Of What Value Is a Dead Language?

June 24, 2020

The prestige of studying classical languages like Latin and Greek is greatly eroded today. This is no mystery; but how did we get to this point? Linguist Nicholas Ostler, in his book Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, chronicles how Latin remained the one constant during the growth of Western culture. The claims he makes about the centrality of Latin are a bit startling, until you realize they are absolutely true. “Only seen from the perspective of Latin does Europe really show itself as a single story,” he writes; “nothing else was there all the way through and involved in so many aspects, not Rome, not the Empire, not the Catholic Church, not even Christianity itself.” Elsewhere he says that Latin is “the soul of Europe’s civilization.”

It’s hard to argue with this; Latin encompasses the rich variety of Western thought, from the orations of Cicero and Virgil’s epic to the fathers of the Christian church (many of them writing in Greek, but transmitted to later ages in Latin translation) to scholastic theology and treatises from the Scientific Revolution, to official writings of the popes. For centuries, schoolchildren were brought up on Latin authors as models of rhetoric and concision, elegance and eloquence.

But Latin later suffered a sad decline, and this is the subject of the later part of Dr. Ostler’s book—how the language went from an essential scholastic foundation to an object of fun and ridicule. “Nowadays Latin seems a comical language . . . the sheer ponderosity of the Latin word-endings calls forth guffaws in English speakers.” There were many factors in this decline: nationalism, the growth of vernacular languages and literature, the turn from a humanistic to a utilitarian approach to education. A powerful part of Dr. Ostler’s argument is that the decline of Latin mirrored the fracturing of Western thought and our increasing rejection of our own past. The intellectual unity of European culture, expressed for example in Thomistic thought, was largely based in the unity of the Latin language. For many centuries it was a form of communication universally understood among educated people, a sort of neutral ground for a meeting of minds.

Yet early on, Dante recognized the literary validity of the vernacular by choosing Tuscan Italian for his Divina commedia. Rene Descartes’ philosophical break with the past was signaled by his writing in French rather than Latin. The Protestant Reformation, which split Western Europe along religious lines, split it along linguistic lines as well. The Reformation was, among many other things, an assertion of the vernacular languages, tethered to a belief in the private interpretation of scripture. Protestants conducted their services, and read their Bibles, in the vernacular. It was the seedbed from which nationalist sentiments grew, replacing the universal outlook of the Roman and medieval eras.

From this perspective, the Catholic Church changing to a vernacular liturgy after the Second Vatican Council was not so much a dramatic reversal (or betrayal) as the inevitable outcome of a long-term trend—the resounding drop of the other shoe. Western culture as a whole had long been growing more and more apart from Latin. One of the first milestones was in 813, when a church council in Tours mandated that priests should preach their sermons in the vernacular instead of Latin, which the people could no longer understand. Later, Latin became the preserve of the educated class, cultivated in the universities and among learned humanists. And of course it remained the language of the liturgical rites.

Latin is far from the only “dead” language to have been preserved as a sacred language. Sanskrit, New
Testament Greek, Hebrew, and Church Slavonic are other examples. The reasons for this are not hard to see. When asked why he chose Latin texts for his choral composition Symphony of Psalms, Igor Stravinsky declared that Latin was “not dead, but turned to stone, and thus immune to vulgarization.” A dead language is ideal for transmitting living truths. While living languages change constantly—and word meanings can be manipulated for ideological purposes—a classical language is by definition immutable and timeless.

In many ways the study of Latin goes against the grain of modernity. In a world of short memories and attention spans, Latin enshrines an old literature and antique modes of thought and expression. In a world in which thought is oversimplified, Latin is complex and weighty. The “uselessness” of Latin is conspicuous in a world governed by utilitarian standards.

Such is the status Latin has today: a vestige of our heritage, vaguely felt—mainly through assorted maxims, mottoes, and other scraps of official culture—but without living force. We have lost not only an understanding of it but a feel for it, and that is not easily recaptured.

A big problem is that Latin for most people remains an “eye” or “brain language,” one that rarely gets off the printed page. Even many people who know Latin don’t pronounce it very well or consistently, and to my mind a language that doesn’t have a pronunciation—that does not resound—lacks reality and presence. The grand exception are classical singers, who sing liturgical Latin on a daily basis. On the other hand, there are priests celebrating the old Latin Mass whom I would much rather hear declaiming beautiful 17thcentury English—it would sound better and be similarly sacral in character. The remoteness of Latin, since it has ceased to be widely used or cared about, has made it into a veritable ghost. If spoken at all, it usually sounds stilted and unnatural. (In view of this, is Shakespeare’s English perhaps our new “classical” tongue?)

The precise aesthetic appeal of Latin is hard to put one’s finger on. It has a stony strength akin to German tempered by a grace similar to the Romance tongues. Its stately music is created by the constant chiming together of its inflectional word endings. But I think Dr. Ostler is correct that the general sensibility of the language is alien to most people now. For Latin stands for the achievements of a specific cultural inheritance, and the postmodern world believes in cultural relativity. Latin stands for authority and tradition, and our world no longer likes authoritative truth. Latin remains, but hanging on as if by a thread.

And yet, for defenders of Latin, its differences to the modern world are its very strengths. Here are the main arguments for the defense:

  • The first argument might be summed up under Latin’s symbolism. Latin signifies permanence, everlasting values, and the achievements of a mighty civilization. There is philosophical value in the very “uselessness” of Latin. It was once the foundation of a humane education, and even now seems to embody symbolically the idea of Eternal Truth.
  • Latin fosters intellectual rigor and strengthens the mind for many other disciplines. Albert Einstein reportedly counted Latin as one of his favorite subjects in school because of its logical structure. Translating a long and complex Latin sentence is an analytical exercise par excellence, similar to solving a math problem or finding the solution to a puzzle. There is great intellectual pleasure and satisfaction to be had in teasing out a Latin inscription on a monument, for instance.
  • Latin “trains the brain,” fostering general linguistic aptitude. With its compactness and exactitude, it encourages precision of thought and expression. It helps us better understand our English language (a Latin-Germanic conglomerate) and facilitates learning other foreign tongues. As a fan of Italian and French, I am grateful for what knowledge of Latin I have. It allows me to grasp in a very detailed way the extent to which Italian is a beautifully vulgarized and mangled version of Latin. It is colorful and amusing to learn how various Italian words originated in Roman street slang (the Italian word for head, testa, comes from the Vulgar Latin for “pot,” one of hundreds of similar examples).
  • Of course, mind-training should be secondary to the intrinsic value in the language itself. And so one of the main arguments in favor of Latin is that it opens the doors to a body of great literature. As we all know, a translation, no matter how skillful, is a poor facsimile; a piece of literature can only be fully appreciated in the original. Words have their own flavor and texture which cannot be duplicated in another tongue. So studying Latin can help you read, if that happens to be your alleyway. My own (very casual) interest in Latin has focused on its Christian literature: the Vulgate Bible, hymns by St. Ambrose and Venantius, the great liturgical poems like the Stabat mater, and dollops of Boethius or Aquinas. Christian Latin is a rich field that deserves more attention than it gets.

This may in fact be the saving grace for Latin. Even if the more arcane, classical culture is forgotten, Latin still has an indelible connection with Christian thought and worship, and Christians live by the divine promise that the church will not be destroyed. Perhaps this guarantee is reason enough to preserve any dead (that is, immortal) tongue.

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