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Latin Makes a Comeback

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Thomas L. McDonald - published on 05/18/16

The Church may have mothballed much of its Latin, but in the secular world it’s become the third most studied language

“Which body parts are on your caput? A) manus, B) oculi, C) pedes, D) pectora

So you haven’t had a day of Latin instruction in your life, and you may be thinking this sample question from the National Latin Exam is impossible. In fact, you already know the answer.

Caput? That’s easy. Think of English. What happens in decapitation? You lose your head, literally. Ergo (Latin: therefore), caput is head.

What about the rest? Have you ever done something manually (manus)? Used a pair of binoculars (oculi)? Been a pedestrian (pedes)? Worked on your pecs (pectora)? Then you know four more words in Latin: hands, eyes, feet, chest.

And you’re on your way.

“Studying Latin benefits all students differently,” observes Kristie Joyce, a high-school Latin teacher in New Jersey. “As a Latin student (now teacher) myself, I saw improvement in, not only my vocabulary, but in my understanding of the English language as well. Learning all the grammatical rules (and there are many!) of Latin helped me to better understand the grammar and structure of English, which then made me a better writer and speaker. It also makes it much easier to ‘pick up’ other languages.”

The Church may have mothballed much of its Latin, but in the secular world — according to the American Classical League — it’s making a roaring comeback and is now, after Spanish and French, the third most studied language in America. The biggest problem it’s facing isn’t disinterest in a “dead” language or the mystifying ablative absolute, but finding enough Latin teachers for all the students who want to study it.

A Language of Faith

Latin and Catholicism go together like wine and cheese. Christianity sprang from Jewish roots but took hold in Roman soil, and those tensions are part of its richness. As the faith spread, Latin provided a unifying language of worship and discourse, and after it faded from common use, it provided a sacred idiom. It was a kind of sacramental. These were words set apart for holy use.

But it could also be a barrier to deeper understanding for many. The goal of the Vatican II Sacrosanctum Concilium was to liberalize the vernacular in order to improve comprehension for the faithful, not to banish the Latin entirely. Indeed, it explicitly states “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” as well as in the daily office. When the dust had settled from Council, however, you were about as likely to hear Klingon at Mass as you were to hear Latin. Thus our patrimony was lost, and only now is it fitfully being recaptured.

At the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in Missouri, the joyful Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles live lives steeped in Latin. Famous for their best-selling recordings of Latin chant, the sisters attend mass in the Extraordinary Form, say their office in Latin, and rumor has it that the Prioress, Mother Cecelia, evens keeps her schedule in Latin.

“Personally, I had discovered and begun to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form a few years before joining,” says Mother Cecelia, “so the little I knew, I picked up from the liturgy. In fact, I can say that it was at the first Mass I attended in this ancient liturgy that I fell in love with the language. It was particularly striking to me within the context of the chant and sacred polyphony I was hearing for the first time at Mass.

“Though I didn’t understand what the choir was singing, nor what the priest was intoning, there was no doubt in my mind that God certainly knew. It hit me at that Mass that that was the most important thing! The entire orientation and reverence of the old liturgy taught me that as well, without textbooks or teachers. As I continued attending this liturgy, the mysteriousness of the Latin language attracted me more and more, and I was drawn to begin some informal self study. I remember setting out to memorize the Our Father and Hail Mary in Latin not long after that first, truly life-changing experience.”

Novices come to the Priory with a wide range of experience in Latin. Some know almost none, while others can teach at advanced levels. Although the ability to learn varies from sister to sister, their immersion in the language means they start to pick it up quickly. Praying eight times a day, plus mass, adds up to about five hours of Latin per day. The sisters also tutor one another and study independently. As Mother observes, “Anyone is bound to pick it up rather quickly through sheer duration of exposure.”


Why Latin?

That exposure is growing in the secular world as well. The American Classical League/National Junior Classical League (ACL/NJCL) gave the first National Latin Exam to 7,000 students in 1978. In 2016, 154,000 sat for it, and the numbers keep climbing, with the largest growth coming from home-schooling families.

Designed to encourage the study of Latin and give students a sense of accomplishment, the Exam presents 40 questions at seven different levels of study from first-year students to those studying at the highest levels. Questions include not just grammar and vocabulary, but also mythology, English derivatives, and classical life, history and geography. The NLE awards gold and silver medals for excellence, and has given out $1 million in student loans over the years.

Some students are drawn to Latin to get an edge on the SATs, since there’s evidence it helps improve scores, but most are drawn to culture and the way Latin aids in understanding the very roots of language. Sixty percent of English, as well as huge portions of many other languages, is derived from Latin, so understanding Latin provides a solid foundation for future language study. Linda Montross, Co-Chair, ACL/NJCL National Latin Exam, adds that “students who study Latin are better writers, speakers, thinkers.”

At Thomas More College, students must take Latin or Greek for the first two years. The college’s chief Latinist, Fred Frasier, says it does more than just help with English composition. “As the students undergo the liberal arts curriculum, they encounter texts that move them deeply, but which are translated from Latin into English, or they develop an appreciation for Latin as a sacred language in the Roman Catholic Liturgy. In both of these cases, they realize that by knowing Latin they can deepen their sense of a text or of the liturgy. I regularly witness Latin strengthening the spiritual life of the students at Mass and in their private devotions. During Mass, especially a sung Mass, students participate more fully when they understand the Latin responses that they are making.”

Since Latin is a “dead” (that is, unchanging and largely unspoken) language, the focus is on reading rather than speaking. As Kristie Joyce points out, that means teachers “focus more on myth and stories. In my experience, students would much rather read ancient myths and stories and make connections to our world today, than learn how to introduce themselves and go to a cafe as they do in the ‘living’ language classes.”

Charlotte, a high school freshman and first year gold medalist, chose to study Latin “because of how beneficial it will be when trying to decipher seemingly gibberish words on standardized tests. Also, as a history nerd I like preserving old things, so it feels nice to contribute to keeping such an ancient language alive. I enjoy Latin for the interesting culture that comes with it, and the passages and letters written over a thousand years ago that I can now translate and understand. It opens a window into history.”

[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Is Latin Still Relevant?]

Thomas L. McDonald was a C-student in Latin, but at least his daughter is a gold medalist in the NLE.

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