Christian Living

Why Study Latin?

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 09/10/2019

Latin, we’re told, is a dead language. No one speaks it. Why bother learning it?

Dead, huh? Ironically, the word for “dead” in Latin is mors, mortis, which is where we get the English words mortal, morbid, immortal, mortician, mortuary, post-mortem, rigor mortis, and mortgage (yes, mortgages can be killers). For such a “dead” language, it sure seems to be alive in the words we use today.

Recently, my wife gave a presentation to a classical homeschool community group on the importance of studying Latin—basically an apologetic for the Latin language and why teaching it to our students is valuable. I loved it so much that I snagged her notes (shhh…don’t tell) and have provided a snippet of it below.

Five Benefits of Studying Latin

#1: Latin is foundational.

Latin is one of the most influential languages in human history. Until the 1920s, Latin was required in schools. For 1,000 years, Latin was the language of educated people. Even the ancient Greek and Hebrew ideas were translated into Latin and handed down to us. Because of this, we find Latin words or derivatives in so many areas of study. In the sciences, we can understand the reason why more than one fungus is called fungi and more than one bacterium is called bacteria. Even some modern words in the field of science come from Latin, like “computer,” which comes from computo, which means to count or sum up.

With the knowledge of Latin, we can understand words commonly used in law like subpoena (under penalty) and habeas corpus (you shall have the body in court) or in government like veto (I forbid). In logic, we can understand logic terms like a priori (from what is before) or non-sequitur (it does not follow). Latin illuminates theology when we understand the Imago Dei and that the world was created ex nihilo. Latin is also the root of all the Romance languages, which are German, French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, and Spanish. With a command of Latin, these languages become easy to pick up.

#2: Latin grammar is straightforward.

Compared to other languages, Latin has a small number of grammar rules that explain the entire language’s usage. Other languages have countless irregularities, which make them difficult to master. It is doable to study Latin well because Latin is systematic, organized, and follows the rules.

#3: Latin helps us understand English and its correct usage.

English is a mix of English and Latin. So, 50% of our one-syllable English words are from Latin, and 90% of our two-to-five syllable words are from Latin. As I mentioned earlier, the Latin word for “death” is mors and mortis. From this one word comes rigor mortis, mortal, morbid, mortuary, post-mortem, mortify, and mortgage. A Latin-proficient reader who has never seen these English words would be able to discern the meaning from the Latin. Reading comprehension expands exponentially. In fact, SAT scores for those who study Latin are consistently higher in reading, writing, and overall scores when compared to those who study German, French, or Spanish.

Before studying Latin with my son, Nathan, I felt blocked in my understanding of the subjunctive mood. It was beyond my reach. Understanding the subjunctive mood in Latin helped me wrap my mind around it in English. I haven’t arrived, yet, but there’s hope. Latin clarifies our English grammar. English is so familiar to us, and the grammar rules are broken in common usage. In the recent movie The Greatest Showman, when we hear the song “This Is Me,” most people don’t even notice anything awry. That’s because English is an uninflected language. However, in studying an inflected language, like Latin, proper grammar is the only way it works. The hidden grammar rules that aren’t consistently followed in English come to full light in the study of Latin. The correct grammar would be “This Is I” instead of “This is me” since we must choose the nominative case in the predicate after a linking verb. Latin is consistent and can show us our errors in English. Just like Spider-Man has “spidey sense,” Latin can give us “language sense.”

#4: Latin frees us to discover the roots of our Western civilization in the original documents.

In our classical homeschool community, students read the Latin original writings of Caesar and Cicero. Even though not all their ideas are correct, they are the ideas that shaped our Western civilization. Reading in the original is the only way to fully appreciate the rhetorical skill of Cicero and understand Stoic ideals in the way the Romans understood them. In reading Caesar, we can appreciate the discipline and foresight of the Romans. Our students also read selections from the Aeneid, the Magna Carta, Newton’s laws, and Scripture. With the grammar and vocabulary memorized, translating these documents is possible.

#5: Latin benefits our souls by training our minds and bringing us joy.

We live in a world that is over-concerned with utility and efficiency. Even though I’ve shown Latin is both useful and efficient to learn, those two qualities won’t be enough to propel us to persevere. If we believe education is for life and not merely for a job, if we have a zeal for truth and not merely for checking boxes, and if we have a desire for excellence and not merely for squeaking by, then we won’t neglect our study of Latin. Learning Latin requires the skills of patience, precision, accuracy, and attention to detail. These habits of the mind are formational. If you’ve put in the hard work of translating a sentence that takes you on a journey of 14 different mental turns and finally come to the right answer, you can’t help but feel joyful! It’s akin to the feeling you get when you solve a difficult math problem. These soul benefits make Latin an essential element of an ideal curriculum.