By Ben Potter

If you’ve ever taken even an hour of Latin class, then—more likely than not—the words of the title will have been the first that you learned in this ancient tongue.

This conjugation of the verb ‘to love’ (i.e. I love, you love, he/she/it loves…) is indelibly inked on the minds of schoolchildren the world over; though many may rather forget that they’d ever learnt it—because there’s no sugar-coating the fact that the study of Latin, despite how fascinating and rewarding it can doubtless be, is not for everyone.

Latin

Latin’s complexity undoubtedly plays a part in this; it is by no means the easiest language for a native English speaker to get their head around, in part due to the fact that, as seen above, a word’s suffix can drastically alter its meaning. That Latin’s nouns have seven cases, three genders, two numbers, five declensions, and its verbs have six tenses, four moods, two voices, and four conjugations (each with six different endings) only gives a taste of why it is not the most easily mastered of dialects.

This above passage cannot help but bring to mind the centurion character from Monty Python’s Life of Brian forcing the hapless protagonist to write Romani ite domum (“Romans go home!”) a hundred times as punishment for incorrectly daubing Romanus eunt domus (“people called Romanus they go the house”) on the side of Pontius Pilate’s palace.

The Most Logical Language?

 

Life of Brian
From Monty Python’s Life of Brian

However, despite this apparent disconnect from our own language, Latin is infinitely more logical, consistent and well-organised than English. Much like a jigsaw or a cryptic crossword clue, once the constituent pieces are in their correct places everything becomes a lot clearer.

Complexity aside, many turn away from Latin due to the fact that it’s a ‘dead language’ (i.e. one which has no living native speakers).

N.B. A word of caution here – unless you take a particular glee in raising the blood pressure of linguists, it might be best not to refer to Latin as ‘dead’, but instead state that it has suffered a type of pseudoextinction.

“Much like a jigsaw or a cryptic crossword clue, once the constituent pieces are in their correct places everything becomes a lot clearer. “

In other words, it has evolved and survived in the form of the Romance languages (e.g. Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian) even if it is no longer anyone’s native tongue. Of course, for all intents and purposes Latin is distinctly dodo-esque… but linguists can be such a prickly bunch!

Is Latin really “dead”?

What is striking about a language which has about it, at the very least, an aura of mortality is that it is actually in remarkably fine fettle! Don’t believe me? Check down the side of the sofa or under the fridge – there’s probably a bit of Latin hiding there.

“Many turn away from Latin due to the fact that it’s a ‘dead language’ (i.e. one which has no living native speakers). “

E pluribus unum (out of many, one) can be found on the reverse of U.S. pennies and both annuit coeptis (he favours our undertakings) and novus ordo seclorum (new order of the ages) encircle the creepy pyramid on the back of the U.S. dollar bill.

The above mottos are but the tip of the iceberg; it is not difficult to call to mind bits of Latin officially used for states, universities, sports teams, social clubs and even some countries: Switzerland uses ‘CH’ for its ISO code in reference to its Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica.

Latin

Though these official renderings may seem like no more than ornamental pomposity, Latin pervades a lot deeper and more significantly than mere slogans.

First and foremost there is Latin’s most obvious legacy, its alphabet. Prone as we are to egocentrism, we often consider it remarkable that the vast majority of the world’s countries (including much of South East Asia and most of Africa) have adopted ‘our’ alphabet—so much so that we neglect to remind ourselves that said script isn’t ‘ours’ at all and, in fact, we are merely another in the long list of countries who have been linguistically colonised in this way – as such we have no greater claim to the ABC’s than late-comers like Turkey or Vietnam.

(N.B. We have a similar collective blind spot for numbers, being as they are, in fact, Arabic.)

However, we have taken more from Latin than merely its text. You’ve probably not even consciously noted that this article has been liberally strewn with abbreviations such as ‘e.g.’, ‘N.B.’, ‘i.e.’ etc.

(Oh, and now ‘etc’!)

The fact that countless others effortlessly spring to mind (AD, A.M., cf., et al., ff., per cent, Ph.D., P.M., P.S., re, s.o.s., sic., vs.) shows that Latin is clearly a pervasive force within contemporary society… Q.E.D.!

We could, but shall not, make an ad infinitum list of ‘English’ phrases borrowed from Latin; to do so would be to stress the point ad nauseam.

The Institution That Kept Latin Alive

Probably the greatest, if slightly inadvertent, champion of the Latin language, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, is the institution that was, in many ways, the heir to that institution, the Catholic Church.


The opening lines of Genesis in Latin

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Church’s insistence that Latin was the only suitable vehicle for transmitting the ancient and sacred words of a Nazarene Jew to the masses of Europe. Furthermore, not only did the Latin mass endure until the 1960’s, but Latin is even to this day the official language of the Holy See – meaning it is the official language of a nation state, albeit a rather small and select one.

Charmingly, Vatican City has the world’s only Latin ATM machine, but surprisingly is not the only country with Latin radio stations (Germany and Finland being two notable examples).

The topic of Latin is so vast that there is no time in these pages to talk either about the nuts and bolts of the language itself (its phonology, lexicon, morphology, syntax etc), or about its history and evolution from Old Latin (that of the ancient Roman Empire), to Classical Latin

“Latin is even to this day the official language of the Holy See – meaning it is the official language of a nation state, albeit a rather small and select one. “

(an artificially rarefied version of the language designed to distinguish itself from the speech of hoi polloi i.e. Vulgar Latin), to the corruptions of Medieval Latin, to the corrections of Renaissance Latin, through Early Modern Latin, and finally Modern Latin. Not to mention the numerous ways different people and nationalities pronounce Latin words today.

Obviously all of the above is only a brief précis of what is a topic huge in both importance and size, though this alone may be reason enough qualify it for further investigation.


A rare copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the original Latin

Regarding the study of this paradoxically obsolete and relevant language, many people may offer you convincing arguments that you should, or indeed convince you that you want to (or indeed, do not want to) learn Latin. As we can all recall from our schooldays, desire is the key to learning, and with languages, the desire to learning ratio is, if anything, intensified.

Should you decide that these ancient, though far from outmoded words are not ones you desire touching your lips, then it would be fruitless to convince you otherwise. However, I would insert two caveats to the above absolution: 1. even the slightest inkling, the most miniscule curiosity, is worth pursuing – it could turn an ignored itch into something quite beautiful, and 2. Latin is one of those things that, even when not actively engaged with, still bears fruit worthy of awareness (or perhaps the converse is true – it is pitiful to be wholly ignorant of that fruit).

On the other hand, if you are already full of vim and vigour and are itching to make these ancient words become newly learned, then I’ve only one thing to say to you, which is, rather predictably, carpe diem.

Such a flat and trite ending has me doffing my cap while shuffling my feet in the acknowledgment that the words of another, the popular classicist Mary Beard, give a far more poignant and no-nonsense justification for the merits of Latin. So it is with her winged words that I shall leave you:

You do NOT learn Latin because it helps you understand the spells in Harry Potter… because it helps you learn other languages… because it hones your critical and logical thinking… you learn Latin because of what was written in it – and because of the direct access that Latin gives you to a literary tradition that lies at the very heart (not just at the root) of Western culture. –Mary Beard