Why we should all learn Latin

Posted on August 11, 2010

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I was watching Domesday last night on BBC2, a programme about the massive state-of-the-nation census commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086 in order to (depending on your viewpoint) create a great national database for the 11th century equivalent of the Inland Revenue or to assert his kingly power in a landgrab backed up by some fairly impressive paperwork.

What I took out of the programme, however, wasn’t a greater historical knowledge or a thirst to learn more about the Domesday Book (Dr Stephen Baxter, host of the programme, and almost all of his interviewees dropped the preposition, calling it only “Domesday Book” for some reason, but that’s jarring). I realised that I’m really glad I learned Latin when I was younger.

The camera panned across page after page of tightly-packed script in dog Latin – all abbreviations and accents to signify why one identical-looking word was different to another – and I understood it. I could see “villani” written nearly a millennium ago, and I could understand what it meant, and why it was in the case it was. I was grammatically unpacking this great tome, word by word even though the video was probably only meant as some rather pretty b-roll, a backdrop for the voiceover which was telling you what you really were meant to know.

It happens everywhere. In Liverpool, looking out from the grounds of the Catholic cathedral (a mid-twentieth-century impersonation of Space Mountain) there is a building viewable from the great platform the church sits on, which has at its peak a Latin inscription running around the building in a tickertape band like an Ur-Times Square stockmarket ticker. I could understand that, and translate. It’s a good feeling.

There’s not only the joy of being able to decipher when a building was built, and who it was built for, though. It proves actually useful in everyday life and in helping to understand English. “Was” and “were” and “is” and “are” are often difficult ones to get right. Scores of people remember with trepidation their English lessons when a disinterested teacher tried to drum into disinterested pupils the right occasion to use each different version of what are pretty much the same word. It still sends a chill down some people’s spines when they have to use the correct form in polite conversation; in day-to-day chats, you can see that people plainly don’t know the difference.

It’s a joy, too, to be able to read Ovid and Virgil and all the great authors of classical Rome in their original Latin, not watered down by a translators voice and mind. It makes them all the more alive and pertinent, and backs up Ovid’s cocky assertion that “ergo, cum silices cum dens patientis aratri, carmina morte carent.” Those of you who know how to decline and conjugate your Latin will be able to translate that. Despite doing down the qualities of translation, I’ll provide an English version at the bottom.*

Roman numerals! People don’t know their X from their VI nowadays. I do. I know what it means when the Vatican crows “Habemus Papam!”, and I know what RIP stands for in its original Latin.

It’s not just English graduates and people who like to be annoying and quote Latin poetry that a passing knowledge of Roman patois proves useful for. Doctors write indecipherably on prescriptions in a kind of chicken scratch, but the actual words of what they’re writing are equally impenetrable unless you know your Latin (and a bit of Greek too, but we’ll not get into that. I never could get the hang of the different alphabet).

Learn Latin, then, and prosper. And get distracted by the text on documentaries.

* Therefore, while the rocks and the hard ploughshare will wilt and die, poetry lives on.

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