“Nescire autem quid antequam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum.

(To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.)” ― Marcus Tullius Cicero

To learn ancient languages such as ancient Greek or Latin is often viewed as only reserved to students going to the best schools, often in the private sector and rarely state-run schools. And to many learning Latin, an extinct and seemingly useless language is just a waste of time and energy. However, studying the Greco-Roman world gives you the tools to understand the state of Europe today. Knowing the history of the continent from its antic period and studying the Roman civilisation will give you a great insight into how our culture, language and country emerged.

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is covered in Latin, which remain the official language of the Church still to this day.
Today, still 10,000 students take Latin for their GSCEs. However, following budget cuts, some schools that have been teaching Latin for many years have found themselves incapable of continuing those classes. Some scholars and academics justifiably fear that Latin will slowly stop being taught in school and emphasise its importance in English, even though the language spoken in the United Kingdom isn't a Romance language. So Superprof will outline why you should learn Latin.

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Studying Latin To Understand Europe

It on the banks of the Tiber River, in the region of the Latium in Central Italy, that the first traces of Latin appears, in the city of Rome.

  • Linguist divided Latin into three eras:
  • Archaic Latin, spoken until 100BC
  • Classical Latin, spoken in Rome during the apogee of the Empire
  • Vulgar Latin, spoken by the common people of the Roman Empire and often mixed with the dialects spoken in the newly conquered territories.

Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, used for the administration of the Provinces, in the justice system and in the army of the Empire. Classical Latin spread all across the Mediterranean basin during the 3rd century BC. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire during the 5th century AD, Latin had already been adopted as the primary language of many of the indigenous people the Romans had conquered. Through Vulgar Latin, the language kept spreading and new idioms appeared. Yet, in the British Isles, far from the central power of Italy, the influence of Latin perished and the lingua franca (common language) became the Old English which was derived from the Germanic languages the Anglo-Saxon invaders brought with them on the island. Despite the apparition of the Romance Languages and English, Latin remained the language used by scholars and academics. Science, philosophy and literature were written in Latin up until the middle of the 15th century. According to the University of Nottingham's team of Manuscripts and Special Collections:

"English was slow to take over as the language of government, law and bureaucracy, despite the fact that by a law passed in 1362 all legal pleadings had to be in English. [...] Rentals and accounts from landed estates are rare in English before the beginning of the sixteenth century. Most title deeds were also written in Latin until the sixteenth century and even later, although many fifteenth-century examples in English exist. However, since Latin was not a living, spoken language, the scribes sometimes struggled to find suitable words and phrases to use. They often resorted to inserting English words where necessary, for instance, a person's occupation in a title deed, or a description of a particular item in an inventory which could not be accurately identified using a Latin word. Latin continued to be used as the language of some deeds and legal documents until the early eighteenth century. By Act of Parliament, 'Use of English Language in the Law Courts made Obligatory', 4 George II, c.26, 1731, it was enacted that English should be used to record all official information from 25 March 1733."

When learning Latin you will not only gain an insight into the Roman civilisation, through writers and philosophers such as Cicero, Ovid or Pliny the Elder, you will also be able to understand the movement of the Renaissance which matched with the rise of sciences and reason. Even Isaac Newton wrote all his work in Latin! Do you know the origins of Latin?

Isaac Newton's statue.
This statue of Isaac Newton represents the scientist holding his most famous work "principia mathematica" which he wrote in Latin. ( by Dimitris Graffin)

Learn Latin To Master English

It might feel counter-intuitive to learn a dead language to improve your English skills. However, due to the Roman colonisation that was followed by the invasion of the Normans from France (William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings in 1066 and installed a French-speaking court in London), English vocabulary is made up of at least 60% of Latin or Latin-derived words. Just have a look at these words you probably use every day: Alibi: this thing you desperately might need if you are suspected of some shenanigans, alibi just means "elsewhere" in Latin. And if you were elsewhere, how could you have stolen the cookies? Agenda: from the Latin verb "agere" meaning to act, agenda is used to describe a list of items that might be discussed during a meeting, a plan of actions to be done or the ulterior motives of a particular person. Ego: what today describes one's self-esteem simply meant "I" (first person singular pronoun). Acumen: the noun describing someone's quick perception and sharp spirit comes from the Latin word meaning "sharp point". Maximum and minimum: the Latin words meaning "the biggest" and the "smallest". Quid pro quo: the phrase means "taking something for something else", the term was originally used by apothecaries when they would substitute an ingredient for another. Today it is mostly used to describe an exchange of service "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine". Gratis: meaning kindness in Latin, this word is used in English as free of charge, at no cost. Ultimatum: from the Latin word for "final" (ultimus), it is used to describe a requirement demanded by one party to another, often as a threat of retaliation or war. Veto: meaning "I forbid" in Latin, this right, often political, is used to stop the process of a decision such as the signature of a new law. In the U.K., the Queen can veto any bills that affect the Royal Prerogative of properties. It is the Royal Consent. Vice versa: the Latin phrase for "the position having been reversed" is used in English to describe a situation in which two things or people have been reversed. Via: this Latin word simply means "road" but is mostly used today to say "by way of" or "passing through". Visa: in Latin, the expression was used to describe a document that had been verified "charta visa - a paper that has been seen". Today it is a permit that allows you to enter a foreign country and that will be "seen" by the border authority. Video: literally "I see" in Latin, the word is used in English to describe any film, short clip or an old VHS cassette. Knowing the Latin origin of English words will help you improve your spelling and orthography. Check out some online Latin course here on Superprof.

English dictionnaries are full of Latin words.
At least 29% of all English words come from Latin.

Learn Latin To Ace All Exams

If you are going to learn any of the Romance language: Spanish, French, Italian or even Romanian, Latin will be greatly helpful. Italian and Romanian remained particularly close to the vulgar Latin that was spoken at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. Italian shares 89% of its vocabulary with the Roman languages.

Improve your grades

"Why learning a dead language would help me in my studies", you may ask? Well, some studies have shown that students that learned Latin in school had overall better results in all the other subjects they studied. In the U.S., SATs (the equivalent of our A-levels) results, show that on average, students that learned Latin in school ended up with a better global SAT score. That may be due to the fact that learning a language, any language, increase the cognitive skills of the learner. The brains become more "flexible" as it constantly translates what you see, hear and sometimes say, in the other language(s) you are fluent in. And if you are studying any scientific subject, from mathematics to biology, Latin will certainly give you an extra edge. 90% of all English scientific words come from Latin.

What about your future career?

While learning Latin remained mandatory for doctors and lawyer up until the 20th century, you will not necessarily have to take Latin classes if you are going to medical or law school. However many universities will look favourably at your application if you aced your A-level in Latin. It will show a broader interest in the world and a real knack for learning languages. If you're aiming for a Bachelor of Science it will be even better. Carruthlatin.com is a great website, with an abundant amount of resource to learn Latin but they also summed up a few jobs where Latin will come in handy:

    • Computer Science: CS, engineering, etc., especially jobs that require programming knowledge, are excellent career paths for people who have studied Latin. Why? Because Latin gives you a great understanding of ANY language, and computer programming uses its own set of languages whose rules are a lot easier to understand with a Latin background!
    • Medicine: A background in Latin makes a lot of medical terminologies a lot easier, and tells medical schools that you are serious about academics and not afraid of memorization.
    • Law: Law schools love to get applications from classicists - success in the study of Latin proves that you have a mind capable of learning and using the kind of detail you will be required to deal with as a lawyer. It doesn't hurt to already know all those Latin terms, either!
    • Education: Like Mr Carruth, you too could end up teaching - and not just Latin; a Classical education helps prepare you for English, history/social studies, geography, and is a great basis for starting other languages.

Find a Latin tutor here.

Cambridge University college court.
The University of Cambridge in England is one of the oldest one in the world and has been teaching Latin since it was founded. (by Scudamore's Punting Cambridge)

To sum things up, Latin will allow you:

  • To improve your general trivia
  • To learn about the Roman civilisation, the cornerstone of Europe's culture
  • To improve your English
  • To improve your grades
  • To make it easier to learn other European languages
  • To sharpen your mind
  • To access your dream university. Why not Oxford or Cambridge?

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