Long live Latin: Why learn a language no one speaks?
Latin has been considered a dead language for hundreds of years, but is it making a revival? Evana Ho reports.
“Veni vidi vici,” Julius Caesar is said to have written after victory in a five-day battle in hilly terrain in what we now know as northern Turkey. “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
As the Romans expanded their rule across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, they spread not only their ancient empire, but also their language, Latin. It was the language of government, the law and the military, and became widely spoken across their lands.
As the Empire crumbled, so too did the use of Latin. A few centuries later it was barely spoken and became a ‘dead language’. But its legacy lives on. Caesar’s phrase has been quoted and adapted well into modern times, including by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rapper Jay-Z, and in the original Ghostbusters film.
Back from the dead
In the ACT, seven people reported to the 2016 census that they speak Latin at home – out of 309 people nationwide. (The word ‘census’, by the way, is in itself Latin, from ‘censere’ meaning estimate. And like the Australian census, the Roman census was also carried out every five years.)
So what’s the utility and value of learning a language that isn’t widely spoken or used?
Its advocates say learning Latin can improve one’s grasp of English grammar.
“English grammar was actually contorted in the 19th century to make it fit to Latin grammar,” says Dr Chris Bishop, convener of the Latin program at ANU where the language has been taught since 1960.
Knowing Latin can make it easier to learn Romance languages such as French and Italian, given it was their basis. It can also be helpful for people working in the fields of medicine, science and law, where a lot of terminology is in Latin. Bishop says some law and medicine students at ANU had found it useful to study the language.
Useful, but how necessary is it to know? Are doctors, scientists, and lawyers who have a background in Latin better at their professions?
“In fact, it could prove a disadvantage, because some words have taken on a different meaning in English to those they originally had in Latin,” Bishop says.
The word ‘alibi’, for instance, is Latin. But while the original term, pronounced with an emphasis on the first i rather than the second, is a non-comparable adverb meaning ‘somewhere else’, alibi is a noun.
“Now it means you were somewhere else and you can claim to be somewhere else at the time,” Bishop says. “So you were 'alibī' – you were elsewhere. But now we say you have an alibi.”
Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Minchin, who taught Latin at ANU for almost four decades and also taught Bahasa Indonesia and French to secondary students, says learning Latin isn’t for everyone.
“But I believe very strongly that some people in our community should learn Latin and be proficient in reading and understanding the language,” she says.
“So much of Western cultural tradition – extending over 2,000 years to include works from the Renaissance too – has come to us in Latin or via Latin. We should never lose touch with that if we are to maintain a connection with that thread of our Australian cultural heritage. And we need people with appropriate skills to interpret that heritage.”
Bishop, who was a student of Minchin’s in the 1980s, says learning Latin will help people enjoy some literary masterpieces in their original language.
“It doesn't matter how good a translation is, you'll never understand the actual nuance of what somebody is saying – in any language – without reading it in the original,” he says.
He cites stoic philosopher Seneca, early histories by Suetonius and Tacitus, and some of the best rhetoric and oratory in the world by Cicero.
“But for me, the standout is the poetry. Latin poetry is just so, so beautiful and you won't understand it in translation.”
While Bishop loves Latin, he doesn’t promote it to the exclusion of other languages. There are great texts in many languages and the benefits gained from learning Latin – connecting to the past, making your brain more nimble – can be achieved from studying other languages too.
“I don't think Latin is more important than any other language,” Bishop says.
“Classics does suffer a bit sometimes because some in the field imagine it's more important than everybody else because it's the foundations of European civilisation. But European civilisation is just one thing; there are so many things you can study.”
In 2020, Bishop featured in media stories around the world when mining company Adani changed its name to Bravus. Its CEO claimed the term meant ‘courageous’ in Latin, but Bishop set the record straight: ‘Bravus’ means something closer to mercenary. After that exposure, Bishop was contacted by two organisations seeking Latin translation advice as they developed their own mottos.
“It's funny isn't it?” Bishop says. “A company wants to have a motto and they instantly go for Latin. They could go for anything else: a line from Sanskrit poetry, an excerpt from any one of the millions of lines of Chinese philosophy. But they never do. They go for Latin. And it's because of the perceived dominance of European civilisation.
“The reality is that Australia was founded by the British Empire and there's no point denying it's part of our history. But it's interesting, given the multiculturalism of a country like Australia and the fact that we like it being multicultural, that when we look for touchstones we still go back to ancient Rome.”
Globally, Latin continues to have currency. There’s the Living Latin movement, which seeks to revive spoken Latin. The Finnish Latin language news service Nuntii Latini ran from 1989 until 2019. Minecraft has offered Latin as a language option since 2013. The first two Harry Potter books were translated in Latin – and indeed, it’s the language of magic at Hogwarts. “Expelliarmus,” the wizards yell to disarm their opponent, a combination of ‘expello’ (banish) and ‘arma’ (weapon).
Closer to home, Bishop has been running a Latin conversation group for his students. He adapted some script from the Latin novel The Satyricon into a play, and his students are keen to perform it in 2022.
“Latin is always going to be quite niche,” he says. “It's never going to be as popular as French or Japanese or Indonesian or something like that.”
Latin being a dead language, paradoxically, makes it hard to revive. But, Bishop says, you can still learn it for reading.
“I know lots of people who know all sorts of languages that only exist in inscriptions and things like that, and I guess I'm just sort of used to it,” he says.
“They don't seem so dead to me.”