Why Learn Latin or Greek: Benefits of Studying a Dead Language
A short time ago, a friend mentioned she had recently read a book saying there are very few benefits of studying a dead language like Latin or Greek. The author pointed out that having knowledge of Latin or Greek languages was once useful as you could have read the classics (as they weren’t yet translated into English). But, since that time, these classical books have been translated into English and so learning a dead language is now of little value. The author said that in fact, it may be doing harm as it takes away from the time a student could be spending on other subjects.
Some other arguments against learning a dead language like Latin or Greek are that (1) it makes students unnecessarily pompous (as they’ll be using Latin words when no one understands what they’re talking about) and (2) unless you learn these languages very extensively, you won’t really be able to read the classics anyway.
Are these points valid? Or other there other benefits of studying a dead language like Latin or Greek which outweigh the disadvantages? Do we erroneously force classically educated students to study Latin to their detriment, or are there more solid reasons behind this insistence on studying a dead language?
I believe there are good reasons to study dead languages. Therefore, in this article, I’ll be showing you these advantages, namely that Latin and Greek help you:
- Learn legal, medical, and engineering jargon
- Learn the romance languages
- Understand big words
- Enjoy English more
- Understand English more
- Study the Bible in the original language
- Learn how to think with more clarity (order, discipline, structure, and precision)
- Enjoy great classics like Shakespeare
- Follow in the footsteps of giants
Far from what some people might think, studying something that’s ‘dead’ isn’t always useless. The video above makes the point that saying you don’t want to study a dead language is like:
- medical students saying, ‘I don’t want to study this cadaver because it’s dead,’ or
- mechanics saying, ‘I don’t want to study this engine as it is turned off.’
Let’s have a look at these reasons in more detail below.
Please Note: In this article, we will be mostly referring to the dead language of Latin.
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Understand big words
People who have learned Latin or Greek can more easily determine the meaning of big words they’ve never seen before as the large words in our vocabulary are usually made up of smaller Latin or Greek words. Check out this list of Latin words with English derivatives. From the Latin word:
- duco which means to lead, we get the English derivatives
- abduce, abducent, abduction, abductor, adduce, adducent, adduct, adduction, adductor, circumduction, conduce, conducent, conduction, conductive, conductivity, conductor, deduce, deduct, deductible, deduction, deductive, duct, ductile, ductility, ductor, educe, educt, induce, inducement, induct, induction, inductive, inductor, introduce, introduction, introductory, irreducible, nonconductive, produce, product, production, productive, productivity, reduce, reducible, reduction, redux, reintroduction, reproduce, reproduction, reproductive, seduce, seduction, seductive, semiconductor, subduction, superconductivity, superconductor, traduce, traducent, traducian, traduct, traduction
- calculus which means limestone or pebble, we get
- calcareous, calciferous, calcific, calcification, calciform, calcite, calcium, calculability, calculable, calculate, calculation, calculator, calculus, caliche, chalk, decalcification, incalculable, precalculate, recalcification, recalculate
Amazing, huh! As you can see, knowing a dead language helps you understand big words. An understanding of root Latin and Greek words means you’ll be able to better understand English and the other romance languages more easily.
Understand English more
What is the best tool that will help you learn the English language? The ‘dead language’ Latin is. This is what one educational guru said on the matter:
I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediæval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilisation, together with all its historical documents. Those whose pedantic preference for a living language persuades them to deprive their pupils of all these advantages might substitute Russian, whose grammar is still more primitive. (The verb is complicated by a number of “aspects”—and I rather fancy that it enjoys three complete voices and a couple of extra aorists—but I may be thinking of Basque or Sanskrit.) Russian is, of course, helpful with the other Slav dialects. There is something also to be said for classical Greek. But my own choice is Latin. – Dorothy Sayers, Lost Tools of Learning, p. 10.
Younger languages like English, French, and Spanish have morphed out of Latin and Greek. In fact, Latin is largely derived from Greek origins and might be called the daughter of the Greek language.
In the same vein, English is a derivative of Latin and Greek and so understanding these dead languages helps you understand English more. Memoria Press also makes the point that learning Latin is the next step after phonics. They argue phonics only covers the English part (which is really the Germanic part) of the English language which is made up of a Latin-English mix. Latin teaches you the Latin part of it.
And according to Classical Conversations, the Germanic part of modern-day English teaches more concrete terms while Latin teaches more of the abstract terms. Learning phonics and Latin give you an incredible grounding in English and will help you understand it more.
Enjoy English more
It’s easy to see that if you understand more of the English language you will enjoy reading it more. Instead of fighting to finish a complicated book or article, you’ll sail your way through it, engaging with what the author is trying to say easily. You won’t trip over complicated phrases but think on a higher level, making connections with other things you’ve read.
If you don’t know the language well, you’ll either fight your way through the book or put it down in despair, vowing to never pick up a complicated tome again.
Many in our generation are so illiterate these days that we generally prefer a video on a topic as opposed to a book (cue Youtube). But, there are only so many videos on so many topics. If you’re interested in a niche topic, you may not find a satisfying video on the subject. Instead, you have to read a book to get a grasp of the niche topic you want to know more about.
If you know Latin, you’ll be able to pick up almost any English book and be confident you will be able to understand it. And this will help you enjoy it more.
Learn legal, medical, and engineering jargon
Most people who have studied a legal or medical degree will tell you that knowledge of a dead language like Latin or Greek is helpful. I studied a year of medical school and found the year of Latin I studied in 5th grade helped me break down large words making up a lot of medical terminologies. Similarly, I studied a term of Law and found that knowledge of Latin was also very helpful.
This is because knowing Latin and Greek means you know the root words of some very large words. Here are some examples:
- hypercholesterolemia (a common medical term which means high levels of cholesterol in your blood)
- hyper is from the Greek word meaning over or exaggeration
- chole is from the Greek word meaning solid
- (h)aimia is from the Greek meaning blood
- ad hoc (a common legal term meaning a solution designed to fit a specific problem or task which is non-generalizable and shouldn’t be adapted to other situations)
- ad is from the Latin meaning for
- hoc is from the Latin word meaning this
- bona fide (a legal term meaning sincere good intention irrespective of the outcome
- bona is Latin for good (male fide is the opposite of this word and means in bad faith)
- fide is Latin for faith
So, even if you’ve never seen a large word, you can often figure out the general meaning of the larger word by knowledge of the smaller root words.
Learn the Romance Languages
Dead languages like Latin and Greek help you understand other languages called the Romance languages. Why are they called Romance languages? Because they are inherently alluring? No. They are called this because they came from the Roman (romance) or Latin language.
Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian are easier to learn because they are the daughter languages of Latin and Greek.
If you can say Latin is the mother of the English language, you can say ancient Greek is the mother of the Latin language (and hence the grandmother of the English language!). As such, a working knowledge of Ancient Greek helps you have a better grasp of English.
Having learned a little French in my homeschooling education, I can attest that learning Latin made learning French in high school easier. Dorothy Sayers, the mother of modern-day classical education said learning Latin is the ‘key’ to these romance languages:
[A knowledge of Latin] is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilisation, together with all its historical documents.
So, if you want to learn a romance language, Latin will likely help you in this quest.
Study the Bible in the Original Language
Divinity students routinely take classes in ancient Greek and Hebrew which helps them understand the original texts and mine the text for its original meaning and context. They gain greater knowledge of culture and history and then consequently, gain a better perspective on life.
Learning Greek and Hebrew helps these students understand the context of a passage better than they might if they were only reading the Bible in English. Having sat under many pastors who know Greek, I’ve been greatly helped by the pastors explaining the root words of the Greek language which has added context, meaning and weight to many passages I’ve heard expounded.
Learn How to Reason and Think Better
The English language is complicated! There are some things in it that don’t make sense and once you’ve figured out a rule, you have to then memorize a few dozen exceptions to that rule. It’s infuriating for a new English speaker.
Not so with Latin. Latin is an incredibly orderly language. It’s a delight to learn and quite easy compared to English or Japanese.
As such, Latin students learn how to reason and think better. Cheryl Lowe insightfully explains:
…the mind of the student that has been educated in Latin takes on the qualities of Latin: logic, order, discipline, structure. Latin requires and teaches attention to detail, accuracy, patience, precision, and thorough, honest work. Latin will form the minds of your students. Think of the mind like the body. Latin is a mental workout, and Latin is your mental trainer.
Professor Edward Townes also says this applies to the Greek language in his post Why Learn Ancient Greek?
Because students can see a word and make connections to it based on their knowledge of the Latin terms contained therein, they become deeper and more critical thinkers. As they think more deeply about different subjects such as politics, religion, economics (and so on), they’re able to learn the subject in more depth and more quickly.
Because of this, Latin also trains pupils in ‘big picture’ and ‘little picture’ thinking as they consider the larger word in the context of the smaller word(s) and vice versa.
Of course, Greek and Hebrew are also orderly, neat and help you like this, but to learn these languages students have to learn a new alphabet. (Incredibly, ancient Hebrew characters tell an amazing story through pictures, visible in the characters themselves.)
Enjoy great classics like Shakespeare
Many people get frustrated with the difficult language in Shakespeare as it is old English. Knowing Latin will help you understand this (and other old) classics as they come from root Latin words which don’t change.
When you’re able to understand more of the complicated language in these old classics, you’ll enjoy the classics more and get more meaning out of the text making reading old favorites easier and more pleasurable.
Follow in the footsteps of giants
While not a reason in itself, it is comforting to know that many educational giants and famous people of their day have learned Latin and other dead languages like Greek. The quote at the top of this page by Winston Churchill shows what he thought of Latin and Greek. He thought both languages were useful and lead to a better (and more enjoyable) understanding of the English language and languages in general.
You will likewise find that many modern politicians, orators and other famous influencers have a background in Latin as they find it assists them with the English language. Learning dead languages like Latin and Greek give these people an edge and makes them think differently.
Learning dead languages helped many of these giants look at other people’s written or spoken works intelligently and create their own informed, precise and, intelligent works.
Begin learning a dead language early
When should a dead language begin? Dorothy Sayers says we should start teaching quite early. She had this to say about when to start:
Latin should be begun as early as possible—at a time when inflected speech seems no more astonishing than any other phenomenon in an astonishing world; and when the chanting of “amo, amas, amat” is as ritually agreeable to the feelings as the chanting of “eeny, meeny, miney, mo.” – Lost Tools of Learning, p. 10.
During this age we must, of course, exercise the mind on other things besides Latin grammar. Observation and memory are the faculties most lively at this period; and if we are to learn a contemporary foreign language we should begin now, before the facial and mental muscles become rebellious to strange intonations. Spoken French or German can be practised alongside the grammatical discipline of the Latin. – Lost Tools of Learning, p. 10.
How Can I Start Learning Latin and Greek?
There are a number of ways you can learn Latin and Greek. You can learn through apps, books or a combination of the two. You can also find selected courses online. Here are some popular books on learning these languages you might be interested in:
It seems an unfortunate thing that we call ancient Latin and Greek ‘dead languages’. Latin isn’t dead. It has just evolved into other languages. I believe they may not be spoken very often, but they’re definitely not completely dead. There are many useful reasons you’d learn a dead language like Latin and Greek. It is for these reasons that you should be encouraged to learn these great languages.