The Autodidact, New Series I: Why Latin Matters, Part A

Anyone interested in the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans--the languages, the literature, history, philosophy, etc--may wish to visit the Autodidact on Fleming.Foundation. I have decided to create a section, open to all subscribers including free subscribers. Some of the material will come from a large backlog of archived posts on the classics; much will be new; and Mr. Autodidact will answer, to the extent that he can, questions about teaching and learning the languages, writers, and historical events. Subscribing takes only a minute or two.

Let us begin with an old piece on the importance of Latin.

Why Latin Matters

When people ask me, “Why should anyone study the classics,” I give the same answer that has been given for the past 2500 years or more:  So as not to end up a barbarian. “Barbarian,” is a Greek word that was originally applied to someone who did not speak Greek.  Adopted by the Romans it came to mean those who were ignorant of Latin and Greek and, therefore, beyond the pale of civilization.  Barbarians might be decent people, kind to the poor, and hard-working mothers and fathers, but in a pinch they could not be relied upon to maintain the standards of civilization.  Anyone who knows something of the horrors that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire will know what I am talking about:  the civilized world sank into violence, poverty, and ignorance.  Large buildings could not be built, life-spans were dramatically shortened, and everyday life was dominated by violent bullies, much as in modern cities.

All was not lost, however, since Latin was still used by what learned men there were, and the level of civility and humane learning rose steadily for 500 years, culminating in the brilliant Christian civilization of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  This classical learning taught in schools and universities over the centuries, while methods have changed and standards varied, is the foundation of all that is best in our culture. As the Christian writer G.K. Chesterton remarked nearly 100 years ago, in any generation those who count will be talking of Troy, and since today few know of the Trojan War except through a very bad film, either Chesterton was wrong or there are fewer people today who count than there were in his time.

Down to the end of WWI, civilized people were expected to be familiar with ancient history and literature and to know at least some Latin.  Superior students could write Latin, in prose and verse, fluently, and they could read the masterpieces of Greek literature in the original language.  I know that this sounds elitist and unfair, but the same is true of educated people today. 

Those who have not studied classical languages, literature, and history are cut off from the roots of our civilization and incapable of understanding English literature from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot.  This explains why so few students today, including English majors at prestigious institutions, can read Milton or Dryden or A.E. Housman with pleasure and understanding.  Housman, by the way, was one of the greatest Latin scholars of the last century, and his poems pay tribute to the Latin masters he studied.  If you have read his beautiful version of an Horatian ode, you will discover how difficult this simple poem can be for someone without a classical background. What, for example, can such a reader make of his allusions to Ancus and Tullus (Roman Kings), Hippolytus and Pirithous (figures from Greek mythology), and what in the world does he mean by "the prime" (a word for Spring derived from the Latin word for "first")?

But Housman is only one example.  Nearly every great poet, philosopher, historian, and essayist in our language was trained in the classics, and many were deeply read.  The very few exceptions got their classicism second hand from the English and French writers they imitated.  A.E. Housman, although a great Latin scholar, wrote very direct English, rooted in the plain speech of the Anglo-Saxon peasantry, but even he relies on Latin words words like prime, descend, and alter.  In fact, something like 60-70% of English words come from Latin either directly or by way of French.  Our native English words, we learn without difficulty at our mother's knee.  These are ordinary words like sky, field, tree, man, monkey, which come from our Germanic ancestors, but the more complex words of science and law and theology require the Latinate derivatives: we speak of celestial navigation or arborists or agriculture, while a chimpanzee may be defined as an arboreal hominid.

Many people are aware of what English vocabulary owes to Latin, but they may not realize that much of English grammar, when there still was such a thing, was modeled on Latin grammar during the Renaissance and the 18th century, and it is very hard for modern English teachers and even brilliant linguists to understand how a traditional English sentence works, because they lack the necessary classical background. 

Ignorance of Latin causes equally serious problems in the study of foreign languages.  It is very difficult to teach French or Spanish or Italian to people who do not know what the subjunctive is or Russian to students who have never heard that nouns have cases or that verbs have aspect.  Hence the collapse of English in the later 20th century. The evidence is all around us—gross mistakes in dictionaries, the inability of all but the select few to use shall and will correctly, the disappearance of the past perfect tense, the false idea that the English infinitive is the dictionary form of the verb prefixed by „to“.  How does one explain such constructions as „I watched him go“ or „I must go.“  One very alarming sign can be found in the bad grammar even Latin textbooks: The most recent edition of Jenney’s Latin thinks this sentence correct: I have never had a friend better than he.  (Who can tell me what is wrong?).  Then there is the whole question of style and rhetoric, of balanced and parallel constructions, periodic sentences, euphony—all the hard-learned tricks that make writers as diverse as Dr. Johnson and Evelyn Waugh a joy to read, a literary art that is as gone with the wind as the art of making stained glass or Greek fire.



Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

9 Responses

  1. Joe Porreca says:

    “I have never had a friend better than he”

    If I am not mistaken, the pronoun at the end of the sentence is in reference to “friend,” a direct object, and so the objective form of the pronoun, “him,” should be used instead of the nominative form, “he.”

    So it should read, “I have never had a friend better than him.”

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Congratulations to Joe Porrecca. It is a mistake so broadly current that one is hesitant even to bring it up. It is probably in English what some call a hyperurbanism as in Marlyn Monroe’s character in –is it Gentlemen Prefer Blonds?–who says, “A girl like I.” English teachers and other illiterates instill in people crazed ideas like a preference for the nominative/subjective case or–and here they have been wildly successful–and a loathing of ain’t. Thus is it is now standard subliterate English to say, “I’m pretty smart, aren’t I?” I usually answer by saying, you may well be but I are smart also. The choices are only: am I not and the contraction ain’t I. In South Carolina one still hears “enty:”–ain’t he, she, it–in sense of n’est-ce pas or nicht wahr or Greek etsi den einai.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    How in the world did “aren’t I” become standard in the first place? I always thought there was something odd about that usage but just kept my mouth shut in school. If my memory of the ancient high school past is not deceiving me, a few kids did pick up on it, and I seem to recall some boy in class muttering in a puzzled tone, “are I not?”

    I never really understood English grammar and sentence construction all that well until I studied Wheelock, and that helped with German as well. I had a harder time with high school Spanish because I didn’t understand English grammar. A little grade school Latin would have helped a great deal.

    If modern English in it’s current state is a language of cheap, shoddy construction, like an old Soviet apartment building about to cave in, then I wonder how it would sound to someone from, say, 1850? Would he even consider it to be English or some kind of patois?

  4. Dean DeBruyne says:

    Use “shall” with the first person and “will” with the second and third to express simple futurity or expectation, e.g. “At this pace, I shall graduate before Tom leaves sophomore year.” “Joe, who owns the property, will not trouble us.” Use “will” with the first person and “shall” with the second and third to express intention, purpose,or determination on the part of the speaker,e.g. “I will cut through all this red tape.” “You shall go where you’re told.:” “They shall not pass.” In questions, always use “shall” with the first person; use “shall” with the second and third person if “shall” is expected in their answer, but use “will”if “will” is expected in the answer,e.g. “Shall I(we) or shall I(we) not eat another peanut? “Shall Tom be made to eat crow?” “Will you be quiet?”

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I see Mr. DeBruyne recalls my recent bit of boring table pedantry. There is, of course, a bit more to the story of shall and will–the brothers Fowler devote many pages in The King’s English to the subject. In my usual presentation, I explain that when shall and will are used outside the future paradigm, they revert to their original Germanic meanings. Shall < Sollen, to be supposed to be, both in the sense that people say it is so and that it should be so, and Will < Wollen, to wish or be wiling. Thus "Shall Peter be made to eat crow" really is not any different from Peter shall be made to eat crow, because both imply obligation or rightness.

  6. Brent says:

    Would you mind extending the will/shall discussion by commenting on the various appearances of “will” and “shall” in the Authorized Version of Psalm 23? “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.” Simple futurity, first person; therefore, “shall.” What about “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”? Why not “shall”? Or, later, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”?

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Pastor Brent, my impression is that the language had not quite crystallized by the reign of James VI & I, but, nonetheless, most of the instances of shall and will represent the view of the translators of a nuance. “I will fear” then, would indicate a decision, a firmer commitment than a mere statement of futurity. An online commentator, with a rather slender knowledge of grammar, points out the clarity of this: 2 And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean.”

  8. Brent says:

    If the verse were put in third person, should it read, “Though he walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he shall fear no evil”?

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    “Walk” is correct as subjunctive in a protasis clause stating a condition, but “shall” would imply that is being ordered to or supposed to fear no evil. Will is still correct.