Latin for the masses

A few days ago at a meeting, someone handed me a note which read, inter alia, ‘this must be done ab inissio.’ Somehow this stumped me, and it took me a minute or so to realise that the writer was talking Latin, and that what he had wanted to say was ‘ab initio’. Welcome, then, to what’s left of the world of Latin.

In fact, Latin was after 2000 or more years condemned to death when the Roman Catholic church decided to celebrate the Mass in the vernacular. With the few other bodies that had required Latin all abandoning the language by the late 20th century, it was clear enough that the language could not realistically continue to prosper.

In fact, by the 1980s it was pretty much gone. I still belonged to a generation that had to learn Latin at school. By the age of 10 I could speak Latin fluently, in the sense that I could string together words that would convey a clear meaning – even if I, like most others, had no absolute idea what the Latin of ancient Rome sounded like, phonetically.

I am not normally given to traditionalist nostalgia, but it is my firm view that the removal of Latin from the syllabus of schools and other educational establishments was a mistake. Young people no longer have this tool that would help them to understand the origin of words and the structure of grammar. There is  very little else, and certainly nothing more modern, that would have the same beneficial effect.

I doubt I could persuade anyone to mount the barricades with me in support of Latin. But I regret that. I hope someone will see sense and restore Latin. Tam celerrime.

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11 Comments on “Latin for the masses”

  1. Ultan Says:

    I, too, think it is a shame. However, I think it could be restored. The book “Amo, Amas, Amat…” was a big seller, and “brainy” celebs like Stephen Fry givce the language a certain cachet.

    Certainly, a campaign to replace Irish with Latin on the school curriculum would have no problem attracting large support. Universities could take a lead by putting on community Latin for Beginners classes in the evenings, etc.

    All is not lost though, and I see large numbers of people attending Latin mass at a local RC Church on a daily basis. There’s even a web site!

  2. Isabelle Says:

    Both Latin and Irish are classical languages, full of grammar, full of rules and with few exceptions, and they lay an excellent foundation for the study of other languages. When I learnt Swahili, Kikuyu and Japanese, they were the only languages I could draw on for the purposes of comparison.

    I am rather sorry that the EU did not choose Latin as a common language of communication between us all — now we have 23 languages to contend with, when we could have had just one!

  3. The argument that Latin helps one “to understand the origin of words and the structure of grammar” is slightly misguided, in my opinion. It is not completely false, but the same could be said about most other European languages, ancient or modern. Most mainstream European languages are largely similar to one another due to extensive contact and borrowing (hence the notion of Standard Average European). So it doesn’t really matter which one you learn first, the subsequent ones will almost always be easier. French is easier to learn if you already speak Latin, and Latin is easier to learn if you already speak French.

    In fact, if you’re looking for a language to teach as a tool for building language awarness and sensitivity to linguistic structures, then you should choose Esperanto. Like Latin, Esperanto has strong parallels with many European languages (mainly of the Romance variety) but has the added advantage of being very easy to learn. I hear it is being used for exactly this purpose in an experimental project in schools in England right now, but I can’t find the reference.

    (Displaimer: I have no vested interest in promoting Esperanto. I don’t even speak Esperanto.)

  4. universitydiary Says:

    Latin is a better basis for learning French than vice-versa – in part because French (like Spanish and Italian and Romanian and Portuguese and – to a lesser extent – English) is derived from Latin. Also, the Latin rules of grammar are much more consistent than those of any of these other languages.

    I don’t know much – or even anything if I’m honest – about Esperanto. But it’s been around for a long time and simply hasn’t taken off. Latin would be a more logical; choice. But if we’re honest, the world’s lingua franca is going to be English.

  5. In addition to my previous comment: the English experimental project is called Springboard to Languages. And then Wikipedia has some more information about the propaedeutic value of Esperanto.

  6. Ultan Says:

    This topic seems to be generated some interest here but also on a cross-reference over on Blogos:

    Perhaps a revival could be closer than we think…:)

  7. Ellie Clewlow Says:

    Further to Luigi’s point about recent press debate in England, is the argument really about Latin or about the nature of the English language? You may already have seen an interesting contribution to the debate from Mary Beard in The Times ( in which she argues that English has over time assimilated words from a whole range of languages. It is therefore misguided to attempt to cleanse English of one particular influence – you don’t, for example, see Bournemouth Council arguing for the removal of words of Norse or Norman origin….

    The argument then becomes one of clarity of communication – Latin or not, do people understand what is being said to them? I would argue that much of the problem here doesn’t derive from phrases of latin origin that have been in common usage for a few centuries, but rather the jargon that pervades much official public discourse….’massification’ of higher education anyone?

  8. F Bruynseels Says:

    Shouldn’t that be:

    I still belonged to a generation that had had to learn Latin at school.

    rather than

    I still belonged to a generation that had to learn Latin at school.

  9. universitydiary Says:

    True enough. Actually, though, it was a typo: I had meant to write ‘I still belong…’

  10. Evan Millner Says:

    You might be heartened to hear about Latinum, a latin language teaching podcast, that makes a complete three year advanced course in Latin available at no cost, worldwide. Since going online in 2007, approaching 3 million audio files have been downloaded from the podcast, and there are a handful of thousands of regular students following along with the course. Students using Latinum, will actually be able to speak and write in reasonably good Latin. To help them with this, a social networking site called schola was set up, which has a latin language chatroom
    There is now a daily Latin new bulletin in audio – there is a link to it on the schola pages, in addition to radio Finland’s weekly online offering. The internet is helping Latin stay vibrant. In addition, google books has given the language a huge boost, by making scores of thousands of Latin texts available as pdf files, opening up the entire corpus of Western Culture and Civilisation to the casual reader – thus giving Latin a huge boost.

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