Ancient and modern

The timeless appeal of Latin

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

The government’s promise to fund a pilot scheme promoting the teaching of Latin in secondary schools is music to the ears of the charity Classics for All, which has introduced classical subjects into more than 1,000 state schools. Latin has been taken up with especial enthusiasm in primary schools, where word derivations have proved very popular. The ancients loved them too.

The Roman Varro (116-27 bc) wrote a 25-volume de lingua Latina (‘On the Latin Language’). Six survive, three discussing etymology, all full of interest because Varro, ignorant of scientific etymology (it developed only from the 17th century onwards), produced total nonsense.

For example, he thought canis ‘dog’ was related to cano ‘I sound, sing’ because barking gave a signal. Likewise, latratus ‘barking’ derived from lateo (‘I lie hidden’, cf. our ‘latent’) because, by barking, dogs revealed what was ‘hidden’ during the night. Latinists will remember eo ‘I go’, with its other stem it-. Surely Varro saw that was the root of iter ‘journey, way’? No: he derived it from tero ‘I wear, tread down’ because the iter was ‘worn down’ by wagons. He derived pretium ‘price’ from periti ‘experts’, because only they could fix prices accurately. And so on and on: all cobblers.

The point about introducing Latin early is that Anglo-Saxon provides our basic, simple vocabulary, but the longer, more difficult words common in secondary education tend to be Graeco-Latin, a real problem for children from poor linguistic backgrounds. Adrian Spooner’s brilliant Lingo dealt with it by encouraging children to make up long, difficult words for themselves from carefully chosen G/L roots. On one occasion, in a class demonstrating this method to teachers, a pupil with notably pretty hair came up with the magical ‘kaloplokamology’ – Greek kal-os ‘lovely’, plokam-os ‘lock of hair’ and ‘-ology’, ‘study of’ (Greek logos ‘account, reason’). The whole place exploded in applause.

Moments like that give even young children a thrilling sense of mastery over language. Dot Wordsworth would surely approve.

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