Puff for Latin in the Guardian

An audience with Rome

As Latin is introduced to inner-city schools, we can finally stop thinking of it as a 'posh' language


Charlotte Higgins
Monday December 10, 2007
The Guardian

Latin,
it was reported last week, is making a comeback in inner-city schools
in London: 20 primaries are trying Latin lessons, under the aegis of
Project Iris, run by teacher Lorna Robinson. Something similar is
happening in Oxfordshire, where the language is also being introduced
to selected primary schools.

Robinson has spoken of its benefits in
helping children get to grips with English, but one of the refreshing
things about the move to teach Latin in perfectly ordinary primaries in
Hackney is that there is no nonsense here about it being the preserve
of the posh.

Alas,
the impression that the language is for toffs and Fotherington-Thomases
has probably been reinforced by its most vocal contemporary champions:
Boris Johnson may be many things, but he is not what we classicists
would call one of the profanum vulgus; or to put it another way, he is
not a man of the people.

In 1968, students protesting in Paris
actually cared enough – bizarre as it may now seem – to rail against
the compulsory study of Latin; and one of the first moves by the
Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia was to banish the language from
schools. Latin has long been regarded as the preserve of the few, a
position to which it gradually declined after a staggeringly successful
stint as the universal language of first the Roman empire and then the
church.

It had a robust development through the middle ages, a
retention of power through the start of the early modern period, and
then a swift downward canter, as the language ceased to be the
essential carrier of European thought and became the bastion – and the
mark – of the wealthy, educated classes.

Until quite recently it
retained a useful side function (which it can still claim to an extent)
of being a vehicle for excluding the masses from certain areas of
privileged knowledge. Legal and medical terminology was obscured in
Latin, as was stuff that was too sexually explicit to be revealed to
morally susceptible members of the working classes and, naturally, of
the weaker sex. (An unintended consequence was that Latin has been
associated with titillation; in 1881 an edition of an 18th-century work
of pornography called Academie des Dames was put out, in deliberately
easy Latin, with a crib provided.)

The association of Latin,
then, with upper-class males is a mere trick of history. Just as
Project Iris is doing in Hackney, it's time to reclaim Latin for the
proletariat (a good Latin word, after all). Why? Partly, as Project
Iris hints, it's an excellent way of improving language and general
learning skills. And partly because it is difficult – and why shouldn't
children be challenged? Latin is a tricky beast, but if it's taught
well children can have a lot of fun with it.

One might ask, why
not learn something useful, like Spanish or Mandarin or French? Well,
do that too, but your efforts will be made easier by a knowledge of
Latin: because it's a “dead” language – as people are so fond of saying
– learning it presents the advantage of sidestepping all that business
of ordering a beer or reserving a hotel room. Instead you delve right
down to the bones of the language, understanding it at a deep,
structural level that is both immensely rewarding for its own sake and
very useful when that understanding is applied to any other language.

Mostly,
though, Latin is worthwhile because it creates the opportunity for an
encounter with the intellectual world of the ancient Romans, through
the fantastically rich corpus of literature that remains to us. This
encounter with Rome is important because so much of what we do and
think – from the way our laws are organised to the nature of our
education system, to how we look at our rights and duties as citizens –
has its roots in Rome. Encountering Rome through its literature is one
of the most exciting journeys the life of the mind can offer. To engage
with these strange creatures of 2,000 years ago – so like, so unlike us
– is to embark on a relationship that is often deeply unsettling, but
never anything less than enriching.

· Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian's arts correspondent and author of Latin Love Lessons: Put a Little Ovid in Your Life
charlotte.higgins@guardian.co.uk

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