A Very False Assumption

Latin was once seen as the model for logical thought, even Logic itself, and some teachers still cite this argument as a reason for studying Latin. Nothing could be further from the truth, since all languages contain an inner logic of their own, which responds to the specific needs of the society. But the diversity of language types is absolutely enormous, and since the development of American Structural Linguistics in the early years of this century, it has become obvious that there is no central "Logic" to language as such. This is in no way an argument against the study of Latin, but rather a plea to put things into a proper and rational perspective.

The study of Latin does confer certain benefits. First, Latinate vocabulary is very important in English, it is widely used both in literary contexts and in modern scientific nomenclature, to the extent that a person with a good knowledge of Latin automatically has an extended English vocabulary. Greek along with Latin is the basis for virtually all English scientific terms, both languages have been used for scientific vocabulary for centuries and dozens of new terms which are being coined from Greek and Latin roots every year. Behind this lies the need for standardization in a world which employs many languages. Since the Classical languages claimed universality for hundreds of years, their use has been accepted throughout the world as the basis for a standard scientific vocabulary. A Japanese doctor will be able to write out a diagnosis in basic Greco-Latin nomenclature, whether he speaks a Western language with his patients or not. A student who has studied Latin and/or Greek finds the terminology to be learned in Medical School much more understandable.

From another point of view, the study of Latin does foster precision in the use of words. Since one reads Latin closely and carefully, often word by word, this focuses the student's mind on individual words and their usage. It has been noticed that people who have studied Latin in school usually write quite good English prose. There may be a certain amount of stylistic imitation involved, but more important is the habit of reading closely and following important texts with accuracy. This makes one focus on individual words, which fast readers in their native language never really have to do. This closeness of inspection in reading Latin provides a model for careful reading and writing of English.

But the myth of Latin as LOGIC dies hard. In the 16th c. a Spaniard named Sanchez (Latinized to Sanctius) published a book titled "Minerva; or the Reasons of the Latin Language", which proclaimed Latin as the right way to think. It pleased the academic public and went through dozens of editions for over two hundred years. Much in the same vein, educated Christian missionaries in the 19 th. c., working in every far corner of the world, wrote "grammars" of the languages they encountered, as preface to translating and spreading the word of the Bible They dutifully described Hawaiian and Tagalog in terms of the Latin categories of the parts of speech, believing this was the only way to go about things. Their grammars are worthless, it all had to be done over again, after Sapir and the American Ethnological Series in the early part of the 20 th c. paved the way for a scientific study of structure. Their error was trusting what they had learned in school: The Logic of Latin.

Never think that things said in Latin are better for being in Latin. Latin quotations often seem to have a prestigious ring, authors will sometimes try to turn an English phrase into Latin to give it prestige. Such efforts generally fail, they are either funny or un-understandable, simply because the Romans thought in different ways. It is really the difference in ways of speaking and thinking which makes a foreign language worth studying.

This is of course different from the study of language as giving access to the art of writing. Artistic content and artistic technique are like diamonds, which in different ages may be put in different jewelry settings. But they are always diamonds.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College