The future of Latin


Recently the University of Roehampton announced that it is to close its Classics department. Leaving aside the surprising revelation that such a small and undistinguished seat of learning actually boasted a Classics department, this is part of a trend towards abolishing certain disciplines in the Humanties, principally ( one supposes) due to lack of interest from prospective students. We have also learnt that graduate with degrees in English Literature are now finding it harder than their fellow graduates in most other branches of the Humanities   to secure jobs. In view of this, the ultra-vocationally inclined Sheffield Hallam University, has decided to abolish its department of English Literature. Doubtless, many other Universities that were former polytechnics, will follow suit.

The reassessment of the Classics as an academic discipline worth sticking with has been going on in and outside the Academy for a hundred or more years. Sometimes an insistence on a qualification in Latin seems absurd. When your Jotter was being groomed for Oxford at a State grammar school in Wales by his history master, it was discovered that if he wished to study English, an O level in Latin was the minimum requirement. Because he had switched from the Science stream to the Arts after ‘O’ levels, he had no such qualification, unlike those who had remained in the Arts all their school careers. Had he wished to study English at Cambridge, however, a qualification in Latin was not stipulated, thanks partly to the efforts of people like F. R. Leavis.  In the end, your Jotter opted for Cambridge, but failed to get in, mainly because, unlike those from public schools preparing for Oxbridge, he was not offered special guidance on past exam papers etc. Not that he is bitter in any way! 

All this is a week in which the Roman historian and TV personality Mary Beard has announced her retirement from Cambridge. When interviewed on radio Ms Beard did not take the opportunity to defend the Classics against those who might wish to downgrade her discipline. Which is a pity. The teaching of Latin in state schools has decreased considerably over the past twenty years, while ancient Greek is hardly taught at all outside the public school sector.

All this is very apposite in the light of one interesting chapter in John O’London’s excellent Is it Good English (1925). Here is the letter from ‘a young reader’ that starts off a discussion in that book.

‘ A young reader write to me to complain that Latin quotations in leading articles and elsewhere irritate him, and he suggested that in these days, when knowledge of Latin is decreasing rather than increasing , it is time to put away old ‘ tags’ like ‘ nil admirari ‘, ‘ ore rotundo’, lex talionis,’ ‘dulce est desipere in loco,’’O! si sic omnia’ and the like. He adds: ‘ Frankly, I know no Latin, and I cannot see why we should go on sticking it like spangles on good English.’


To which Mr O’London replies:-


I am afraid that I can agree within only narrow limits. Some of these ‘tags’ are overdone. But they tend of themselves to disappears into translations.’ Let the shoemaker stick his last’ is now more often written than ‘ Ne sutor ultra crepidam’, and ‘ Let justice be done though the heavens fall’ than ‘ Fiat justitia., ruat coelum.’ But my friend knows a great deal more Latin than he knows he knows. M. Jourdain ( in Moliere’s play) learned in middle life, to his astonishment, that he had been talking in prose all his life without knowing it. My inquirer had talked pure Latin all his life , though he did not know it. I am not referring to English words derived from and resembling their Latin roots, but to pure Latin which is now, to all intents and purposes, pure English, and does not need any indication by italics or quotation marks.


The writer then proceeds to list a number of words and phrases in Latin which have survived in present-day English. These include:


Addendum                                           Gratis                                        Ratio

Afflatus                                               Ignoramus                                  Regalia

Agenda                                              Index                                           Sanctum

Alias                                                  Interim                                        Stratum

Alibi                                                  Janitor                                        Terminus

Alma mater                                       Magnum                                     Ultimatum                                  

Anno domini                                     Major                                         Vacuum

Aurora                                             Minor                                          Verbatim

Bona fide                                         Maximum                                    Vim…

Bonus                                              Minimum

Caveat                                             Memento

Censor                                            Omnibus

Colossus                                         Opprobrium

Crux                                               Opus                                          

Curriculum                                    Par

Data                                              Quantum

Delerium tremens                         Quasi

Exit                                               Quorum

Genius                                          Quota


Mr O’London goes on to list some Latin phrases which cannot be effectively translated into English. These might include:-

Annus mirabilis     Casus belli    De facto   De profundis    Deus ex machina    Disjecta membra   Ex libris   Ex officio   Persona grata   Rus in urbe  Sui generis   Terra incognita


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