Languages that live

The reason why Latin and Greek are live, vivid, biotic languages is that they give access to the thoughts and ideas of those people who created European culture, and the history of that culture since. Furthermore, to be able to read in those two languages gives some understanding of the complex processes by which modern languages have evolved. To be able to read them is a continual lesson in language itself, and how it works.

Which made it odd that one of our sixth formers, a few years ago, was challenged by someone who taught history:

“Why do you want to do Latin? It’s a dead language, isn’t it?”

“Only if you don’t read books,” replied the boy dreamily, thinking of his lesson that day spent reading Juvenal.

The question, and its response, seems to connect with the misconception about learning languages that is apparently prevalent in this country, extending to public examination boards and certainly even to some teachers. It is an error that seems yet more prevalent in the United States of America—part of the reason being explained by Tracy Lee Simmons, in his book Climbing Parnassus (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2002), which contains some memorable insights.

Simmons presents the value of the Classics for the American mind, for its culture and for the protection of its people. He refers, among a great many other things, to ‘the powerlessness of incomprehension’ when people do not understand how language can be used to deceive them. And of a full, liberal education, he says, ‘It will help to free us from the snares assailing our fellows who live their lives at the mercy of phrases.’

And he quotes the words of A N Whitehead on the subject of a full education: ‘Useful, because understanding is useful.’

The Classics embrace both history and language, roots and all, and the understanding of them.