LATIN........ Why study it at all?

There are lots of reasons for advising students to study Latin in the schools, all of them are sincere but the variety of messages is in a way bewildering. Let me run through a list of some of the standard views, in order to pave a path for a new view which I believe we have not sufficiently explored:

a)       Latin is exact and almost mathematical, it teaches you how to work. (Bad message, math and physics are better for discipline if that is really what you think education is.)

b)       We study Latin to read the great Classical Literature. (Question: Then why do most students and also schools drop Latin just before reading Vergil, the unique and most important author?)

c)       We are studying the culture, a window into another world. (Good, the anthropological approach uses archaeology heavily, but if this is the focus, then reading Latin texts becomes weak.....)

d)       Roman history is important as based on ancient documents and shows us things to do --- and also to avoid. (Wrong, we got ideas about slavery and killing "natives' from the Latin sources. Actual Roman History is pretty thin, not one Roman history book has survived entire, while most have been totally lost!)

e)       Latin is logical and teaches us how to think. (Totally wrong, an old idea from l600's and unfortunately still not deceased. No language is inherently "logical", each serves its society fairly well, and that is all you can say.)

f)       Latin gives students an excellent English vocabulary, since so many hard words are fabricated from Latin (and even more Greek) sources. (True, but you can learn English words by reading English widely. Still Latin students have generally high SAT scores, a fact.)


First we want to see what we can do to really benefit the beginning Latin student, before we advise to get into three or four years of hard work. Some of the above points are legitimate and some have seeds of truth. But aside from and above the study of Grammar and the exercises in reading and writing with selections of passages from Latin authors ---- there should be some overall "true value", beyond the fact that Latin teachers believe in their work and quite naturally want to proselytize to the young.

As a student learns Latin, there are several features of Latin grammar which are always confusing and often difficult to grasp . Insisting on translation into English, we slur over the differences between the structure of English and Latin. But these differences are very important, and can have real meaning to us in specific and factual ways. Let me explain:

If there are four major "areas of concern" in learning Latin, they are:

a)       The unnecessary Indirect Discourse system

b)       That questionable Subjunctive Mood

c)       Latin stylistics involving those "long Ciceronian sentences" with

d)       The absolutely impossible Ablative Absolute.

In each of these four areas English has a specific linguistic "lack" or lacuna, these are things which we do not use ourselves and hence are not quite clear about. Yet these were very clear, necessary and precise to more than a millennium of Roman speakers. Let us consider the usages of both English and the corresponding Latin comparatively to mark out some of the similarities and differences:

a)       The unnecessary Indirect Discourse system. Compare the English "He says that this is true..." with Latin "Ait hoc verum esse...". These are very different statements. The English has two segments: "He says....." and "this is true" with a connecting word ('that") balancing this verbal equation. In fact there is no need to use the connecting "that" at all, often you will say " He says it is true, which verges into Direct Quote: "He says 'It is true ' " So I may ask you: "Is it really true?" and you can answer "He says....(so)...." and if I am not suspicious I can take it has fact ('cause he says so).

Now the Latin is much more cautious, as befits a society obsessed with its legal profession. After "Ait..=....he says" the Roman strips the complex verbal form of its functions, and replaces it with the fixed infinitive form which lacks most of the grammatical detail. This is done for a reason, since that statement lacks authority, because it is secondary to what "He says.....".

First echelon of reliability (positive) "He says, he does speak...." Second level of reliability (pretty thin and schematic) "this to-be true" which is nothing more than "this ?? true (perhaps)". By separating the quoted message into a less precise clause of its own, we ensure that it is understood to be "second level information".

In law, for Romans and for us in court to this day, quoted statements are classed as Hearsay, not admissible in a legal proceeding. What somebody said is not taken as actual fact for a legal decision, and much evidence is thrown out of court on the basis of Hearsay. Also, note the "statements of fact" which we encounter all the time in the advertising world, things which we swallow gullibly on the basis of "He said so...". Look at medical advertising: "This doctor says (that) most doctors say (that) this is the most effective medicine for.....". Double jeopardy, and all on the basis of our lack of a Secondary Statement Precaution. This is an important lesson to watch, the variable train of fact and evidence, where Latin is more careful than our English.

b)       The disappearance of the Conditional or Subjunctive from English as a grammatical form doesn't mean that we are not aware of shades of reality and unreality. The Romans has this information fused into the various forms of the Subjunctive (bad name: "Under-joined" i.e. written lower on the blackboard). Often Latin teachers mention the disappearance of "reality forms' from English, e.g.. "if it be true..." replaced by the factual "is true", and "if it were...." (an old English subjunctive) long gone as archaic or bookish. So then English is the language of fact......!?

Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is that almost no attention has been given to the actual grammar of English on a secure linguistic basis, and we usually model English grammar on Latin grammar from the schools. This is far too complicated for me to try to address here, but let me refer you to the work of C. J. Bailey (linked at the bottom of this education page Index) which goes into these matters professionally:

My point is that once we really look at the ways of defining Irreality in Latin, we must go back to our English to find out exactly how we do it there. There should be some surprises on both the Latin and the English sides, which is to my mind exactly the sort of learning process which the study of Latin should elicit. If you check out Bailey's list of available publications, and read the description of the Modal Verbs in Grammar Series #1 (downloadable from above url), you will find the materials for evaluating the complex reality/irreality situations in English which the grammar books of English simply ignore.

At this point I would like to give short quotation on the verbs which express "irreality" in English which are called in English The Modal Verbs. (C J Bailey: Grammar Series I, l992, Appendix.). Irrealis is the term is what we use in English to equate with the Latin Subjunctive:

The English "modal verbs" are will, would, can, could, may, might, must, should, ought (to) and the now rare shall. The forms and grammatical usages of modal verbs differ in several important ways from those of non-modal verbs --- e.g. modals are uninflected -- as grammars are obligated to show in terms of an intelligible system,. Modal verbs express modal or unreal (irrealis) situations: those which are not yet existent, viz. futurative - - willed or forbidden, denied and so on. Modal need and dare convey modal overtones, viz. volitional force, advice or warning. Contrast needn't (and obsolescent daren't) with doesn't need to and doesn't dare to, and note the advisory vs. neutral thrust of the respective variants. Contrast negated modal needn't with doesn't before non-modal need . Another syntactic difference is that the modal takes a short infinitive (i.e. without to).

Tough sledding as this statement is, it covers accurately the use of the special English verbs which match the range of the Latin Subjunctives and several other Latin verbs as well. Nothing like Bailey's analysis is found in standard English grammar books, which still tend to describe English grammar in terms of the format and terminology of traditional Latin grammar. It is especially in the analysis of the "unreal" that English grammar differs so strongly from Latin usage.

c)       Latin stylistics uses series of Subordinate Clauses. while English, especially for Americans, has a tendency to use the run-on sentence style, "and.....and....and", which is not only stylistically unappealing, but it puts each segment of an argument on an equal footing. Students always find the Ciceronian sentence confusing, with its many sets of subordinate clauses. Many teachers explain this as a matter of rhetorical stylistics, which is in part true. But Latin writing does have a sense of hierarchical progress, one somewhat different from ours which puts the most important things first. In Latin the Point can be first or often last, but the organization of sub-clauses lays out materials which are subordinate in importance to the main thread of the sentence. There is a sensible logic to this, since most information does fall into classes from "most critical" down to the merely supportive or ancillary. This carefully organized "subordination" can be a useful tool in the interest of clarity..

Students can learn a great deal from these Latin structures, and can try some subordination in their English writing with good effect. The words "since, when, although........" are useful connectors to patch into secondary remarks and good classical English writers have always used subordination in a natural and easy-flowing way.

d)       And then there is the absolutely unfamiliar construction of the "Ablative Absolute". The Ablative Absolute is of course nothing but a mental "aside", a separate remark in virtual parentheses, which is so heavily encapsulated and condensed that is loses all the verbal details and relies of modifying participles to represent the absent verbs. Its encapsulation is so complete that is cannot connect with the subject of the basic sentence in which it is cemented, an oddity it would seem but quite logical. Once students have got beyond the basic level of writing clean English, they can experiment with an Ablative-Absolute offshoot, using short verb-less sentences, or incomplete statements lacking head or tail, and like the Latin Abl. Abs. injecting a compacted thought into the course of a paragraph. After all, can't style be a personal expression in prose, just as we allow it to function in unmetered, unrhymed poetry nowadays?


We stand at the end of a century long educational tradition, in which the study of Latin language and literature was once the mainstay. After l920 the old-fashioned and self-centered rigorousness of Latin study was largely eroded by the rise of the Deweyian social-study disciplines, and during the second half of this last century teachers have had to fight to keep Latin alive in the curricula. As our society continues to develop more and more interesting new disciplines, the study of Latin is bound to diminish further, despite our best efforts.

On the other hand, part of the loss has been our own fault. We have been overly traditional, using techniques for language study which have disappeared in the other languages a century ago. If there could be a simple and short listing of important directions to follow, I would put these on my own list without hesitation:

1)       Stop having students translate as soon as they can get the gist of phrases and sentences.

2)       Read everything out loud, not only because language is an acoustic process, but since sound reinforces memory admirably.

3)       Teach grammar out of authentic texts, not as a preparation for the reading of isolated lesson-sentences.

4)       And especially (this is the purpose of this paper) try to approach grammar as a subset of the society's preoccupations and culture, understanding that a peculiarity in Latin is not more peculiar than the considerable oddities of English grammar. This is a good time to update your understanding of English Grammar, a badly neglected area untouched by the breath of modern linguistic and cognitive science. As we learn more about the varied functions of the human brain, we are going to need a much deeper understanding of the structure of language qua language, and part of our research will be in a wide spread of distant and archaic language systems.

One of the hardest things to understand is a fully developed, still developing and multi-level language like our own English. Several decades ago a group of neural biologists confined its research to the nervous system of the lobster, which was large enough to examine and yet simple enough to understand. Now cognitive science researchers are studying the simpler systems of the lower crustaceans, again trying to get a grip on some complex functions which have defied comprehension. In just such a way, the study of ancient and long fossilized languages like Latin, Greek, Gothic and many others will provide better slides for the linguistic microscope than the fluid and constantly changing modern languages like English and Chinese. So we might well think of Latin study as an interesting and worthwhile brand of linguistic archaeology, and try to find new uses in a new world for these archaic and venerable materials.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College