Latin was the language of forgotten emperors, godly saints, and fiery church reformers. This language rose with the Roman army, lived on in the Church, and pervaded the universities of the Middle Ages. Of course, Latin is now a dead language: No one speaks it, and Latin-based jobs seem hard to find. However, Latin is more than communication or occupation. Latin enriches life broadly. Even now, learning Latin is important.
Firstly, the study of Latin trains the mind. The orderliness of Latin accustoms the mind to solidify learning into structures and patterns. A methodical study even teaches how to learn. Latin exercises and builds a student’s learning faculties.
Latin provides more obvious aid also. It strengthens English grammar by teaching similar grammar in a different tongue. Additionally, the Latin vocabulary helps one guess the meaning of English words such as epistolary and mellifluous. Latin vocabulary also prepares a student for scientific and medical professions because Latin still pervades these vocations, especially in their taxonomy. Furthermore, by learning Latin, a student can more easily learn any Romantic language. In fact, so related are the languages that a Latin student can sometimes read basic Spanish. Thus Latin strengthens related disciplines. From English grammar to medicine, Latin affects common experience.
But above all, Latin enriches life. A reader of Latin can reap the first fruits of Roman civilization. From Cicero’s Oratory to Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the history and the culture of Rome lie waiting to be read in their own language. Moreover, the finest theology and science of the Middle Ages are in Latin. If a student would learn of great thoughts and deeds from original sources, let him study Latin.
And not only the written word—Latin unlocks meaning and beauty in the finest vocal music. How much more gripping are the words “Fili mi, Absalom!” than when they ring as “O my son, Absalom!” Musical masters such as Handel and Bach exquisitely paired melody with meaning. Knowing Latin reveals a new layer of beauty in Latin songs.
And so Latin, a “dead language,” is still alive, even though it may be in hiding. It shapes the mind and prepares it for new thoughts. Latin yields practical benefits, but it also enhances life with the fruit of bygone ages. Consequently, Latin is still an important subject in education.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2013 edition.