Latin: A solution to the EU’s language problems?

Speaking of the Classics, I recently discovered to my shock and amazement that in Belgium, students still study Latin in secondary school. My Dutch teacher was talking about the structure of secondary school, and described how there is still a Latin/Classical Greek track, as well as a Latin/Math track that students almost have to take if they plan to go into medicine or any advanced humanities.

Even more shocking, she defended this practice, claiming that it was quite clear based on the kinds of essays and work students do in university which ones had studied Latin. She was troubled when I expressed doubt that there was a causal relationship between the two.

Is this commonplace in Europe? I mean, my high school offered Latin, but only because New Jersey required two years of language and some students had already flunked all three modern languages offered. (And because the Romanian woman who taught French and German figured she could teach Latin too, so they didn’t have to hire anyone.)

I was told a joke by my historical lingusitics prof about an American Latin teacher who gets lost while visiting Rome and is forced to use Latin – presumably still taught in Italian high schools in those days – in order to communicate. Upon finding an interlocutor able to help him in the language of the Caesars, this helpful Italian asks “You haven’t been to Rome in a while, have you?”

Latin was once the language of law and education in Europe, and it might still be if it hadn’t been killed off by the neo-classicists in the Renaissance who complained that modern Latin authors didn’t write the way the classical authors did. Their work led to the death of Latin as a living language and its internment in the mausoleum of classical philology, now used only in the Vatican and on Radio Finland. The only alternative, the linguistic balkanisation of Europe, ultimately became a major factor in the development of nationalism.

The notion that Latin is in some way necessary to learning proper composition is pure superstition. The real failing here is that students are not taught the structure of their own language, so they are introduced to the idea indirectly through the study of Latin, something which 99 times out of 100 is completely superfluous. I’m not against studying Latin – heck, I’m not against studying any language by anyone – but having a realistic conception of what one is studying and why is something I do find important.

Still Europe has problems with its lack of a politically and sociolinguistically adequate vehicular language. Latin isn’t, in the end, any better suited to that end than the current non-solution or the regularly proposed awful alternative: English-only. But, it has the advantage of being a pain in the ass to learn, and being so in roughly equal measures for nearly all Europeans. Furthermore, it is the de jure language of one of Europe’s oldest surviving pan-national institutions: The Vatican. Alas, even there it hasn’t been the the de facto working language in centuries.

45 thoughts on “Latin: A solution to the EU’s language problems?

  1. What exactly’s so “awful” about the adoption of English, which, unlike Latin, has the considerable merit of being spoken as a first or second language by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including at least 70 million of the EU’s population?

  2. English fluency is not indicative of ability in general and it imposes costs inequitably, and is therefore neither just nor economically efficient. English-only would be an equitable solution, if the employment of native anglophones in international institutions were either forbidden outright or predicated on fluency in Chinese, but that would be just as economically inefficient and no more just.

    Furthermore, it is impossible in the sense its advocates desire. The EU already discriminates in employment in many posts against non-native English speakers. There is essentially no prospect of equal compentence between native and non-native speakers, and this already creates problems. For instance, the Danish eurocrat who apologises for starting her first meeting late because “it’s the beginning of her period.” Or the Tenerife crash in 1977, caused in part by two fluent non-native English speakers misunderstadning each other.

    Actually, I’m preparing a book review of a bnook by someone who proposes an alternative solution that I also disagree with, and I have a different idea in mind to propose.

  3. I go to a grammar school (publically funded, selects students based on exams at age 11) in the UK, and we are taught Latin for two years compulsorily – the second and third years of secondary school. After that we can choose to take it. French is compulsory for the first three years, German only for the third year.

  4. I studied Latin as well at my small secondary school in the Netherlands, where it was compulsory to take at least 6 years of Latin classes plus 4 years of ancient Greek or the other way round (on top of also having to study three modern languages other than Dutch). Not all secondary schools offer Latin and Greek lessons though, even when they prepare for university. It depends on the school, and in many cases taking those lessons is not compulsory.

    At that time, Latin was required in order to be admitted to e.g. French, theology or classical languages studies afterwards in university, but I believe this requirement has been dropped now. Some secondary schools still offer the option of taking Latin and/or Greek lessons though, and defend that with the same arguments as your Dutch teacher. I think the situation is similar in other European countries.

    I have to say I enjoyed learning Latin and Greek – even though, considering the hours spent on them in class, the level you reach is not very impressive in practical terms: After six years, I was able to make decent translations from Latin to Dutch, but not vice versa – let alone speak it!

    I agree with your Dutch teacher that you can often tell when people have studied Latin in school, but I agree with you that there is no causal relation. I would say there is only a correlation, caused by the fact that linguistically-gifted students are more likely to be interested in taking Latin or Greek lessons and/or to graduate from schools where this is compulsory.

    Similarly, you can also often tell when people have studied statistics in school – which is clearly not the case with your Dutch teacher… ;-)

  5. I’m Dutch, and I was also taught Latin in secondary education. It was part of the curriculum of the Gymnasium type schools and probably still is. We had to take one modern language, one classical language (Greek was the alternative) and one hard science, plus 4 optional subjects.
    I took Latin *and* Greek, aced the Latin and did well in the Greek, and forgot everything I knew within a year after graduating.
    I do think I learned a bit about grammar on a more abstract level from learning Latin, but I was already quite a language buff at the time and would have picked that up anyway. So yes, I am hard-pressed to name anything I got out of learning Classical languages other than some nice high marks on my final report card.

  6. Latin is not equally hard for everyone to learn – I imagine it is substantially harder for Danes and Poles to learn Latin than it is for Italians and Spaniards.

    Also, Latin is hard to learn – I know, I studied it in high school and only got to a very rudimentary level. Also, almost no one speaks it fluently, so it is frankly superfluous.

    No, the real way to go if one wanted a non-national, non-ethnic language is to study a purposefully constructed, easy-to-learn language like Esperanto. I’m surprised you didn’t mention this option, since it seems a natural one for people allergic to English, French, or German becoming the dominant language.

    Nobody owns the language, and nobody is a native speaker that way, and it is easy to learn. I’ve spent time learning it, and it is faster and easier to learn than natural languages.

    I don’t specifically favor Esperanto over other choices, but it seems to be the most-developed and popular, and thus has the largest literature, etc.

    This is of course only if you have a problem with English becoming the de facto choice.

  7. Also, Latin is hard to learn – I know, I studied it in high school and only got to a very rudimentary level. Also, almost no one speaks it fluently, so it is frankly superfluous.

    Not only that, it never was an everyday language, was it? It was a literary language, like Sanskrit. People spoke Vulgar Latin.

  8. I’m German and although in my time nobody had to learn Latin in secondary school it was always offered. Only a couple of years ago you had to have something called “Latinum”, which proved that you took classes in Latin, to study a number of subjects at the university. I think this requirement is phased out now, but at least for medicine or theology you still need it. I studied German and it was required of each student to either have a Latinum or to have learned three modern languages in school or in the first half of his time at the university.

    For a lot of people I know, Latin lessons were the place where they first learned the finer workings of grammar. Latin is a good language to learn grammar with, because it has so many phenomena which modern languages (especially English) do no longer have.

    Some people I know that didn’t take Latin in school know next to nothing about the way languages work – even their own.
    But I think this function could (and IMHO should) also be fulfilled by linguistics lessons (or linguistics being taught along with the modern languages).

  9. Latin and Greek are absolutely necessary for the survival of intellectual snobbery.

    I have forgotten every last bit of all I learned during those long hours with a dictionary and a grammar, but that doesn’t mean these hours were wasted. Forever and ever I shall be able to look down on all people who did not spent five to ten hours a week (class hours, not including homework) for six years to finally reach a peak level of understanding of these languages that was still totally inadequate and that dropped back to zero immediately after graduation.

  10. The knowledge of Latin is certainly more than a little useful for anyone that wishes to learn European languages such as Spanish, Italian, French, English, German …. that’s not say one cannot learn these languages without any latin.

    However the study of classical Greek and Roman writers, whether in ones native language or the original latin/greek, is something that should be more widespread. Technology and industrialisation may have changed our way of life in Europe but it has not changed the fundamental nature of politicians and politics – read Plutarch’s Lives which formed the basis of some of Shakespeare’s plays. The debate in Plato’s Republic is just as relevant to today’s world as it was some 2000 years ago. Demosthenes ought to be compulsory reading for lawyers etc. etc.

  11. English is the common world language whether you like it or not. No social engineering can change it.

    Latin is somewhat too complex to become an universal language. In the unlikely case that Latin were declared sole official language of the EU, a simplified corrupt form of Latin would emerge in each member state. The French version of neo-Latin would drastically differ from, e.g., Czech version in the course of a few years.

  12. Let me repeat the suggestion made by Jacob Grimm more than 150 years ago: Hungarian. It’s a living language and standardized but not spoken natively by enough people that it’s not likely we’d see Hungarian hegemony. It’s very regular, doesn’t have any difficult sounds, and, unlike Latin or English, has a perfect orthography.

  13. Non necessita le Latin! Si tu parla qualcunque Anlglo-Roman lingua, e.g. l’Angles, le Frances o l’Italian, tu comprende l’Interlingua. Esse no tote dia que tu discove que tu parla un lingua sin le sapie!

    Ma pro un veritament equal European lingua, l’Europanto esse la solution ;)

  14. The classical languages require subtle distinctions that get lost in their simplified descendents. Care in making those distinctions does indeed show through later, assuming one actually learned to think a bit in Latin or Greek (rather than simply translating mechanically).

    Sanskrit would do, as well, but has less direct impact on the world we live in today.

  15. How about Peano’s Latino Sine Flexione?

    But then again, French est essentuallement Anglais aveck plus oef changes randoms for confuser all la Uorlde. :-)

  16. Sine flexione would be unfair. You might as well choose Italian. If they get the advantage of vocabulary, a least grammar has to be hard.

  17. Abiola – If a second language is to be made compulsory in European schools, it makes sense to include Mandarin and at least one of the languages of the Indian sub-continent among the options. How long will it be before China comes to have the world’s largest economy? And it shouldn’t be too long thereafter when India comes to have the second largest.

  18. From the point of literature, the teaching of Latin and/or Greek is extremely valuable. Not just for the study of literature, but because the exercise of mastering Latin or Greek is conducive to developing high-level writing skills.

    Writers as different as Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and Thoreau built up their strength on classical studies. Before the XIXc almost all writers were classicists. There’s a down side to this, though — go to mey URL and see.

    Of course, any classical language might have the same effect — Persian, Chinese, Sanskrit. It’s pretty universal to denigrate classical studies, but I think that this is wrong. “Presentism” is, as far as I am concerned, the curse of the our age. the fact that these languages are all highly-elaborated, somewhat artificial literary languages is a plus in my opinion.

    This says nothing about whether these languages should be required in high school, or about the relative place that literature vs. science vs. practical studies should have in the schools.

  19. Latin was once the language of law and education in Europe, and it might still be if it hadn?t been killed off by the neo-classicists in the Renaissance who complained that modern Latin authors didn?t write the way the classical authors did. Their work led to the death of Latin as a living language and its internment in the mausoleum of classical philology,

    First the humanists get a bad rap from lame classics professors, and now they get framed for the demise of Latin? Where did this amazing theory come from?

  20. Sanskrit is also not European.

    The Indo-European Union can’t be too far away!

  21. it makes sense to include Mandarin and at least one of the languages of the Indian sub-continent among the options

    We generally don’t speak foreign languages to communicate with native speakers of that languages. We learn them to have a language in common. English would not be a problem, if the UK left the EU.

  22. Michael, from Petrarch onwards there is nothing but bitching about the decline of Latin and the failure to sustain the model of the ancients. Erasmus was even worse about it. By making it impossible to actually use Latin as a vehicular language without getting your knuckles rapped every time you used a demonstrative as a definite article, authors began working in the local vernacular or simply in French. That killed Latin.

    There’s a reason the humanists have such a bad rap among the classicists.

    John, I’m good with classical studies. I support classical studies. I even studied Latin. But, I’m not sure much is to be gained by requiring medical students to study Latin when computer programmers don’t have to.

    As for Esperanto and Interlingua – gimme a couple days, the book I’m reviewing is very pro-Esperanto and I have very mixed feelings about the concept.

  23. Scott,

    What do you mean, nothing but? From Petrarch on there are two-three centuries of frenzied Latin production before the vernacular starts to tip the scales in most countries. And some five centuries until it really stopped being “the language of law and education”. See Goethe’s thesis, for instance. Kierkegaard still had to petition the king personally to write his dissertation in Danish. And who exactly switched to vernacular because they were afraid to get their knuckles wrapped? Macchiavelli and Tasso? La Pl?iade? Milton? Writers started using vernaculars when vernaculars started to be a better fit for what they wanted to do.

    Or, to put it another way, how well would this story work for Chinese and Greek? Or Arabic?

    That is aside from the notion that Latin writers were happy to use definite articles before frowning Petrarch knocked on their door. In that respect, I think the people you really want to blame for killing off Latin are all the grammarians from Varro on, with the mortal wound delivered by Carolingian scholars. Feel free. :-)

  24. Michael, yes people wrote in Latin after Petrarch. But before the Renaissance, Latin was *the* written language. Afterwards, it was not. Considering how slow things moved in pre-printing press Europe, two or three centuries of continued use (frezied? really? for reasons other than the invention of the printing press?) after Petrarch is hardly shocking. Erasmus was a much bigger player in the death of Latin.

    And why do you think Latin ceased to be a good fit for what they wanted to do? The chief cause was the interdiction on neologisms and calques introduced by the humanists in order to retain the classical style. Unable to adapt to new situations, it became progressively harder to use Latin for effective communication. You see this already in 16th century Latin where progressively more euphemisms were used to describe things that were simply absent from the classical language. The humanists disregard for later Latin literature still further cut students off from any living lexical processes taking place in the langauge. This process was damaging for scientific and scholarly publishing – it was absolutely annihilating for poetry and literature. Did Milton write poetry in Latin? How much better is his English work remembered than his Latin? Milton’s job was composing Latin texts for the government that fit the humanist style because most of his contemporaries were incapable of doing so. Why is Goethe remembered as a towering figure in German literature and not in Latin? Because there was no longer in his time any meaningful living Latin literature.

    Latin was still taught in schools later – and still is, obviously – but it had become a dead language used to study old books by the end of the humanist period. The cause was the devotion to the classical form, which is exactly what the humanists stood for.

  25. Oliver: Sine flexione would be unfair. You might as well choose Italian. If they get the advantage of vocabulary, a least grammar has to be hard.
    If you think italian is unfair, interlingua is downright cheating…

    If you want fair, I’d have as many cases as Hungarian, to decline nouns and adjectives and articles as in Icelandic, each divided in strong, weak, regular and irregular groups, at least three genders (shouldn’t for example animals and inanimate objects be of different gender? and animals/plants have their own non-human male-female-asexual subgenders?) in three classes of quantity (single, plural and indefinite, like Basque), make that grammar context-sensitive, include all know phonemes known on earth (inculding of course those cool !kung tongue-clickings) so that no-one feels discriminated, have a dodecatonal intonation and (in)articulate the whole thing as slurrily as Danish or the deepest Deep South hillbilly twang…

    Then they can have it all as easy as they want with the vocabulary… >8D…

  26. Scott, here’s an article in Dutch about Janus Secundus, a neo-Latin poet fo the early XVIc. It doesn’t prove anything, but you sound like you might be interested.
    http://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/Dutch/Latijn/GMS1.html

    Here’s a collection of about 12 vernacular translations of a Latin poem “The Ruins of Rome” by Janus Vitalis, an obscure humanist:

    http://www.idiocentrism.com/rome.htm

    Just to link-whore some more, here’s my piece on the influence of forced classical studies on Western Civilization. It starts with St. Augustine, a rhetorician who hated Greek studies. It actually rather reinforces your point: forced classicism seems to produce angry writers. But good ones.

    http://www.idiocentrism.com/rimbaud.htm

  27. Scott, take a deep breath…

    (frezied? really? for reasons other than the invention of the printing press?)

    Yes. They were on a mission. Writing classicist Latin in and of itself was part of the program.

    And why do you think Latin ceased to be a good fit for what they wanted to do?

    What makes you say that it did? The really dramatic socio-linguistic contrast between 1400 and 1600 isn’t in the Latin. It’s the vernaculars. Writing intellectual, stylistically ambitious prose in the late middle ages using anything but Latin was an extremely challenging and awkward affair, some notable successes by a handful of Tuscan writers notwithstanding.

    The chief cause was the interdiction on neologisms and calques introduced by the humanists in order to retain the classical style. Unable to adapt to new situations, it became progressively harder to use Latin for effective communication. You see this already in 16th century Latin where progressively more euphemisms were used to describe things that were simply absent from the classical language.

    And yet humanists wrote books on all conceivable subjects of contemporary world, where medieval Latin was largely restricted to a handful of fields. I think you overestimate the lexical control that school teachers and men of letters, respected though some of them may be, can have on the writing public. Devoted classicists wrote in classicizing vocabulary. The rest likely didn’t keep their antibarbari under the pillow. To spot non-classical words is much harder than it is perversely to follow a made-up syntactic rule.

    The humanists disregard for later Latin literature still further cut students off from any living lexical processes taking place in the langauge.

    Ya know, a process doesn’t become non-living just because you don’t like it… Anyway, I’m surprised you don’t see the continuity of scientific writing with the middle ages. I think stylus philosophicus was an accepted fact of life for everyone except a few activists.

    This process was damaging for scientific and scholarly publishing – it was absolutely annihilating for poetry and literature.

    Let me make another stop, because I find this genuinely intriguing. I’m not surprised when humanists are cheerfully dumped overboard literary history, together with all other Latin writers that classical departments don’t teach (they are, after all, the only ones around who know Latin, so who else should we ask for opinion?) I have a grudging respect for the humanist disdain towards medieval Latin, as I do towards the sundry disdains of the Enlightenment. But a medievalist disdain for humanist poetry is just weird. Can you initiate me into this golden age of Latin verse that the Renaissance is supposed to have snuffed out?

    Did Milton write poetry in Latin? How much better is his English work remembered than his Latin? Milton?s job was composing Latin texts for the government that fit the humanist style because most of his contemporaries were incapable of doing so.

    Likewise, most of whose contemporaries could write Latin poetry? I’m also not sure what to make of the “because”, but we really need to be moving along…

    My point wasn’t that Milton wrote Latin, but that the figures most responsible for making vernaculars capable of substituting Latin weren’t brow-beaten by humanists. They were the leading humanists of the day. And they modeled their vernacular writing on humanist Latin. It wasn’t until the vernaculars were made capable of translating Latin, including classical Latin, rather than “vulgarizing” it that Latin itself became dispensable.

    Latin was still taught in schools later – and still is, obviously – but it had become a dead language used to study old books by the end of the humanist period. The cause was the devotion to the classical form, which is exactly what the humanists stood for.

    Well, there’s a certain elegance in this explanatory scheme. Man prescribes; descendant flees. It can arch over any number of centuries, ignoring all else that happened in the meantime. Let me ask you this. Which back-to-the-classics movement should we blame for the demise of classical Chinese? The Song? The Han? The Zhou?

  28. Don’t even think about using Esperanto. Latin, too, is a poor choice because on the one hand it has a grammar that comes straight from hell, and on the other its expressive power is a fraction of English’s.

  29. MIchael, now you are being very silly.

    In what way were the vernaculars remodeled on Latin? One doesn’t remodel a vernacular language, borrowings from Latin into the vernacular were common enough all through European history, but there was never a time when the ideas expressed in Latin were incapapble of being expressed in the vernacular. Latin was a vehicular language, used because of its ability to reach a larger audience. Yes, ignorant people passed the “no split infinitive rule” in order to pretend they were writing Latin in English, but that was a mistake, it certainly wasn’t remodeling English.

  30. Scott,

    The lexical part of latinization is the most obvious. Word choices came to be made quite differently. To pick a single example out of the blue, here’s Virgil introducing himself to Dante:

    e vissi a Roma sotto ‘l buono Augusto
    nel tempo de li dei falsi e bugiardi.

    He’s evidently translating a subtitle from St. Augustin’s De Civitate Dei into Tuscan, “Adversus falsos et fallaces deos”. The word “fallace” was indeed available, and used elsewhere in the Comedy, but mostly in Paradiso. In contrast, “bugiardo”, which doesn’t mean so much “fallacious” as “lying”, is confined to Inferno and Purgatorio. That should tell us something about the relative connotations.

    Boccaccio, who, judging from his commentary on Inferno, missed the allusion, pays an amusingly confused tribute in Ninfale Fiesolano:

    Era ‘n quel tempo la falsa credenza
    degl’iddii rei, bugiardi e viziosi;

    But Boccaccio liked Dante, unlike Petrarch. The Canzoniere has one use of “bugia”, for the sake of rhyme, and no instances of “bugiardo”. It does, however, get healthy mileage out of “fallace”. That is more or less the direction Italian humanist poetry takes from there, up until about Tasso (or one might say, Leopardi.)

    Another somewhat straightforward way of modeling on Latin is constructing formally disciplined multiclause sentences. This is easy to take for granted today, but it isn’t something that languages without a certain type of literary tradition tend to have, and it took some pains to build it into the vernaculars.

    Which leads to the most interesting and difficult to pin down aspect of “vernacular modeling”. I think it’s best observed by comparing translations from Latin made before and after the Renaissance. Modern languages, especially in their more classicizing forms, can evoke a wide range of Latin registers and diction with admirable ease. The medieval forms generally cannot. They resort to charmingly inadequate paraphrase. I find it quite stunning.

  31. One assessment has it that English is in decline as a first language:

    “According to one new study, the percentage of the global population that grew up speaking English as its first language is declining. In addition, an increasing number of people now speak more than one language.

    “In the future, English is likely to be one of those languages, but the Mandarin form of Chinese will probably be the next must-learn language, especially in Asia.”
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/02/0226_040226_language.html

    Of course, the great thing about Mandarin is that it will give access to the huge Chinese literature for which Latin really isn’t much use.

  32. I doubt that Mandarin will replace English as world language, because of the difficulty of the writing system. I think that the decline in % of first-language English speakers is just differential fertility of populations, not a decrease of the importance of English internationally.

    As East Asia becomes more prosperous, though, I could see that big chunk of the world becoming more Sinocentric.

  33. Ok, I’m being ha-ha-only-serious when I say this, but why not Classical Gaelic? It’s a rich and expressive language with a literary equal to, albeit not as well known as, Latin and Greek. Nobody uses it any more (the Penal laws, the Irish famine, and a variety of other factor saw to that), and it’s hard for everybody!

    And it’s an actual European langauge.

  34. John: “I doubt that Mandarin will replace English as world language, because of the difficulty of the writing system.”

    Quite so. But the ability to speak Mandarin will doubtless be a most useful skill for selling Airbus airliners and armaments in China. Besides, as I recall, a favourite justification for teaching Latin at school was always the virtuous “discipline” that the experience imparted. Arguably, the “discipline” from the experience of learning thousands of Chinese characters will therefore be even more virtuous. And the ancient texts of Chinese literature will become accessible without translation. After all, Confucius goes back to c. 500 BC, before the the renown classical philosophers of ancient Greece: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

  35. Great stuff. But you don’t live in Europe (?)

    All the stuff about bringing back Latin lessons in schools is not altogether unconnected with the fashionable notion of resurrecting the Holy Roman Empire.

  36. All the stuff about bringing back Latin lessons in schools is not altogether unconnected with the fashionable notion of resurrecting the Holy Roman Empire.

    Perhaps, that also explains a Bavarian pope.

    But, it could have its advantages:we all get long holidays in the middle east (rape & pillage optional) and when we get bored there then we can try Sweden and France etc.we can get rich selling get out of hell free cards or selling the golden bull to the NYSEwe can amuse ourselves by thowing people we don’t like out of the window or burning them at the stakewe can have hours of fun seeing who can build the biggest building without it falling downthe possibilities are endless…
    …don’t much fancy a diet of worms though.

    Who said it was a slow Friday afternoon?

  37. In my previous incarnation I was Zizka, and I defeated the Holy Roman Empire time and again over a period of decades.

    They better not try anything.

  38. I was Zizka

    But of course. Who else but the erstwhile foil of Teutonic Order could have come back to avenge Marx’s dastardly misquotation of a defenseless dead Florentiner?

    You are my post-pre-modern hero of the week. :-)

  39. Hm, so Marx made it up. I still like it.

    Zizka as Teutonic foil? Didn’t know about that. I know that when the Lithuanian pagans became Catholic, they joined in against the Hussites.