Is Latin a Dead Language?

Is Latin a Dead Language?

Jane Naylor, Staff Writer

In fifth grade, Scituate students choose a foreign language to study in middle school. Many students continue to study this language through high school. Given the option to learn Spanish, French, Latin, or Mandarin, among Scituate students, Latin is the least popular choice. SHS Classics/Latin teacher, Peter Blanindo, explained there are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the United States, making up 13% of the population, which understandably prompts many American students to take Spanish. Blandino said, “It is only by unconscious chauvinism that we call Spanish a ‘foreign” language,’ because more than 13% of the United States population consists of native Spanish speakers, which is more than in Spain!”

This year, due to Blandino’s current leave of absence from teaching, SHS Latin students are being taught through an online forum. Moreover, Latin 4 is no longer offered. With a decrease of American students taking Latin since the 1960s and no more present-day native Latin speakers, it raises the question that has been pending for years: Is Latin a “dead” language? 

 Blandino does not agree with those who believe Latin is a “dead” language, as he says the language is still “read and enjoyed by millions of people.” He points out that “by analogy, if Latin is a dead language, then the study of history could be called ‘dead current events,’ and Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Beowulf  ‘dead English.’” These subjects are still studied and they are important to learn and understand today. 

Furthermore, retired SHS foreign language department chair, Patricia Jacquart, who also taught Latin at SHS, mentioned that 75% of the sophisticated English words are derived from Latin, and half of English vocabulary is made up of Latin verbs and roots. She explained the immense  advantages that go along with learning Latin, including how it “effectively develops and changes the mind, training its discipline, attention to detail, accuracy, and precision through honest work.” According to Jacquart, learning Latin is especially important for those students hoping to go into the medical field–as Latin root words go hand in hand with medical vocabulary and modern sciences. 

Jacquart says Latin is so much more than just a language. The influence it has on art, architecture, the law, government, the finest pieces of literature, and theology is so rich. When she taught at SHS, Jacquart recalled an assignment she gave to her students: to find places or times in other areas of their life when they recognized something relating to Latin. One student noticed a “Veritas Roofing” sign on Old Oaken Bucket Road in Scituate. “Veritas,” which can also found in the Harvard University official seal, means “truth.” That one assignment doesn’t even begin to capture how much Latin occurs in daily life. For example, Jacquart said Latin speakers were more apt to understand what “quid pro quo” meant when the Trump impeachment trials began. Similarly, the phrase “carpe diem,” which means “seize the day” is used often in daily conversation. 

Finally, when asked whether Latin is a dead language, Jacquart responded, “Latin is not dead–it is immortal.” She went on to explain that Latin will always be with us, even if students don’t learn about it in school. 

Blandino thinks this question is part of a larger debate about whether public education should be predominantly taught in a  “humanistic or utilitarian” way. He proposed the question, “Should we produce cultivated, well-rounded, philosophical souls or professionals with specialized skills of immediate use to the global economy and national interests?”

Blandino noted the role of Latin was more prevalent in education until the Cold War period in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union launched the first manmade satellite, Sputnik, and sent it into orbit. Blandino added that the government “feared Americans were falling behind in math and science, as well as other disciplines deemed useful to the military, including foreign languages.” In 1958 when the National Education Defense Act was passed, it excluded Latin and Greek from “grants provided to modern language programs,” explained Blandino.

Coleman Smith is a sophomore at Holy Cross studying Classics and Political Science. Smith graduated from Roxbury Latin High School in 2019. As a freshman at Roxbury Latin, it was mandatory to take Latin along with a choice between French or Spanish. Coleman said, “[he] thought Latin would be useless and that [he] would quit after [he] had completed [his] required two years, but now [he] is really grateful that the decision was made for [him].” When asked if he thought Latin was worth learning, Smith replied, “It has been worth it for [him], but it probably comes down to personal preference.” He added that Latin helps students practice skills in vocabulary, grammar, memory, and logical reasoning. 

A popular assumption about taking Latin is its benefit to taking standardized tests such as the SAT/ACT. Smith agrees: “Studying Latin helped me understand English grammar much better, and it helped me in geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.” He recalled that those math courses were included on his SAT, along with an English grammar verbal section. Additionally, Jacquart agrees with Smith that previous knowledge of Latin would help on the SAT, not only because of  “the vocabulary but also thinking skills” that develop when learning Latin. 

Smith said Latin “already is a dead language in that there are no longer any native speakers,” and that it is not dying out and never will, due to the abundance of textbooks in schools, where even if it is not offered in certain districts, students would still be able to teach themselves. 

Freshman at Haverford College and SHS 2020 graduate, Michael O’Connell, took Latin from 7th grade through high school, and noticed how his class size “went roughly from 30 to 3.” O’Connell claimed taking Latin helped him with writing and English classes in general for two reasons: “first reading old translations exposed me to a wider range of vocabulary than I would have otherwise been exposed to, and secondly translation helped tune and maintain my skills in grammar.” 

If Latin is no longer taught, O’Connell said, “It would do a disservice to students to suspend the teaching of Latin, a language of central importance to study in areas of history or religion.” When asked if he believes Latin is a dead language, O’Connell remarked, “It is itself a dead language that lives through many others,” adding that “a good Latin student immediately has the skills to decipher many internationally significant languages like French and Spanish.” 

Latin’s deep roots and influence on language, literature, history, law, architecture, science, and the government is extremely prominent in daily life. Therefore, the answer to the question, “Is Latin becoming a dead language?” is no.