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Learning in Latin

The place of Latin and the heritage of the ancient Roman world

Latin developed from a local dialect of central Italy to become the official language of ancient Rome, transmitting Roman law, government, literature and social and cultural knowledge and values throughout much of Europe, North Africa and West Asia during the period 753 BCE – 476 CE. The period for the study is 1st century BCE to 1st century CE when some of the most influential Latin literature extant was written.

As the institutions of the Roman empire fell into disarray in the 5th century CE, churches and monasteries became centres of education and scholarship, preserving and recopying manuscripts of Latin literary works. Latin was the language of literate Europeans throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and continued to be used in academic contexts up to the 20th century. It was the vehicle for literary, liturgical, legal, political, philosophical and scientific texts, many of lasting historical and aesthetic value. Latin continued as the language of Western Christianity and remains so today for the official business of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican City State.

The enduring achievements and rich legacy of the ancient Roman world are still evident in today’s world, in modern values, customs and beliefs, our laws and the form of our governments, our buildings and our art and literature. Readers of Latin have firsthand access to the great Classical writers who have shaped later world literature, such as Catullus, Lucretius, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Livy, Tacitus and Juvenal (1st century BCE to 1st century CE). Readers can also access early Christian writers such as Augustine and documents such as Magna Carta (1215), and the works of mediaeval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, Renaissance statesmen such as Thomas More (Utopia 1516) and scientific pioneers such as Isaac Newton (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica 1687). The work of the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus (Systema Naturae 1735) ensured that Latin remains the language of the classification of species in botany and zoology.

Although English is a Germanic language and not a descendant of Latin, the influence of Latin on the vocabulary of English is enormous. The greatest influence has been the adoption of countless literary, legal, political and scientific words from Latin to enable scholarly discourse to take place in English. Students of Latin increase their knowledge of English vocabulary beyond basic usage to include abstract and sophisticated language, for example, judicial. In addition, many Latin terms remain unchanged in English, such as de facto, bona fide, post-mortem, alter ego, veto. Abbreviations of Latin expressions occur in common and specialised usage, such as etc., a.m, i.e., ad lib.

From the 14th century on, the various dialects of popular or ‘Vulgar’ Latin became recognised as distinct languages with works of literature of their own: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. All these living variants of Latin are spoken today, not only in their countries of origin but as a result of European colonisation, in many parts of the world, as confirmed by the term ‘Latin America’. A knowledge of Latin facilitates the learning of any of these languages.

Although social and educational changes caused a reduction in the numbers of students of Latin in the 20th century, Latin continues to flourish. In the 21st century, there has been a steady worldwide resurgence, particularly in the United Kingdom, Europe, North America and Australia.

The nature of learning Latin

Latin is a highly inflected language, with three distinct genders, as well as noun cases and verb conjugations, tenses, moods and voices. The modern English alphabet is essentially the same as the Roman alphabet.

Students learn Latin systematically within an authentic historical, social and cultural context. They engage with the ambience, history, society and values of ancient Rome as they read, and are encouraged to relate their discoveries to life in the modern world.

As they learn Latin, students make connections with English and other languages. They expand their English vocabulary by exploring words derived from Latin, and examine the complex inflexions of Latin, making comparisons with how meaning is conveyed in English. Students’ growing awareness of grammar equips them to understand the workings of other languages they may already know or wish to learn.

From synthetic reading material, students may progress to authentic Latin texts, encountering selections from famous works of poetry and prose which have influenced Western literature and thought for two millennia. Students are encouraged to discuss the ideas and values embedded in texts and to convey their meaning and tone in English. They analyse how language and style are used to convey the author’s purpose. As Latin literature was composed to be delivered orally, students learn to read aloud, using the restored Classical pronunciation, and are encouraged to listen to oral performances so as to appreciate the impact of these works on their intended audiences.

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