Friday, November 24, 2006

Lingua Latina vivit! (Latin lives!)

Check out this great article in New Oxford Review, a journal for traditionalist Roman Catholics (thanks to Rev. Dr. John Stephenson for sending this to me).

The author makes a great point why Roman Catholic seminarians should learn Latin.

Many of the same arguments can be made for Lutheran seminarians - as well as all Lutherans who want to be educated - to learn Latin. There is a direct correlation over time connecting the removal of Latin from school curricula and the increasing illiteracy among young people - not to mention the lack of understanding of grammar, the inability to compose verse and prose, and the disadvantage Americans have in learning foreign languages.

The loss of Latin has cut off most Americans from the rich literary and historical heritage that formerly bound educated modern people to their past with its roots in Greco-Roman civilization - a past, from which Christianity was spawned and grew. Today's citizens (myself included) are woefully ignorant of pre-Christian mythology (which is needed in order to read works of literature that make references to these mythological characters), the great political ideals of a free Republic seeking to stave off despotic imperialism, as well as classical philosophy and early and medieval Christian theology.

Of course, one can always read these works in translation - assuming translations exist, and assuming that an educational paradigm that no longer has room for Latin still has a place for classical mythology, history, philosophy, and theology. Of course, something is always lost in translation, which is why (to the great credit of our Lutheran seminaries) pastors ought to be able to read Holy Scripture in the original Greek and Hebrew. To study only an English translation of Cicero or Augustine with no knowledge of the underlying Latin is to miss out on wordplay, nuances, and alternate readings and interpretations that may differ from the translator or editor of a particular English rendering.

Latin was the main lingua franca for the west from the days of the Roman Republic and Empire well into the middle ages. Large numbers of philosophical and theological works (including numerous volumes of Lutheran theology) exist only in Latin to this day, never having been translated. As of now, these works are lost to all but a few scholars who are able to read them. Who knows how many treasures are lying dormant, entombed in dusty tomes that sit idle century after century in storage rooms of libraries and museums?

But even if one's desire isn't to read Julius Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars or Plutarch's histories or Martin Luther's lectures on the Book of Genesis in the original tongue, there is still much to be gained by learning to read Latin. More than half of all words in the English language are Latin derivatives - and these English words tend to be longer, more difficult words than those descended from Anglo-Saxon. To learn Latin is to lay the groundwork for a vast and diverse English vocabulary. It is also the optimal way to learn how grammar and syntax work. In the age of text messaging and e-mail, much of our communications skills - especially of the written word - have become sloppy and imprecise. Latin is a sorely-needed corrective.

Children who study Latin typically score higher on SATs and have a much better command of the English language. They also have a leg up in learning foreign languages - especially (but not limited to) the lingustic descedants of Latin, e.g. French, Spanish, and Italian.

Students who pursue medicine, the sciences, law, theology, or classical history will especially appreciate learning Latin - as well as anyone who reads journals and textbooks that still make use of Latin abbreviations and words.

One of the more colorful professors at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Rev. Dr. David Scaer, begins all of his classes by requiring the students to rise and recite (or read) the Nicene Creed in Latin. A lot of my fellow students rolled their eyes and griped about it, not seeing the value, taking the tack that Dr. Scaer was just being obnoxious. However, without even studying, we ended up having the Creed virtually memorized in Latin by the end of the class - which familiarized us with a great deal of theological terminology we would encounter in other classes and in theological texts both modern and ancient - all in a painless way. The less time spent running to a theological dictionary to look up a Latin phrase from a book translates to more time spent actually pondering the text and learning concepts instead of individual words. Learning at least basic Latin is simply a part of being a well-rounded educated person.

Fortunately, after being forsaken in the 20th century (especially in the freewheeling 1960s in which avant-garde "educators" radically altered school curricula) - Latin is coming back. It is once again being offered in high schools and universities in America. Some grade schools are even offering Latin - including Salem Lutheran School - where I teach very basic Christian Latin to junior high students. Many American private schools - including Lutheran schools - are reintroducing the classical curriculum - opting to rid themselves of the failed 1960s experiments that brought about the rumor of Latin's demise and the introduction of "Social Studies" and feminist propaganda instead of geography, history, and rhetoric. Latin is a big part of this renaissance of education and the restoration of real learning.

So don't believe it when someone tells you Latin is a dead language. It never died, but rather evolved into a slew of modern languages - even contributing greatly to the English language.

Long live Latin!


FatherDMJ said...

The two years I had Latin (in a public school!) have paid dividends later in life.

Latin makes it much easier to learn any other language. It prepares one for the discipline of Greek, Hebrew, and German. Latin also builds one's word power. That's not a bad thing.

Long live Latin indeed!

Chris Jones said...

The two years I had Latin (in a public school!) have paid dividends later in life.

My experience exactly. I took Latin in my freshman and sophomore years in a public high school (that was 1968 & 1969). That was the last time Latin was offered in my high school. A few hardy souls took third and fourth year Latin the next two years, though I, to my shame and later regret, was too lazy to do so.

However, while I very much agree with the point of Father Hollywood's post, I must quibble on an important point. In order to read the canons of the Council of Nicea in the original tongue, one must have Greek, not Latin. Latin may be arguably the most important language to know for general cultural literacy. But I have to say that when it comes to in-depth Christian knowledge, it is more important to know Greek than to know Latin. Sadly, I never took the opportunity to learn Greek when I was in college, and such Greek as I have is self-taught.

And then there are Hebrew and Syriac ...

Latif Haki Gaba said...

Good Father,
You & I appear to be on the same page again:
I'm not as familiar, though, with the NOR web site as I am with the old fashioned paper version. I'll have to go over there & see what they've put up. LHG

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Chris:

Yes, indeed, right you are about the Canons of Nicea! What was I thinking? Thanks for the correction!

The Terrible Swede said...

I wish I had learned Latin in public school. Now, my wife and I must struggle with Wheelock's Latin - privately. Four years of f****** french - what a waste of time! And 3 years of Russian was OK.

Are Lutheran seminarians not required to learn Latin during their stay at seminary? What about German? Alot of academic stuff (being nice) is in German, too. I wish to have learned German.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Swede:

No, seminarians have no Latin requirement, although I understand Prof. Nordling (who has come to Ft. Wayne since my departure) is quite a Latin scholar and seems to be advocating for Latin. Greek and Hebrew are required for regular students, and Hebrew is optional for "alternate route" guys.

No German requirement at all. I really think basic German and Latin ought to be required. I did get to study Swedish informally with Bror Erickson and Tom Shumaker.

Don't be too quick to dismiss the French. It's a direct descendant of Latin, and whether you realize it or not, it is making your study easier. Also, I understand there are a lot of excellent liturgical texts that have been written in French and have not been translated (Latif Gaba can give you more details). The French Mass is actually quite beautiful.

Wheelock is not my favorite - though it is the standard and has tons of resources online and in print (including a 4 cd set of all the words and sentences being read in classical Latin).

There is a church Latin text called "Latin Grammar" by Scanlon and Scanlon that focuses on words you will need for Mass, the Hours, and the Bible.

There's also an excellent (and very inexpensive, like nine bucks!) reprint of an old 1920s text now published as Latin Super Review by REA that has some excellent reading passages from classical Latin.

The Teach Yourself series has a Beginning Latin course that has a cassette/CD that goes with the course, which is set up as a mystery story in a medieval monastery. This one is very good, except it follows the British conventions for memorizing paradigms - which can be a little confusing if you've learned them the other way.

Finally, check out St. Louis University's excellent resources at:

Bona fortuna!

Past Elder said...

I grew up RC pre Vatican II. Altar boys learned the Mass in Latin, some just their lines so to speak, and those more into it the whole thing. I don't think I'll find among your reasons for learing Latin the one we were told was so important -- that we were representing the people with what we said! Latin was not offered in my RC grade school (K-8) but I took it the first two years in high school (9 and 10) then again as a refresher in grad school as one of my two languages for the doctorate, a good choice when you dissertation is on Boethius.

Had I never done any of that, I would still agree on the value of Latin for the same reason as mathematics. Even if you never "use" them later on, you will use the precise mental habits you acquire learing them.

Past Elder said...

Which apparently does not help with typing. Sorry for the typos above.

Past Elder said...

And while I'm at it, what ever happened to Hebrew and Greek as the Biblical languages, and Latin and German as the confessional languages??

I don't have a drop of German in me and am adopted too, grew up in Minnesota with all these Germans, and my first pastor after my conversion liked to say, and I'm not sure how much in jest, that God was preparing me to be a Lutheran back then so I'd be able to lapse into German when ranting!

Whey Lay said...

As a member of Miss Lang's Latin class circa 1979 in a public school no less! I couldn't agree more. I was recently thinking about Latin and the "dead language" moniker that is attached to it. That is it's biggest strength, it is not evolving or having slang introduced. A latin fluent student can read Julius Ceasar and know the exact meaning of the words. The benefit to the church is also obvious, priests seperated by half the globe could converse, even when their mother tongues where wildly different.
Really great post
Pax :)

Anonymous said...

Echoing earlier comments I had 3 years of Latin (also in a public school!). This was by far one of the more difficult classes in high school. I would have had 4 years but we moved. Although it is not as fresh as I would like the payoff has been enduring. It has helped me with Greek and Spanish but I am most surprised to find out that it has helped me with English, which was not a strong subject for me in high school, especially English grammar. The Nicene Creed in Latin - can someone send me a copy? I am especially interested in the version used in Dr. Scaer's class. Gratia.

Anonymous said...

Rev. Beane,
I know this is a rather old post to be responding to, but my husband and I are planning to teach our children Latin when they are a little older. (Our older son is about a month older than yours.) Anyway is came across this program:
My husband asked that I ask your opinion on it before we purchase anything. From our perspective, it looks pretty good, but then, neither of us knows more than a few words of Latin, so we may not be the best of judges here.
Anyway, I know you're probably quite busy at this time of year so there's no need to rush in answering.
I appreciate any advice you can give us on this.

Kira Standfest

Hunkston said...

My brother and his family are moving to Dubai so I have decided to learn Arabic, the problem is I have no idea where to start! Arabic is not as widely spoke as languages such as French and German so I am having trouble locating a tutor. So I have decided that I am going to do it myself online. Does anyone have any experience of learning language online? Is it easy when there’s no one to speak to? Also what are the prices like?