Sic transit

A little while 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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19 Comments on “Sic transit”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    Surely to understand the origin of words and the structure of grammar is not the only good reason to regret the loss of Latin…

  2. Polly Says:

    I think you might be surprised how many others would join you on that barricade. Even those like me who only had 2 years of Latin and have forgotten all of it (mind you, I can still spell ab initio. I mean for heaven’s sake, that’s a *thing* if you work in a university, even if you never did Latin). When I was studying it, in my mid-teens, it made a great deal about English suddenly click into place for me, and that I haven’t forgotten, so I’m very grateful for it.

    So, compulsory Latin it is, then!

  3. Vince Says:

    A few year ago I tried to get Latin Grammars from the library systems of Tipperary or Kilkenny, a 200,000+ person catchment. They both had them on the cards but no one knew where they were sited or shelved. I suspect most libraries are in a similar situation.
    A unique thing a lending library does that a book shop doesn’t is assuage loneliness since a book is the hinge of a community. So when you ring up and they cannot even remember where they’ve put the bloody things pretty much means there are more hens with teeth running about in the twin counties than Latin readers. Forgetting entirely about speakers.

  4. Niamh Says:

    I agree. So much so, that as Latin is still offered in my daughter’s school, I insisted that she took it. She protested, but is really enjoying it now, and thinking of taking it further. It’s really useful for her other languages and also very interesting.

  5. Lesley Says:

    I am ready for the barricades too – I studied latin to first year at university, both Roman and Medieval and have found them very useful. It is the basis of many European languages so makes understanding when you travel easier, it is still used in medical circles so a basic grounding is helpful, Pharmacy still uses Latin terms in prescribing, other sciences use Latin still for naming and in publications – et al, eg, ie, etc. Historians have need of it and so on … It is one of the foundation stones for so many of the other topics we still study today. I know the old saying is that Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be, it killed the ancient Romans and now is killing me!! But it is fundamental to so much of what happens today. As Ovid wrote ‘quae non prosunt singula multa iuvant.’

  6. J R Berg Says:

    You supply the tea and I’ll mount the barricades with you.

    I had to learn my Latin at university and have always wished that I had had an opportunity to do so as a child. Not out of some obscure sense of nostalgia or superiority (which unfortunately sometimes accompanies Latin training among children) but because I learned more about the English language in 2 years of Latin training than in 12 years of formal schooling – Ad fontes!


  7. I’m afraid that I’ll be charging the barricades. Although I quite enjoyed Latin as a kid, I thought it was useless. My 13 year old has never studied Latin and is a much better writer than I am. Better to teach greek philosophy and some formal logic, which is actually useful. Perhaps, this is why I seem to meet so many people who value something being said well over saying something that makes sense. (Flann O’Brien covered this well in “An Béal Bocht” – of course I didn’t read it in Irish – I’m only half educated) Style over content. Education has a long way to go.

  8. Christine Fremantle Says:

    I am with you. Latin is one of the foundation stones of European culture. But it has succumbed to the “dead white males” syndrome: it’s elitist and cultured and that is a death sentence. Sic transit, etc. (My I-pad will not allow “res ipse dixit” without a furious struggle onmy part. I-pad insists on “Res ITsec digit”….


  9. I do regret that I never learned Latin, but I always felt that the first national language fulfilled much of the same function. It taught me a difficult grammar and set of spelling rules that were wildly different from English, and grounded me in the history of language by teaching me to decipher the place names and landscape around me. Irish has one of the oldest codified grammars in Europe; its reach didn’t go as far as the Romans’ did, but it’s a grand, dignified, beautiful language with a lot to teach all the same.

  10. James Fryar Says:

    I too would charge that particular barricade. There will always be subjects we’d like our students to take. I personally think they should be doing philosophy, science history, and be leaving school able to write simple programs in Visual Basic. So, given limited time resources and teaching resources, I think it would be very difficult to justify the teaching of Latin over other subjects that, to be honest, would be significantly more useful to the students.

    The Irish education system does not have a good record in terms of languages. Even if Latin was a subject requirement, I’m not convinced our attempts to teach Latin would be any better than our attempts to teach Irish, French, German or Spanish where most students, after six years, have a relatively pathetic grasp. If Latin was an option I suspect only a tiny minority would take it (94 L.C. students in 2011 as an example). And of course, if there is no third-level entry requirement, then I think many students would opt out anyway.

    I’ve always found the use of Latin phrases to be irritating. On an ‘annoyance level’ I’d place it up there with letters beginning with ‘A chairde’ followed by English paragraphs. Often the reason for placing these phrases in a document has nothing to do with the actual content or legibility of the document – I suspect there are other much more personal reasons. And one cannot deny, particularly in academia, that Latin is used as a form of intellectual one-upmanship. It is often used to disguise weak arguments behind a flowery catch-all phrase. What difference in meaning is obtained by writing ‘from first principles’ or ‘from the beginning’ rather than ‘ab initio’?

    Finally, one could argue that all of our modern technology has its roots in flint tools. We could spend time teaching students how to make flint arrowheads and then, and only then, would they see what a major technical advancement the use of iron was. Do we really need to constantly reinforce and study the roots of modern subjects? Do we really need to understand Latin when we can look up the origin of words in a few microseconds on Google? I’d prefer that our subject choices for students look forward rather than backward.

    • Vince Says:

      The problem is they wouldn’t see the any good from the use of iron. Any knobhead on his own in an area of flint could make his way. But it would take many many many more man hours to pull iron from rock and into a tool. The advantage with iron is in the creation of society, not it’s relative advantage over flint.
      It’s somewhat similar with Latin. The error there is in the expectation that learning a language is about the use of it (And that’s the cock up with Gaelic where that’s precisely the goal) but in how it arranges the mind to view everything else.


      • So which will develop a child’s ability to think more critically, Latin or Philosophy? I know which my money’s on.

        • Vince Says:

          Philosophy, but whatever chance you’ve got with Latin you’ve none whatsoever selling philosophy.

          • Regina Says:

            Nil desperandum, Vince.
            You, of all people: primus inter pares!

            Some comments on this ad hoc debate:
            On leaving the alma mater, is the desire to learn the sine qua non? To carpe dieum ad nauseum, though tempus fugit et cetera?

            Inter alia, if a student is looking for bono fide advice on subject choice, I say mea culpa, caveat emptor!
            (i.e. will you get your money back if this subject doesn’t get you a job in saecula saeculorum?)

        • Al Says:

          In fairness, thinking critically will develop a child’s ability to think critically.
          Philosophy won’t prove to be the silver bullet….

      • James Fryar Says:

        Vince, and admittedly slightly off topic, I can’t agree with your neolithic views on iron! Iron was a major technological achievement primarily because it could be poured into moulds. This allowed our ancestors to produce more complicated patterns than could be achieved with flint alone. It led to mass production of things like the simple nail, to iron hammers and chisels that could be used to carve marble, and, from a practical standpoint, I’d much rather have an iron pry-bar when trying to adjust the position of hulking great slabs of rock than a flint one.

        Anyway, I fully agree that Latin is ‘worth’ studying and that we shouldn’t simply apply an approach to subjects that evaluates that ‘worth’ on some fuzzy metric of ‘usefulness’. But we still have a problem – every minute of every day we advance our knowledge, produce new works of art, and distort like, omg language (upward inflection). This means we have perpetually increasing choice of what we *should* be teaching our students. And we can’t teach them everything. Something has to give. For me, it’s difficult to argue for Latin and against Visual Basic or Java or C++ or Mandarin in the 21st century. And if you don’t argue against anything being taught, then when should we allow students out of school?

  11. Anna Notaro Says:

    To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original is a sublime luxury…I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having in my possession this rich source of delight.(Thomas Jefferson, January 27, 1800) And who are we to argue with Thomas Jefferson?🙂

    A few more good reasons to learn Latin from different disciplinary perspectives here: http://tinyurl.com/cn8jccw

    Sorry if this irritates anyone, but I cannot refrain from this quote: “Roma urbs aeterna; Latina lingua aeterna.” And Rome is still standing🙂

  12. Vince Says:

    Of course, was there always such a fixation we’d not have Italian Spanish and lots within French. Even as it stood, most of the gold and silver age Roman writers were not from the urbs but settlers from the outer limits. So drew their genius from a melange of linguistic sources. It was only later that the artistically sterility blanketed the empire and religious and artistic envelopment went beyond the frontier into Ireland, Ethiopia and Arabia.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      what you say about the melange of linguistic sources is very true Vince, Latin really was some kind of ‘lingua franca’ (sorry another Latinism!) across the Empire and contributed to its power and legacy..
      PS. As for the “dead white males” syndrome mentioned in one of the comments above it is always inaccurate to view history through the lenses of contemporary sensitivity…better concentrate our efforts on fixing the gender unbalance in the present, I would say!


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