Part Five: OK, But Why Latin?

Ian Mosley, Director of Curriculum Development, Sager Classical Academy

In our consideration of the place of languages in classical education, we’ve basically hit upon the importance of the art of translation: the positive aspects of translation in teaching us the art of writing, as well as the importance of being educated in the limits of translation so that we handle translated texts carefully, and most importantly that we learn to handle the Bible carefully. But why is Latin the best instrument for this purpose?

It’s true that another classical language could be suitable for the two purposes we’ve mentioned, and the logical candidate would be Ancient Greek. Why should we prefer Latin to Greek? The basic reasons are alphabet, simplicity and regularity of grammar, and Latin’s unique position as a “hinge” language.

Ancient Greek is written in a different alphabet than Latin. While this is hardly an insurmountable difficulty, it does put another hurdle in front of students that are often somewhat daunted by the prospect of studying a classical language. The familiarity of the way Latin is written also means that many English derivatives are easier to spot. When the Latin student learns that the word for man is vir, it’s not too difficult to make connections to words like virile, virtue, or triumvirate. It requires a little extra imagination to see the connection between ἄνθρωπος and anthropology or anthropomorphic. For this and other historical reasons, Latin derivatives tend to abound in ordinary and specialized language alike, whereas Greek is primarily the language of the technical and scientific.

Secondly, the grammar of Greek is orders of magnitude more complicated than Latin, and far less regular. Six tenses in the indicative, four in the subjunctive, and some fairly simple rules for forming the active and passive voice gets you mostly all you need to know about the Latin verbs, which mostly fall into four regular categories, and even the few irregular verbs don’t depart much from those patterns. In Greek you have two extra tenses, an extra mood called the optative, and an extra voice called the middle, with seemingly endless variations across paradigms. A capable Latin student could without excessive difficulty rattle off all the forms of an irregular Latin verb: even excellent Greek students will sweat to remember all the forms of λύω, one of the simpler and more straightforward verbs (if you want to make a Greek student cringe, just bring up -μι verbs).

Thirdly, and most importantly, Latin has the unique status of being a “hinge” language. What I mean is that it acts as a bridge between Greek as a classical language and the romance languages, the modern languages most American students will want to tackle. In other words, if you end up learning Greek, learning Latin first would be more helpful than, say, Spanish. But if you wanted to study Spanish, it would be more helpful to have a background in Latin than in Greek. Since we can’t predict what direction our students might go, we serve them best by teaching them a language to go either way more easily.

In addition to these basic reasons, I have, as I promised in the beginning, tried to make a subtler case for the study of Latin. As we saw, great authors in our classical and Christian traditions, of which we are heirs, wrote in Latin. To learn Latin is to become their peers and contemporaries. To speak with Cicero, Augustine, and countless others—can you feel the breeze yet, can you hear the crashing of the waves? I hope our reading over the course of this series has been an entry into a new world. This is what a day at the sea feels like.