Is Latin a Dead Language?

As someone who has studied Latin for eight years (and Ancient Greek for four years), I have often heard people ask about Latin, “Isn’t that a dead language?”

My favorite response is to say, “Ego autem Latine dicere possum.”

All joking aside, I wish to provide a serious and thorough answer to this question.

In total, I see that there are three ways to respond:

  1. No, Latin isn’t really dead.
  2. Latin is dead in some sense, but that’s beside the point.
  3. I agree that Latin is dead, but that’s actually the point.

RESPONSE ONE: LATIN IS NOT REALLY DEAD.

Latin is typically treated as simply the language of the ancient Romans; but that’s only about a tenth (1/10) of the whole story.

Latin was a literary and scholarly language in Western Europe for many centuries, through till the 20th century. Learning Classical Latin gives you the ability to read, in the original language, the stories, poems and speeches of the ancient Romans; the writings of medieval authors from Abelard to Einhard to Aquinas; and after medieval times, the scientific inquiries of the likes of Sir Isaac Newton. The more recent abandonment of Latin as the language of literature and scholarship in the West is hardly more than a tiny glitch in an otherwise perennial tradition. It may even be possible that Latin will make its return to Western culture in a few centuries.

Latin was also the language of unity in Western Europe, from the days of the Roman Empire through till the beginning of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much official political business was conducted in Latin. Any document whose author had an international audience was often written in Latin. I could go on…

Lastly, Latin is the language of the Roman Catholic Church. Mass celebrated in the Roman Rite was always celebrated mostly if not entirely in Latin until the early 1970’s. Latin is still used in many official documents and proceedings by the Catholic Church, and is the official language of Vatican City. Although it is not commonly spoken in day-to-day conversation, the Latin tongue still gets used today; and so, Latin is alive in some sense.

RESPONSE TWO: LATIN IS DEAD IN SOME SENSE, BUT THAT’S BESIDE THE POINT.

Latin is, indeed, no longer a living, spoken language; it does not have a coherent community of living native speakers with an unbroken common lineage (genetic, cultural, or otherwise) traceable to the beginning of the language itself. (In other words: if I get married, have a baby girl, and raise her bilingual in Latin and English, then that one native speaker would not be enough to make Latin a living language; and if a dozen other families scattered throughout North America do the same thing, it still would not make Latin a living language.)

But, as stated above, studying Latin connects you to a set of cultural and literary traditions whose history spans well over two millennia. Latin is one of the few languages in the entire world wherein studying the grammar of one dialect (Classical Latin) for about two or three years can enable you to read all the literature ever written in that language over the course of a rich 2,300-year history.

Studying Latin gives many of the same benefits as studying a ‘living’ language, but amplified ten-fold. For instance, a living language may give you knowledge and appreciation of one foreign culture (like Welsh) or a handful of cultures (like Spanish); but studying the Latin language does not only inform you about the culture of the ancient Romans; it enables you to see with your mind’s eye some of the roots of Western culture and civilization.

The student of the Classics, by studying a supposedly dead language (or two), becomes more cultured, more literary, and more sophisticated. This transformation and growth happens almost unconsciously. In the course of my Latin studies, I have learned more than words can express about Western culture in general through our poetry, prose, literary traditions, grammar, metaphors, vocabulary, idioms, history, politics, sculpture, geometry, agriculture, philosophy, religion, and theology.

Examples from just one of these fields should do the trick. I pick literature.

To put it frankly, there are many things in literature and the arts which a non-classicist is too uneducated to understand. Only someone with a classical education can fully appreciate the references to classical mythology made in Shakespeare’s plays; the semi-classical background of Dante; the countless English verse translations of Classical Latin poetry (done by almost every famous English-born lyric-poet on the planet prior to the late 1800’s); several of the songs by the band Mumford & Sons; subtle classical allusions found in contemporary teen novels like the Hunger Games series; the realism of various linguistic and cultural details in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth literature; the etymology of countless everyday words, such as “music” and “nice;” the ability to dissect complicated literary vocabulary based on its Latin root-words; and ten thousand other things that I do not have time to articulate.

It is hard to express how drastically my study of Latin has improved my ability to write and speak in English, my native tongue. In times past, English grammar textbooks were always called “Latin Grammar,” and for good reason: proper English grammar is a highly watered-down variation of Latin grammar.

RESPONSE THREE: I AGREE THAT LATIN IS DEAD, BUT THAT’S ACTUALLY THE POINT.

In addition to Latin being linguistically dead, it is also dead in terms of scholarship and literature. People are not writing in Latin like they used to, and they sure as heck aren’t speaking in Latin like they used to. Our Holy Mother the Church barely uses her own language anymore, outside of exorcisms and the occasional Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at a choir concert.

So yes, Latin is dead, and we have killed it. We have killed it with our obsessive laziness, our insistence that the liturgy be done in our vernacular tongue, so we can ‘follow along’ without really appreciating what’s happening on that altar, the breath-taking mystery and miracle that is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

We have killed Latin with our stupid fixation with watering down all public and private education to the dumbest common denominator. It used to be that you had to pass a Latin Prose Composition test to even be considered for an Ivy League school; these days, you barely need to be able to compose a few paragraphs in English. Trade schools are demonized these days, but I think they’re handy: not everyone is called to be a scholar, so not everyone should go to college. I hate that I feel like I’m being controversial just for saying that the American ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of schooling is childish and naive.

Where Latin has vanished, so too has any real culture, any real civilization. Truly meaningful literature and art are practically things of the past. The study of Classical Latin always has been and always will be a lesson in discipline and humility: it certainly was for me when I first started studying it in high school. But contemporary man does not have a need for Latin, nor for anything other than bestial utility. When self-restraint gets tossed out the window like that, so does any sense of virtue, of culture, of civilization. Western culture is dead because we killed Latin.

So those of us who are able to study Latin need to study Latin; our culture needs it. If you have never studied Latin before, I strongly recommend giving it a try; but I must warn you that, if you are taking it in high school or college, it is very difficult for the first three or four semesters. But remember, in the words of a friend of mine: “a gentlemen need not remember his Latin; he need only forget it.” Unless you plan on studying medieval texts or classical texts for a living, you will not need to remember for the rest of your life every vocab word and verb form taught in school; lifelong proficiency is only needed by scholars and Canon Lawyers.

If studying the Latin language proves too overwhelming or too time-consuming, try reading Latin literature in translation. I recommend starting with Vergil’s Aeneid. If you want something shorter, then I would recommend Cicero’s political speeches–as long as you promise to invest some extra time learning about the history and politics of the Late Republic (viz., 1st century BC).

On a different note, those of us who are devout Roman Catholics must wake up to how strange it is to believe the One True Faith while rejecting the traditional practices that go hand-in-hand with it. Many of us, myself included, were raised to love Christ and His Church but were also taught to have a strange and secular-minded contempt for traditional expressions of the Faith. Orthodoxy, personal holiness, and adherence to traditions; these are the three things that Holy Mother Church desperately needs from us right now.

What I advocate is not a shallow and vague aesthetic admiration for the more traditional-looking options in the New Rite, but a return to the Old Rite (1962 Missal or older), the Mass of countless Saints, the Mass which defines the Church. Tradition is being ‘optionalized’ out of existence in the liturgy and in the Church, and even in society at large. If we treat tradition as an option, then we are compliant in the abandonment of tradition. Tradition is not one of many options; it is the ONLY option. ‘Radical’ and ‘rigid’ adherence to all of the traditions handed down to us by our forebears–especially those traditions which the past few generations have abandoned–is the only way to reclaim our sanity in these strange and turbulent times in the Church.

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Review #1: On Two Translations of ‘Beowulf’

1. Heaney, Seamus. 2001. Beowulf:A New Verse Translation (bilingual edition, paperback). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

2. Tolkien, J. R. R., ed. Christopher Tolkien. 2015. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell (paperback). New York: Mariner Books.

In the year 2016, I have read the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf twice. Being unable to read Old English (a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon), I have read ‘translations’ in modern English. To be more clear: I have read two different versions: one by Seamus Heaney (best-known for his poetry), and one by J. R. R. Tolkien (best-known for The Lord of the Rings).

1. Heaney’s Translation. The first version that I read was a ‘bilingual’ version by Seamus Heaney. It had the original Old English on the left-hand page, and Heaney’s modern English rendition in verse on the right-hand side facing it. Even though I do not know any Old English, I still am really happy about the fact that this version is bilingual. Also, the formatting leaves plenty of space for readers’ annotations (on both sides). The book includes very useful marginal notes (about one every page or so) that broadly indicate the scene, plot, etc. In terms of formatting, I very much like this version; but I also want to touch upon the issue of translation.

Heaney’s translation is very readable, but only carries with it a hint of the tone of an epic from the distant past. Heaney’s vocabulary choices for this translation seem to generally favor words of Germanic and Nordic origins over words of Classical and multi-cultural origins; however, his style seems to err a little too much on the side of simplicity. But most of all, I want to emphasize the fact that Heaney’s translation is very easy to read, which makes the book very engaging; after I started reading it, I simply could not put it down, reading the entire thing in a few hour-long spurts over the course of an afternoon.

2. Tolkien’s Translation. The second version of Beowulf that I read was a prose translation by J. R. R. Tolkien, published posthumously by his son Christopher. J. R. R. Tolkien had written in prose, yet the editors of this book still managed to make it match up line-for-line with the original poem, which is a remarkable feat, and one for which I am extremely grateful. (My heart leaps for joy when a verse translation matches up line-for-line with the original poem, and here we have a prose translation that does that!) Tolkien’s translation is slightly more difficult to read than Heaney’s, seemingly because it is more literal. Liberated from the restrictions of meter, it seems that Tolkien’s translation strives to imitate the original as closely as possible, even copying the word-order in some places. Since Old English grammar was expressed mainly by word-endings, while modern English grammar is almost solely concerned with word-order, that makes for a few sentences and phrases here and there that are really hard to make sense of.

Despite these difficulties, I still very much admire Tolkien’s translation, because it is so literal and seemingly captures the setting, attitude, and atmosphere of Beowulf more so than Heaney’s translation. The texts of lectures that are included in this book are really fascinating, and are probably very useful for students and scholars of Old English/ Anglo-Saxon literature. Lastly, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sellic Spell, a Beowulf fan-fiction (of sorts),  is definitely a worthwhile read–both for fans of Beowulf and for fans of Tolkien.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I think I would give Seamus Heaney’s version an 8.0, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s version an 8.0 as well. This is taking into account not just the translations themselves, but also the formatting, commentaries, and other such features contained in the respective books. I simply cannot force myself to choose one over the other. They are both books that I enjoyed reading and will probably re-read in the future.