Reflections on Learning an Ancient Language: Classical Latin


The 2018 Durham Greek & Latin Summer School came to an end last Saturday and I’ve been back at home and work for the past week. Although A864 (the 2nd year of my MA in Classical Studies) starts in October, I’ve been occupying my time with some serious language study. I’ve been working hard trying to consolidate everything that I learned about Latin at Durham because I’m conscious that once October comes I’ll have to spread my time between the module and learning Latin and probably more in favour of the module if truth be told. But, for the time being it’s all about verbs, nouns, conjugations, declensions and vocabulary.

Screen-Shot-2018-04-05-at-4.19.19-PM-300x212I’ve decided to continue as I started at the Summer School and follow through with Jones & Sidwell’s Reading Latin. So far, so good! I’ve not hit any major barriers yet and for the moment, dare I say it, I’m progressing nicely (thanks to Cora Beth for providing some valued grammatical and moral support). But, as always there’s always room for a little procrastination and whilst idly scanning various websites I noted that more often than not, Classical Latin is described as a ‘dead language’; this got me thinking about the broader questions relating to learning an ancient language.

Let’s tackle that notion of a ‘dead language’ first. Well, in the modern sense if we think of something as being ‘dead’ we perhaps think of endings of things, if something dies, it is gone. A search on the OED says that when something is dead it is ‘No longer current, relevant, or important‘. Now I’m no authority on the etymology of Latin, I’ve only recently come to consider this aspect of language and I obviously cant say what will happen to the Latin language in the future, but in the here and now I would argue strongly that Latin is very much alive, it certainly is, in my opinion current, relevant and important. Of course, I’m biased given my scholarly interests and I’m perhaps arguing for the sake of arguing given that linguistically speaking the idea of a ‘dead language’ refers specifically to a language that is ‘no longer in everyday spoken use’, but even that definition is somewhat ambiguous. Accepted, and please do correct me if I’m wrong, there are no modern societies that claim Latin as their official language, save perhaps the Catholic Church, but should we perhaps think of Latin more as a ‘dormant’ language undergoing a resurgence rather than a ‘dead’ one? Semantics aside, I’d be inclined to run with this definition and label Latin as a ‘dormant language’, (but even ‘dormant’ has negative connotations), firstly because currently everywhere I look I see commendable attempts, mainly from career classicists  trying to encourage schools to embrace and teach the classics and secondly because there are a great deal of benefits from learning ancient languages, Latin in particular.

Why Latin?

Well this is a very good question, why Latin, an arguably defunct language that many would claim has no relevance in the modern world? To such naysayers I say TACETE! In support of my argument I want to draw on an article from The Guardian from 2009 and the musings of Mary Beard from 2006, both of which highlight some compelling reasons why Latin is still very relevant and particularly something that should be encouraged. Of course you are entitled to disagree with this assessment! According to the Guardian, Latin is important because…

‘It is taught to be read, not spoken, because it is taught entirely through its grammatical rules not through its demotic use, as you learn it you gain an understanding of the mechanics and structure of language streets ahead of any you will gain from the study of a modern tongue’

Higgins, C (2009) Online.

As the article goes on to point out, learning Latin opens us up to a whole new world of literature from the great writers of antiquity, which in my opinion is enough reason to embrace Latin alone, a position shared by Mary Beard who notes that…

‘Virgil’s Aeneid and Tacitus’ Annals (to name only two) are as mind-opening and life-changing works of literature as Hamlet, Paradise Lost or Anna Karenina. It is worth learning Latin just to be able to read them. But more than that, the Latin Classics are so embedded in the Western literary tradition, that as a culture we would be lost in our own world if we could not access them. What would we make of Dante or Milton, for example, if we could not read them side by side with Virgil?’

Beard, M (2006) Online.

I for one agree with both Beard & Higgins, my recent attempts to get to grips with the language aside, I can truly see the benefits that learning Latin is affording me. English is my first language and perhaps this is down to a lack of understanding when I was younger or perhaps poor teaching, but learning Latin has highlighted inconsistencies in my grasp of basic English grammar and terminology, an understanding that is being continually tested, reiterated and reinforced as I immerse myself in Latin. The more I learn, the more I want to learn and the language of Classical Rome is bringing me closer to understanding the lives of those who lived in the distant past.


Selected Resources for studying Classical Latin

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Learning an Ancient Language: Classical Latin

  1. Nice to find your blog. I am also immersing myself in Latin, just because I tried once or twice before and then gave up again. I am hoping to do Latin at the OU in two years time, and it can’t be bad to know the rudiments already. I have done some Greek in the past, but Latin seems more tricky. My brain is not the youngest, but some of it may stick. As you say, there are lots of benefits. Thank you for your encouragement!


    1. Hi Jane, thanks for your comments. I’ve been studying Classics for quite a while now but have only recently started any serious work on classical languages. I’m hoping to start Greek next year but for the time being it’s all about the Latin. I’m working on the premise that a little every day will make it stick! Good luck with your Latin, I’m hoping to set up an online Latin support group for us learners soon.


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