There are many arguments schools give for having Latin as a language course: Its being the basis for a host of other romance languages; its use in the legal or medical fields; and even (which is a bit far-fetched in my mind) for forming the mind to function more logically. Students who are obliged to take Latin will inevitably question reasons such as these or any reason a teacher or headmaster might give for studying Latin... and rightly so. If students are not satisfied with the answers teachers give, new answers should be sought, answers that get to the heart of the matter of “why Latin?”
Anyone who speaks a handful of different languages can tell you that when they speak those languages they can sometimes take on a very different character. When I am with a group of Italian friends my way of communicating becomes much more ebullient, my need for personal space is instantly shed and an exaggerated intonation is applied to every word I say. Moreover, my facial features are intensified to transmit every idea with my heart on my sleeve in the true-Italian-style. I can say that the same thing happens when I speak Spanish, Norwegian or English. Each mode of communication forces me to take on the specific cultural traits I perceived in the native speakers I learned from.
However something different happens when I speak Latin. I realize that speaking Latin is not an ordinary habit for most people, though thanks to the work of places like the Paideia Institute and Accademia Vivarium Novum, it is becoming a possibility for more and more people. For me, Latin reveals just how much human language is only a set of accepted conventions.
What is grammatically acceptable is determined by society itself and if someone is unaware of the new meaning of a new-coined phrase or word, they are somehow isolated from the rest of us. We can probably all remember the first time we heard the phrase “going postal” or learned what “twerking” meant. The conventionality of languages shows itself in grammar as well. There are many now who consider split infinitives to be acceptable, thus allowing Star Trek “to boldly go” where no student of English grammar has ever gone before with impunity.
The advantage of Latin is, being a dead language, it is immune to change. After all, its linguistic inheritors are actually speaking Spanish, Italian and French. However, what makes Latin special is that the Corpus Verae Latinitatis will forever be based on those highest exemplars of the language, of whom the sum total of their written work could be confined to a good-sized personal library.
Since Latin vocabulary and grammar is ultimately based on the works of a limited number of writers, it will forever have an immovable standard, one that survived even the barbarian invasion of Europe. It is their work, as well as the work of those who followed their standard, that is at the foundation of western society and culture.
The Latin language used by ordinary people for every day uses has been gone for more than a millennium and a half, but the language to discuss the deep questions of life through literature, poetry and personal correspondence, as well as art, physics and philosophy has persisted through time. This is the language of Cicero and Caesar, of Seneca and Augustine.
While Latin was persisting, it generated Western Culture as we know it today. The work of every great thinker from Boethius (who give us the idea of “person”), to Isaac Newton was written in this language and transmitted to the intelligentsia of the European continent, whose modern boundaries are now defined by the extent of its use.
As mentioned before, when we learn a language, we are forced to see things in light of the different perspective that language offers. Learning Latin does not only permit us to understand the borrowed words our own languages have taken from her, but also helps us understand the world according to the original parameters that have brought us to where we are today. Even though these parameters are conventional, as any human language is, they are fundamental to the preservation of our society. This is why the study of Latin is important for any school seeking eminence in education. Understanding the parameters that make up our culture are necessary for the preservation of every one of its achievements from the court of law to the light bulb.
Human communication is conventional and possibly, to a large extent, haphazard in origin, but it is the bucket that holds the milk of culture, the walls that make our home. The question then is, why isn’t everyone learning Latin?