What is the use of learning a dead language that no one speaks anymore? This is often the criticism addressed to the teaching of Latin. At least it was definitely by my classmates to our – whisper it – full West London school in the late 1980s.
For decades, this archaic language was deemed redundant by technocrats who would prefer children to learn languages that can help them earn more money, such as Mandarin or Spanish. Some of the even more Philistine money worshipers believe that in our English-speaking world no second language should be taught – that children should just learn science, to make them more efficient producers and consumers.
But the biggest obstacle to learning Latin is that it is perceived as elitist. This is certainly the case in Britain, where it is considered a language taught in upscale schools, from which former students are graduated to quote Virgil and Pliny verbatim in adulthood, much to the perplexity, annoyance. and occasional plebeian class fun. Think of Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The UK government now wants to change that. Last week Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a £ 4million Latin Excellence Program to increase adoption of the topic at GCSE level. “We know that Latin has the reputation of being an elitist subject reserved for the privileged few. But the subject can bring so many benefits to young people, so I want to end this division, ”said Williamson. “Latin can help students learn modern foreign languages and bring wider benefits to other subjects, including math and English.”
The main objective of the program is therefore political and cultural, giving Latin a more meritocratic and democratic luster. To his credit, Williamson is smart enough to at least recognize that learning has its underground benefits.
In terms of vocabulary, Latin certainly helps in learning Romance languages today (although its grammar is very different from that of Italian and French). Williamson is also right that Latin stimulates the mathematical mind. It is fiercely logical language, in which word endings indicate who or what does what, is done to, has been given to whom, and so on. We speak of nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, vocative, ablative, plural, etc. Brian’s life, in which our eponymous hero is criticized by a Roman for painting ‘Romanes eunt domus’, when it should have been ‘Romani ite domum’.
Learning Latin indeed promotes clear thinking. But then the same goes for learning any language, each of which has its own internal and idiosyncratic logic, as English speakers who have tried German know. This is the fundamental advantage of trying any second language: it teaches you to understand that languages have rules (or conventions), and to appreciate that the rules by which people speak and live vary enormously and are full of inconsistencies – in German, French, Italian and English, the most common verb, “to be”, is irregular. In English, one of the past forms of ‘to go’ – ‘went’ – actually comes from the archaic verb ‘to wend’. Learning languages teaches you that life is often meaningless.
Yet the best reason to learn Latin, especially if you read and write a lot, is to understand the English language better. Whenever I have to look for a word that I don’t understand, the dictionary most often tells me that its origins are Latin. This week it was “diligence”, meaning diligence or dedicated attention, which comes from assist, ‘to help’. Understanding Latin means understanding and writing better in a truly elitist language, literary English.
The plentiful supply of Latin words in English comes not only from Old French which entered the language after 1066, but also from the 18th-century mania of turning Latin words into English equivalents. This is reflected in the skit of Blackadder the third, in which the eponymous (anti-) hero baffles Dr Johnson with his absurd Latin words. Understanding Latin makes this sketch even more fun for the viewer.
The awakening of our culture and politics has become so entrenched that it has spawned its own abstract names. Over the past few weeks, and more and more frequently, I have read that people are referring to “wokeism” and “wokery”.
These are not particularly beautiful words, but awakened thought needs its own name. But, in a futile suggestion, I would recommend going one step further and giving wokeism or wokery all capital letters. Because that would rightly indicate that not only is it a thing in itself, but also that it is an ideology. Not as admirable as humanism, as cerebral as Marxism or as reliant on a narrative as Christianity, but an ideology nonetheless.
Many ideologies turn into religions or strange cults. Christianity was a religion from the start, while Marxism was already dependent on Christianity before it became a cult for many. It remains so in North Korea. Wokery quickly takes the same path. While it ostensibly began as an offshoot of political correctness and infantile leftism, it has evolved into a fundamentalist religion.
We’re not just talking about the almost comically religious gesture of “taking the knee.” Not just the iconoclastic destruction of the Taliban-style statues. We are talking about the violent behavior of the adherents of Wokery, most notoriously Antifa, and the violent language used by its followers. We have witnessed this recently in threats to use a homemade bomb on JK Rowling. Then there was the fierce vitriol directed at another author, Milli Hill, who had the temerity to question the term “people who give birth.” Wokery’s eagerness to quash and censor is consistent with his transformation into a bad religion. Such disturbed acts of intolerance are the hallmark of a cult. And intolerance of pagans and heretics is also a hallmark of those who believe in something so unreal, absurd, and bizarre that it cannot be defended by a rational argument in the first place. Like the fantastic idea that people can change their gender.
Praise of the NHS
Speaking of modern religions, I was suspicious of NHS worship until I was recently hospitalized with a clot in my left lung. The staff were brilliant: diligent, attentive, patient with their patients (even with the aggressive old man in the room next to me). I was given a prompt diagnosis of pulmonary embolism and osteoporosis, and a heavy prescription for pills to treat both. I wouldn’t say I ‘heart’ the NHS now, but I have changed my mind somewhat. I am certainly grateful for that.
Patrick West is a sharp journalist. His latest book, Overcome yourself: Nietzsche for our time, is published by Societas.