A minore ad maius: the importance of Latin in the 21st century

A+torch+representing+the+Latin+language.+The+regenerative+power+of+flames+symbolizes+truth%2C+life%E2%80%93the+part+of+Latin+that+lives+on+forever.+The+smoke+radiates+outwards+and+dissipates%2C+symbolizing+the+%22dead%22+aspect+of+Latin%2C+one+that+isn%27t+spoken+anymore+or+included+directly+in+vernacular+literature.

Lauren Liu

A torch representing the Latin language. The regenerative power of flames symbolizes truth, life–the part of Latin that lives on forever. The smoke radiates outwards and dissipates, symbolizing the "dead" aspect of Latin, one that isn't spoken anymore or included directly in vernacular literature.

by Lauren Liu, Reporter

Towards the end of fifth grade, my mother handed me a manila clasp envelope. Inside were two sheets of paper. One for electives. The other, for language. As much as my dad emphasized taking a “useful language” spoken by those still alive, being the dissentient fifth grader I was, I marked Latin as my first choice.

I wasn’t aware of the journey ahead of me, obstructed with remarks from people who passive-aggressively questioned: “Why do you take a dead language?” These questions intensified in eighth grade when the other languages’ students took a field trip to their culture’s cuisine, but Latin students, who obviously couldn’t travel back in time and taste the Romans’ garum or mulsum, remained on campus

Let’s first address the common misconception that Latin is a dead language spoken by ancient Europeans 2,000 years ago, holding no relevance whatsoever to the 21st century. There’s even an old poem that expresses this point of view:

“Latin is a language

as dead as dead can be.

First it killed the Romans,

and now it’s killing me.”

Though I do love the rhyme scheme, it’s simply not true. The reality is that Latin never died. It never came to a crashing, tragic end with the death of a single, unfortunate leader. Rather, it evolved gradually over time into other languages. And one of those languages is what you’re reading right now: English.

In fact, since about two-thirds of English words are derived from Latin, studying Latin provides priceless insights into the structure and meaning of English words, and as a result, it enhances your vocabulary and understanding of grammar.

For instance, let’s say you don’t know the meaning of the word “conflagration.” A Latin student would know that it comes from the words con and flagare meaning “with” and “to blaze” and then deduce that “conflagration” has something to do with a large fire. An integral part of this highly logical language is a keen attention to detail, which in the long run, sharpens the mind and develops critical thinking.

Latin is also the universal language of western culture. It’s a blueprint for the Romance languages (exempli gratia Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese et cetera), so learning Latin expedites the process of learning other languages. Although Latin students will never have the opportunity to cook traditional Latin meals during class or watch a TV show filmed 2,000 years ago, we have equally valuable opportunities. 

Now let’s be completely honest. Latin isn’t the determining factor for anyone’s success or self-worth. Employers and graduate school admission officers won’t be looking specifically for people who know how to conjugate a Latin verb in the imperfect subjunctive or translate the books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses flawlessly or rattle on about the accomplishments of the five good emperors. 

They will, however, be looking for individuals who know how to think logically, learn quickly, and solve problems in innovative ways. In other words (i.e. or id est), they’ll be looking for people who know the fundamentals, fundamentals which we can cultivate by learning Latin.