Clapham Christian Classical School

Clapham Journal

Literacy and Latinity

By Mr. Barney, Latin Teacher

Latin is often referred to as a dead language. At one level, of course, this captures a vital truth that students and adults alike are apt to forget: all the native speakers of Latin are long dead.



As a “living” (that is, spoken) language, Latin has not survived. All we have are texts. But the metaphor of deadness for the language itself is quite deceptive and betrays a faulty assumption about the usefulness of spoken language over written. As Latin Teacher and devotee of other ancient (and therefore “dead”) languages, I’d like to address this assumption by picking up some threads of my earlier articles about literacy and applying them to Latin as a literate language, which is, in fact, alive and well.

There are two immediate problems with the tendency to label only spoken languages “living” and to relegate those only preserved for us through writing as “dead.” First, a moment’s reflection will reveal that this causes a major problem for us Christians (or, for that matter, the other book-based faiths, like Judaism and Islam), because then we have to say that the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible is “dead.” To say that the Word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12) means more than that the “dead” Greek and Hebrew are powerfully alive to any who will learn to read them, but it must at least mean that. Too often we forget, when reading our English translations, how crucial the living tradition of passing on these “dead” languages has been for preserving the Bible and translating it faithfully and effectively to each next generation. Christians, of all people, should be most inclined to receive ancient languages as living, even if their speakers are dead.


Second, there are linguistic problems with the designation of languages no longer spoken as “dead.” The idea comes from the important truth that “living” languages change. Speakers constantly come up with new words for their language, add new meanings to words, and change current meanings of words. In this way, English is “living” because words like ‘ipad’ have recently been coined, and Facebook has made ‘friend’ able to function as a verb in a particular context. So far so good, but if this is what it means for a language to be “living” we could equally call it “dying.” Shakespeare’s English is dead to us, or at least half-dead to the vast majority of English speakers because of this very process of change. Should the Lord tarry, our spoken English will be half-dead to English speakers in probably less than a hundred years. It is only literacy—the dead letter of the page—and the historical meanings of words long-forgotten, that can make Shakespeare alive again. Literacy breathes life into dead languages.


Because of the power of literacy, Latin did not cease to be a “living” language when it stopped being spoken as a mother tongue. If our criterion for aliveness is that a language continues to be developed and changed by users, Latin has had perhaps the longest (with the exception of Greek) uninterrupted development by literate (if not native) users of the language from antiquity to the present day. The educated world of Western Europe communicated in Latin, and poured into it a growing and developing heritage of ideas in every sphere of study—from law to medicine, from poetry to theology, and from art to politics. In fact, strictly speaking, Latin lives on, not simply in its literate preservation and composition of texts for the last 2,000 years and more, but also in all the Romance languages, which are its direct descendants. At no time did Latin die, even if it burned up like a phoenix and was reborn. Its relevance can only be overlooked through ignorance of its continuing life. Unfortunately, our culture only values the newest ideas, viewing the historically tried and true as passé and irrelevant.


It is a shame that ancient and modern languages are often pitted against each other in terms of their value, especially when terms like “dead” are thrown around without much thought. Literacy is rarely brought up in such discussions, probably because the ability to read and write challenging discourse in the target language is almost never a high aim of modern conversational approaches. It is strange to me to hear people stressing the usefulness of a modern language (vis-à-vis Latin), in light of the acknowledged failure of many American High School Spanish programs, for example, to graduate any meaningful percentage of students who are orally fluent in the language, not to mention literate. And yet, I recently read a Wikipedia article on the Grammar-Translation Method (which I basically adopt) that dismissed it as illegitimate, unsupported and without theory; it appears that almost 2,000 years of the great scholars and poets early and profound Latin compositions do not qualify. This author should go read Milton, Coleridge or Lewis’ childhood Latin and Greek compositions and then try and claim that no real language learning has occurred.



Cicero's De Amicita

We at Clapham highly value both modern and ancient languages. It is an invaluable thing to be able to converse with your cultural neighbors. At the same time, it is highly relevant to be able to converse with the long dead; even more, it is imperative for Christians to know firsthand what goes into translating an ancient document. Learning a modern and an ancient language serve different functions. Most conversations in a foreign language will not challenge you to think about the nature of friendship like reading Cicero’s De Amicitia. At the same time Cicero cannot talk back, explain his culture or receive welcome and help in adjusting to American life. Learning modern languages can help make you a good neighbor and a world traveler; learning ancient languages can help make you a scholar, poet, philosopher or theologian. Our Latin and French programs represent our commitment to modern and ancient languages, both of which are living, useful and humanizing.


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