Latin is dead? Long live Latin!

Wilting away? rosipaw, CC BY-NC-SA

A little item buried on the inside pages of newspapers recently caused a small stir. Latin plant names, it was claimed, were “in danger of dying out”, following a decision by the International Botanical Congress to allow plants to be named in English. Cue a flurry of reports alternately lamenting and celebrating what seemed to be yet another nail in the coffin for this ancient language.

No matter that the decision was actually taken back in 2011, or that it says nothing about the names of plants. (It’s the short descriptions of new discoveries that can now be written in English, instead of the Latin previously required – though Latin is still acceptable.) What was really at stake here was the wider relevance and symbolic importance of Latin in the modern world, a subject which rarely fails to prompt passionate debate.

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who formalised the system of plant naming, may have belonged to a world in which Latin was the intellectual lingua franca, but that hardly holds true today. There is no sound argument for continuing to describe plants in Latin – though it remains sensible to use Latin for specific names. Just as in medicine and other scientific fields, botanical names still have much to gain from Latin’s “neutrality”. It enables clear communication regardless of mother tongue – and, of course, there is a huge weight of history behind them.

I didn’t lose any sleep over this particular news story, then. But I did feel disheartened by the way in which the debates played out, with the same old rhetoric and stereotypes about Latin’s deadness, and its elitism.

Dead and done?

The first is a powerful and broadly accurate one. Latin is scarcely used in daily speech today, unless you count Nuntii Latini, the Finnish news broadcast in Latin, or the Vatican, where the Pope has a Latin Twitter feed.

Journalist Harry Mount claims that “because Latin is a dead language, its definitions are set in stone”, thus ensuring its clarity and unambiguity when naming plants, for example. But this argument soon falters. Many plant names would be unrecognisable to Cicero or Virgil, since botanists regularly coin “new” Latin words by contorting modern vocabulary into Latin forms. However artificially, the language keeps evolving.

Labelling Latin as “dead” also misleads by making us think of something lifeless and inert, instead of a language and literature which can put colour in the cheeks and get blood pumping in the veins of our distant Roman forebears. We still have much to learn from Latin culture. The classicist Charlotte Higgins explains nicely:

[It] gives us the keys to an intellectual playground of breathtaking beauty, wonder, and rigour; it gives us the tools to help us understand who we are.

Mary Beard agrees that this is foremost among the reasons why we need Latin, because it grants us access to the thoughts and deeds of the ancients, bringing antiquity to life. Translations are vital, and fascinating in their own right, but they can just as easily “deaden” the language. The 17th-century translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by John Dryden is patently not a product of the 21st century.

The head of Laocoon from Virgil’s Aeneid. Oxfordshire Churches, CC BY-NC-ND

And yet, the timeworn cliches for “why learn Latin” too often focus on the moribund over the exciting. Claims for its usefulness in learning other languages, or its mental training, as valid as they often are, reduce Latin to an accessory to other pursuits.

No longer the preserve of the elite

Latin’s second stereotype also needs to be countered. Historically, learning and using Latin – and a classical education in general – has been a marker of privilege. But if anything about Latin should be killed off, it is the idea that it is (or should remain) the preserve of an elite, whether intellectual or social.

While that cliche keeps haunting the right-wing press and the lazy assumptions of TV producers, the real Latin success story of recent years has been the huge growth in the number of state schools offering the subject. This is far more significant than the smattering of free schools who ape the independent sector by making Latin compulsory, or the letters-page gripes of those who think that only private schools can teach Latin “properly”.

Instead, the expertise, dedication, and enthusiasm of students and teachers alike is fuelling a whole raft of funding schemes and educational programmes. From Classics for All, to the East End Classics Centre, to the East Oxford Classics Community Centre, access to antiquity is being democratised (even as teachers and lecturers struggle to ensure that this enthusiasm is recognised and supported by government policies on curriculum and qualifications).

Our understanding of Latin and its enduring presence in the modern world cannot be divorced from understanding its historical relationship to class – as the important work of a research project on Classics and Class in Britain is demonstrating. But this need not mean that we let such outdated assumptions continue to shape its future.