Au Means…Gold?


I often address parents at schools that are trying to add Latin to their curriculum. At one meeting in particular, I was under the impression that there were several scientists and doctors in the room. As I extolled the benefits of Latin, I wondered how they were going to take my assertions that Latin would help someone who wanted to pursue medicine or the sciences.

In the end, it was a scientist and a doctor who were the most vocal opponents of Latin. Their concern was that the time could be better spent learning a modern language or something more “practical.” I made my case, and other parents also spoke out in favor of Latin.

Only after the meeting, when I had a chance to speak to the doctor personally, did I find out that he had been a Latin teacher himself!

Here lies exposed one root of opposition to Latin: adults who have used it as a stepping stone in the pursuit of their career (whether willingly or unwillingly) but do not recognize the fruits it bore for them. They have sacked the Troy of ignorance, and while rejoicing in the victory, they forgot that instead of assaulting the walls, they used a hollowed-out horse to get in—both valid ways, but one more astute than the other. The glorification of what is “practical” and the desire to be successful in college and in a career lead people to confuse the order of knowledge and the order of learning. Some things are more valuable to know than others but can only be learned after having mastered lesser things. It is obviously a higher level of knowledge to know how to cure the human body than it is to know how to decline mensa. But declining mensa should be learned first so that the pursuit of the higher knowledge will be made easier.

In our “research-based” world, some will want to see the results of studies that examine whether students have an easier time in the sciences after studying Latin. Such research is impossible since “ease” is not quantifiable. Every failed education reform in the past 100 years has been “research-based” (and a 2014 study by Makel and Plucker shows that fewer than .1% of education studies to date have been successfully replicated). So let’s take the Aristotelian approach and see if reason can defend this conclusion.

First, a child who has studied Latin to the point of translating the traditional introductory text De Bello Gallico, Caesar’s account of his campaigns during the Gallic Wars, will assuredly recognize the Latin terms for the main parts of the body. In the study of medicine, the battle of learning the scientific names for the body is already half over before it begins, since they come straight from the Latin. Femur is the Latin for “thigh,” cerebrum means “brain,” and scapula is “shoulder.” There are other terms that are easily deduced: Radius means “rod” or “staff,” thereby becoming the name for one of the bones in the forearm (which is used to hold a staff).

Thorax means “chest,” which gives us the term “thoracic” in “thoracic cavity.” “Dorsal” is derived from dorsum, meaning “back.” The student then has no memory work when learning the term “dorsal cavity.”

The scientific discipline in which Latin is most evident is chemistry. The abbreviations used in the periodic table are often taken from the Latin words for the elements. The abbreviation for lead (Pb) comes from the Latin word plumbum. Gold also gets its shortened form Au from its Latin parent, aurum. Students often confuse Au with Ag, but if they know that the Latin word for silver is argentum, they can always refer to those words to help recall which abbreviation to use.

While physics does not have many terms derived from Latin, key works are written in Latin. Newton’s seminal work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and Kepler’s Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae were both originally published in Latin. While a scientist probably would not make it his priority to read these works in the original Latin, it goes to show that many influential works have been written in Latin—and thus they affect our language by passing vocabulary on to us. It was Kepler who first used the term “inertia” in its scientific sense, taking it from the Latin term meaning “inactivity” or “laziness.” Newton would later modify the concept, and when his work was translated, “inertia” was brought into the English language.

Science and medicine by their very nature require a high degree of logical thought, since logical reasoning is what enables someone to deduce the cause of what he perceives. A doctor must be able to look at symptoms and find their root cause. It is not as simple as memorizing the manifestations of an illness. Multiple diseases can show the same symptoms. And one person could have multiple maladies at the same time, further complicating the diagnosis.

A scientist must look at phenomena in the world and seek to explain each with a coherent theory. This is often very difficult and has only gotten harder with technology that can more accurately measure natural events. For example, when Max Planck discovered his constant which proved that light had particle-like attributes, the results did not fit with the prevailing theories of the time. He had to be able to logically reason through what he saw in nature, even though it did not fit common conceptions.

The second reason Latin helps the future scientist is that by studying Latin, the student is forced to practice, time and time again, logical deduction. If the student is asked to translate the sentence Marcus gladio sanguineo Gallum occidit, he must first identify the declension (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th) that each noun belongs to and what gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) it is. Then, by examining the endings of the words, he must figure out what case (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative) and number (singular, plural) each noun is. He has to look carefully at the adjective sanguineo to determine its case, number, and gender. He has to identify the verb and deduce its conjugation, person, number, tense, voice, and mood. Then he has to piece it all together. However, forms like gladio are somewhat ambiguous. The reader cannot be sure outside of context whether it is dative singular or ablative singular. If it is in the dative, it is the indirect object; if in the ablative, then it is the means by which something is done. Only by looking at it in the context of the whole can he be sure that it is in the ablative. As you can see in the diagram below, there are many possible combinations but only one possible correct answer. After all of this identifying and examining of details, the student can finally come up with the correct translation: “Mark killed the Gaul with the bloody sword.”


Imagine doing that exercise multiple times every day for years. That develops critical thought. And it solidifies it to the extent that it becomes a habit. Then the doctor has the habit of asking, “Do you have any other symptoms?” and, “Could this perhaps be caused by allergies?” and the scientist inquires, “Does this correspond to what I saw in previous experiments?” and, “What does this mean?”

Again, this is unquantifiable. It cannot be measured. But it is logical. And even children understand it. I was recently at a homeschool convention where I was approached by a young girl. She asked if I could explain our Latin programs to her. We headed over to the table that displayed those books and she said, “I’m planning on being a horticulturalist, so I thought Latin would be a good place to start.”

Out of the mouths of babes ofttimes come gems.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2015 edition.

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