Why Latin? You’re asking the wrong question

I have noticed the question Why Latin? being asked a lot on social media lately and there are plenty of good answers out there. However, I put it to you that the wrong question is being asked. Since the people asking it are usually already engaged with Latin in some way or another, either as pupils, parents of pupils, school employees, politicians, people who were forced to study it and hated it, people who didn’t have the opportunity of studying it and hate that, they have an agenda in asking the question. The agenda may be to wind up the teacher, sound precocious to the rest of the class, squeeze more diversity into the busy school timetable, find funding for other worthy causes, just to be contrary. Occasionally the asker may even be asking with a sincere desire to know the thoughts of the person they are asking. It should be noted, in any case, that most of those askers already have a fair idea of the sorts of things their interlocutor might say.

This is why I am about to propose a radical new approach based on my experiences of chatting to people. Now, I like to chat to people — all sorts of people — and being a teacher I regularly get asked what I teach. I do not shy away from saying that I teach Latin and Classical Civilisations and I am not surprised when the reaction is a puzzled face. The follow up question is often, What’s that then? And I have to say, I far prefer this reaction to either of the other frequently reported reactions — ‘Urgh! I hated Latin’ and the rather happier exclamation of ‘Caecilius est in horto!’.

The reason I far prefer this question is because the answer comes easily. Latin is the language spoken by the ancient Romans, and in which they wrote poetry, history, love letters, shopping lists, graffiti, business letters, plays, death sentences, school lessons; it became the European language of religion, politics, science, law, medicine, philosophy, everything in any way academic — as well as plenty of things mundane; its literary output informed a huge amount of what we today consider important literature; in its spoken form it became French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. I could go on, but I have some self awareness and I don’t like to be too dull to friendly strangers who have consented to chat to me. I might sometimes pad my answer out, for the sake of sounding a little more down with the kids, with interesting facts about films like Gladiator or Harry Potter.

In any case, the next question is never Why study that then? Now, I hope this is not because they would prefer that I stop talking. In fact, I like to think it’s because that answer is obvious. All the other points about it being helpful in learning grammar, syntax, and so on become less immediately significant, though of course still entirely valid and appropriate. Depending on whom I am burbling on to I sometimes even add these points in myself, though if the person has never heard of Latin, I would probably leave out the word syntax.

And so to my conclusion! The next time you get asked Why Latin? change the question and answer instead What is Latin? I’d love to know how this goes down. Perhaps you have even tried this already — please let me know in the comments below.

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