Saturday, January 15, 2011

Is Studying Latin Useful?

Is studying Latin useful? Of course it is! It is about as useful as studying the prevalence of myopia in fruit flies. That comparison was chosen carefully. There are probably a few people per million who would have a valid reason to be concerned with myopic fruit flies. There is probably a similar number who have a valid reason for studying Latin.

On these pages we are normally concerned with matters of life and death, war and peace, and the rise and fall of civilizations. There is a time however when the issue of the efficacy of studying Latin rises to equal importance. That occurs when you are staring into the face of a bird-brained blockhead who smugly refuses to acknowledge the superiority of your opinion. We who are usually correct in our views see this sort of behavior often, and it is rather trying on one’s patience.

I blame it all on the dictionaries. Pick any word and it will likely state that the word is derived from a Latin or Greek word. This leads the poorly educated to assume that Latin is somehow the basis for the English language. Many even assume that English is one of the romance languages. The romance languages are those derived from that of the Romans: Latin. These include Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

The original form of English derived from the arrival on the island of the Germanic tribes: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Their languages, mixed with that of the resident Celts, formed Old English. This language further evolved under the influence of various invaders, mainly Scandinavians and the Catholic Church.

The major event in the evolution of the language was the Norman invasion which led to about three centuries of French domination in which Norman French became the language of the upper classes. Old English, as the language of the lower classes shed many of its grammatical complexities and gradually incorporated words from French and became what is referred to as Middle English.

It is estimated that more than a third of English words owe their origin to the French language. One estimate places the number of French words incorporated in English at about 15,000, equivalent to the size of an educated person’s vocabulary. This also means that if an English speaker wished to learn French, about 15,000 French words would be familiar already.

There are a number of reasons people give for why one should study Latin. The most reasonable involve the concept that the best way to appreciate and recognize the structure of your own language is to study another language. This is in fact true, but this could be accomplished by studying French (my favorite path), or Spanish (more useful in this country). It would be a good thing if more people realized that the Spanish speakers, who seem to do most of the manual labor in this country, are actually speaking a much more complicated and sophisticated language than English. It would also be instructive for them to learn that one of the reasons English is so popular around the world is because of its grammatical simplicity.

There are other reasons proclaimed for an interest Latin, such as a desire to appear educated by being able to quote the language. So learn a few phrases and use them! And if you would rather be considered suave and sophisticated instead of pompous and boring, learn a few French phrases and use them.

It seems there has been an upsurge in interest in Latin since the Harry Potter series has become popular. I won’t even comment on that.

So my conclusion is that if you want to learn about language in general, and English in particular, why not pick one of the romance languages. You will learn the same things you would gain from studying Latin, and you would have a working knowledge of a live language.

A disclaimer: I was forced to study Latin (or at least attend Latin classes) for four years in high school. That had no effect whatsoever on my current opinions or outlooks.

1 comment:

  1. you are very lucky,its beautiful language most of us never had a chance to study it.
    Someone once said the same thing to me about shakespeare, that his works were not of use in todays society, and why would you want to study some work from fithteen hundred employers dont ask for it. so I took sewing instead.


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