “change” because often “simplifications” make things more difficult in other ways. As you yourself noted, in the case of East Asian languages (which are my specialty), making words shorter meant making more use out of tonality.

    Tones weren’t so much “introduced” as “perceived.” Any utterance we make automatically has a tone – and even non-tonal languages use pitch in intonation – but only tonal language speakers make extensive use of this existing feature.

    BTW, this theory of “tonogenesis” long predates McWhorter; it goes back at least to Haudricourt in the early 1950s.

    Also, it appears that Mandarin Chinese is now moving the other way, with longer words and tone bearing less (but still a lot of) functional load. It’s not impossible that future Chinese will have very long words, and that the cycle will begin all over again.

  20. Reginleif the Valkyrie wrote: Latin could be expected to change with the times

    Mark Odell: …again.

    Me: And again and again. Classical Latin is itself a descendant of preclassical Latin, which in turn was a descendant of Proto-Indo-European, which in turn … who knows? (I don’t want to debate the “Nostratic” controversy here.)

    The point is that languages ALWAYS change, and the point at which we declare, “this version of language X is the best” (or “correct”) is arbitrary.

    Our “best” English today would be “wrong” in Shakespeare’s eyes; in turn, his English would be “wrong” to Chaucer, and so on.

    If “the past” is always better, where do we draw the line where “the past” is? English when we grew up (which is usually the starting point for comparisons)? Shakespearean English? Old English? Proto-Germanic? Proto-Indo-European?

    Yup, I’m a descriptivist. Linguists are supposed to describe what IS, rather than prescribe what SHOULD be. But prescriptionism interests me, not only because a certain degree of it is necessary for practical purposes (anarchy would lead to non-communication) but also because prescriptivism tells us about what a culture values as “good.” The Latinocentric (not meaning “pro-Hispanic,” of course!) nature of old-fashioned prescriptive grammar tells me that Anglophonic culture still values its classical roots.

  21. SuzieQ: “Finland has one of the highest – if not the highest- literacy rates in the world. Something in the ballpark of 98%.”

    This is probably partly due to the almost totally consistent, simple sound-symbol correspondences in Finnish. There are no silent letters. Hence learning to read Finnish is far, far easier than learning to read English.

  22. Amritas,

    The same argument could be made for Italian or Spanish.

  23. SuzieQ,

    Not quite. Italian and Spanish have somewhat more irregularities than Finnish does. But both are definitely far, far more consistent than English (or French) is, no question. In any case, notice I said “partly,” not “wholly.” No matter how efficient and simple an orthography is, that alone won’t ensure literacy. There are other important factors: e.g., the quality of education.

    Anthropolgists and linguists devise seemingly optimal orthographies for unwritten languages all the time. But if the orthographies are untaught, taught poorly, no one cares, etc., the technical quality of the orthography is irrelevant.

    I’m not sure what your point is about Finnish literacy and Latin broadcasting. Are you saying that the former somehow causes the latter?

  24. English has absorbed an extraordinary amount of Latin words compared to other non-Latin languages. It achieves much of its centrality by having both a germanic and romance word for so many things; Greek too has penetrated well, so that we can say “oxygen” rather than “sourstuff” or some such germanicism. Lots of Latin and Greek appointments on a slim, simplified German chassis: if English was a car you’d have to buy it!

    Far from ditching Latin, we should be adding another old language to the curriculum: a classical language that has a rich secular and popular literature, a language still spoken and written as it was a millennium ago…and a parent of our own language. Let’s put Icelandic into schools, in the place of ,say, any subject with the word “environmental” or “gender” in its name.

  25. Robert,

    English is not the descendant of Icelandic. Icelandic is like a cousin to English, not a parent.

    Neat idea … though we might have to import the whole Icelandic population of 280,000 to teach the subject. 🙂

    I propose that Sanskrit be taught instead, but nobody’s listening …