Is Latin a dead language?

How many of you reading this have ever studied Latin? The number would be pretty low, no doubt. How many of you reading this have the opinion that Latin is useless and ‘dead’? The number would be pretty high. However, we still should value the Latin language as it has taught us so much in terms of language – accidence and syntax – as well as culture and politics.

Technically, Latin is a ‘dead’ language, as the meaning of thus is ‘when a language is no longer spoken by any natives’. While that is true, thousands of people can speak and write the language, so much so that there are podcasts and even novellas out there in Latin. Latin is still the official language of the Vatican City, the smallest country in the world and home of the Pope, though its dwellers opt out of speaking it.

Rome was one of the largest empires in the world and still to this day we base stories and films off its rich history. A part of a place’s culture and history is, indeed, the language. Thus, we cannot keep alive the Roman culture of wars and fighting, like in all those gladiator movies or Trojan horse films, without discussing the language itself.

For a lot of other languages, Latin is the basis of its foundation of grammar and structure. You will find endless connections between the common modern languages of Spanish, French, Italian and even German/English (Anglo- languages). When you start to etymologise words we use in everyday life, Latin stands at the foreground for a lot of them. For example, I came across the word ‘procrastinate’. For a while I wondered why the word ‘procrastinate’ means ‘to delay or postpone something; to put off doing something’ (says Google), and then I looked up its etymology. (For those who do not know, etymology is the history of a word or phrase shown by tracing its development and relationships.) ‘Pro-‘ in Latin is a common prefix relating to anything to do with ‘in front of’ or ‘before’, and ‘cras’ means ‘tomorrow’, so therefore the Latin verb ‘procrastinare’ means this exactly: to leave until tomorrow. When you start to look deeper into word roots and history, it becomes so clear how the English language, just as one example, contains so many words stemming from Latin, which is classed as a dead language by a lot of people. How is this a dead language?

I studied Latin alongside Spanish and German – something I highly recommend, taking Latin with a modern foreign language. I was able to make quick links between the languages, thus making translation easier and words were easier to break down. I prevailed in language studies purely, I like to think, from taking Latin with the modern languages for seven years.

I like to think I am fortunate to have studied this wonderful language, as not a lot of schools offer it, and it is a very hard language to teach yourself via the internet. With the passing of the request by parliament for state schools (as well as private schools) to teach Latin up to (and including) GCSE, I hope that more and more students begin to pick up the language again and appreciate its deep roots in our own society. Over 40 secondary schools in England will introduce Latin into their syllabus, in order to fight current ‘elitism’ between independent and state schools, as currently less than 3% of secondary schools and 49% of independent private schools teach the Latin language. Gavin Williamson, the English home education secretary, says that ‘Latin can bring so many benefits to young people’. The Cambridge Assessment states that in 2016 only 1.4% of all students taking GCSEs that year took Latin. Hardly anyone accepts the challenge of learning this extraordinarily rich subject, and even less are actually given the opportunity to do so.

Would you choose to learn it now? If your school offered the language when you were there, would you have taken it for GCSE or even A Level, like me? There is more to the language than just simply ‘language’. Next time you start to watch a gladiator movie or learn a new word, try and read about its history and you’ll surprise yourself 🙂

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