Cultural Heritage in School.

LH reader Christophe Strobbe writes:

In Flanders there have been recurring discussions about the importance of teaching Latin at secondary school. When I started secondary school I had 9 hours per week of Latin in the first year and 6 hours in the second and third years; after that it diminished to four hours per week. (This only applied if you chose to learn Latin, and you could not start learning Ancient Greek in the second year if you hadn’t chosen Latin in the first year.) Currently, Latin is taught only 4 hours per week in the first and second years of secondary school (again, if you choose Latin at all). A recent proposal to replace Latin with 2 hours of “Ancient culture” and 2 hours of a subject that might be translated as “engineering” or “technology” (the Dutch word is “techniek” and sounds vague to me).

One of my former teachers of Latin, Luc Devoldere, who is now chief editor of a cultural magazine called “Ons Erfdeel” (literally “Our Heritage”), responded to this on public radio. (At for those who know Dutch.) Luc Devoldere thinks that the current plan is a bad idea. When children start secondary school, it should already be clear whether they can handle learning Latin. If this start is postponed until the third year of secondary school, they won’t achieve much of the main goal, which is reading classic texts in the original language. (Not just Caesar’s De bello gallico, but also Sallust, Tacitus, Cicero, Lucretius and Vergil, which are all authors that “my generation” read at school in the late 1980s and early 1990s.)

This long introduction leads me to my actual question: do other cultures discuss similar questions? I am thinking in particular of learning to read Classical Chinese authors and texts such as Confucius, Laozi, Mengzi, Sima Qian, the Shi Jing etc. at a secondary school level. (Maybe in Taiwan, which did not undergo the infamous Culture Revolution.) I am also thinking of Korea, which created a considerable body of literature in the Chinese writing system, both before and after the invention of hangul. I also wonder to what extent the question applies to Japan, since someone who lived in Japan for five years in the early 1990s told me that many of the oldest Japanese texts can only be read by a few old professors because younger generations have no interest in learning the older stages of the Japanese languages. Would other cultures see the efforts to read Latin authors in secondary school as a kind of rearguard action? I hope you or your readers can shed some light on this.

Me, I don’t think Latin is necessary for any large number of students and I certainly don’t think it should be required (let alone required before you’re allowed to take Greek!), but the larger question is an interesting one: how do different cultures strike a balance between practicality (what’s needed to deal with the world today) and cultural continuity (which requires that people study things that are not “useful,” like ancient languages)?  This is, of course, a hot topic these days, with (in my opinion) excessive emphasis being placed on practicality and too little regard for the arts, history, etc., let alone ancient languages; I’m interested to hear what others have to say.


  1. LH: I find your last graf a little ambiguous. You don’t think Latin is necessary for large numbers of people – which I understand, but the surely the option should be there to learn it from the earliest practical age, not delayed as is being done above – but you then deplore “the excessive emphasis on practicality and too little regard for the arts, history, etc, let alone ancient languages.”
    Or do I misunderstand you ?

  2. No, you understand me fine. I don’t see any contradiction; I think there should be required classes in things that are truly important for people, like “the arts, history, etc,” but not for Latin, which is not important but should be available as an elective for those who want it. And no, I don’t see why it should be available “from the earliest practical age”; children should learn some language at an early age, but (obviously) it should be a spoken language that they can learn the way they learn their mother tongue, not a long-dead language they will need to learn in writing.

  3. To put it another way, any modern language with a substantial number of speakers is a far more important thing to teach kids than Latin; to think otherwise is to fetishize a language for no better reason than that one’s great-grandparents fetishized it.

  4. John Cowan says

    “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    This is Flanders. The students we’re talking about have presumably already learned English in school as an L2 starting well below the age we’re talking about for reasons of grim necessity. The question is what to add in the later grades* as an L3 for a bit of cultural polish. Certainly not the language of those goddam Walloons (whose tongue is admittedly still viewed as posh in parts of the Anglophone world). So what’s left? Latin seems as good an option as any, with German being the only serious competitor and it’s probably good for them to get a non-Germanic language. I wouldn’t mind Greek, but I expect there as in the Anglophone world no one knows how to teach Greek to students who haven’t had a bit of Latin first.

    In any event, the proposal on the table is not to substitute some other language more to hat’s taste for Latin but to switch resources to non-language-based subjects.

    *I assume this is not for all students but rather the minority on the elite/college-prep track,like Britsh A-levels or German Gymnasium – what wikipedia tells me is called Algemeen Secundair Onderwijs.

  6. There seems to be too much of a dichotomy (Latin versus other foreign languages) here. I belong to the minority of high schoolers of my generation who were made to study Latin, and it is very clear to me that without Latin my ability to read and write my native French as well as English would be very severely impoverished.

    If you are taught Latin the old-fashioned way, i.e. with heavy emphasis on grammar, reading classical authors (Cicero and Caesar, mostly, in my case) and on translating from Latin to your L1 (in this case, French) and vice-versa, your reading and writing ability in your L1 improves exponentially, even without factoring in (for speakers of most European languages) the amount of new vocabulary acquired.

    Indeed I remember, as a nerdy twelve-year old in his first year of Latin class, the first novel I tried reading in English, Larry Niven’s RINGWORLD (I recommend it). When I ran into the adjective “puerile” for the first time and remembered the Latin noun “puer”, and saw that the meaning fit perfectly, I felt so relieved: at last, a new English word I wouldn’t have to look up in the dictionary! Indeed science-fiction, with its many latinate neologisms, was a genre which my Latin classes gave me ready access to. It was radically different from the Latin classics, but the vocabulary of the latter was so useful in reading the former.

    As a teacher of French to anglophones in North American Universities I have had the same impression. I believe I have written here of how frustrated and saddened I was by all those students with obvious potential whose command of French, even after a half dozen years of study, was so dismal as to be for all practical purposes non-existent. Their command of written English was also, shall we say, quite unimpressive as a rule.

    A core problem, to my mind, was the fact that, because they had never been systematically taught English grammar, they wholly lacked an outside frame of reference, a “meta-language” if you will, whereby they could make sense of the many ways in which French differs from English. It seems to me that Latin would have been perfect for that purpose.

    I am convinced that in a majority of cases, if they had been taught Latin for their first three years of High School and had started learning French during the last three years, their command of French and English alike would have been much better than what it was. This in turn would have made their University studies much easier: I was more than once asked by students of mine to help them make sense of complex prose…in ENGLISH, in readings which other courses of theirs required, and which they quite simply could not understand.

    This is the core reason why I am staunchly pro-Latin for all high-schoolers: as a student and as a teacher it is plain to me that knowledge of Latin dramatically improves L1 as well as L2 reading and writing ability, something which is supposedly at the heart of education. Pro-Latin arguments which rely on cultural continuity or tradition or the like miss the mark, I think: cultural continuity and tradition are nice extras, but are not the primary reason why Latin should be taught.

    This in turn makes me wonder: Assuming I am right, is the same true of other Classical languages, i.e. does the study of Classical Chinese (for instance) help in mastering Modern standard Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese?

  7. John Cowan says

    [B]ecause they had never been systematically taught English grammar, they wholly lacked an outside frame of reference, a “meta-language” if you will, whereby they could make sense of the many ways in which French differs from English. It seems to me that Latin would have been perfect for that purpose.

    Certainly it would be better to teach Latin grammar than no grammar at all, but why would it not be as good or better to teach English grammar?

  8. Huh. I can’t imagine trying to negotiate the literature of the western world without knowing Latin. You’d always be hobbling along at a disadvantage, wouldn’t you? I mean, you could do it, but it seems like in the long run it would easier to just cave in and learn the damn Latin.

  9. Why not reintroduce Latin as the lingua franca of the “West”, especially in business ? Instead of having to deal with a new-fangled hodgepodge such as Esperanto, people would be able to connect up with their cultural and linguistic heritage.

    For this reason, students would be more motivated to learn Latin than Esperanto or some imperialistic furriners’ language such as English. A nice side-effect would be that furriners would no longer feel encouraged to mess around with English.

    The Chinese will just have fend for themselves. They seem to be doing alright anyway.

  10. In most Serbian secondary schools (in ‘gimnazije’, but not in vocational schools) Latin is compulsory (actually, all subjects are compulsory*). The only choice you get is whether you’ll have it in your first year only (sciences strand), or in both the first and the second year (humanities strand).

    *Or they were until about ten years ago. Now all are compulsory but one: you get to pick whether you’ll have ‘građansko vaspitanje’ or ‘veronauka’ (roughly, civic education and theology (i.e. Sunday school))

  11. Classical Chinese is so enmeshed in the texture of Modern Written Chinese that stop teaching Classical Chinese in primary/secondary is out of question. I think (I might be wrong) that Classical Chinese is taught even in the darkest years of the Cultural Revolution, because, heck, the revolutionary poetry written by the Mao himself is in a quite classical register. In any artistic/scholarly genre of Modern Chinese writing, the language often just code-switch into Classical Chinese for half a clause, like the way Europeans code-switch into Latin, only in a much, much more common and unobtrusive manner.

    Classical Chinese is well-taught in Japanese secondary education, judging from the university entrance exam questions, which typically feature respectable Tang-Song prose. (I think only those who go to the Literature departments need to take it.) I always try to determine if Classical Japanese (kobun) or Classical Chinese (kanbun) is the greater annoyance to Japanese schoolers – it looks like equally.

    In Korea, again judging from the university entrance exam questions, Classical Chinese is taught very poorly, not surprising for a nation where the role of Chinese characters is diminishingly little.

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Rather surprisingly, my youngest daughter (now 30, so I’m talking about 20 or so years ago) had to choose between Greek and Latin, and couldn’t do both. She chose Greek. At least from the vocabulary point of view she would probably have found Latin fairly easy, as she has long been completely fluent in French and Spanish. This was in France, but I don’t remember if it was in the state elementary school or the Jesuit secondary school, probably the latter. I don’t think my two older daughters (in England) ever had Latin, and they certainly didn’t have Greek. When I were a lad (many years ago, in England) I had about six or seven years of Latin (more or less compulsory, except for the really stupid boys who could barely cope with English and arithmetic, let alone anything else) and about three or four of Greek (by choice). I much preferred Greek, as I could imagine people actually conversing in it, whereas Latin seemed absurdly artificial.

  13. My UK-educated wife had Latin throughout secondary school 50+ years ago, and remains very thankful that she did. Because (as above) it gives her easy access to a lot of unfamiliar English vocab, helped her French considerably, and she can pretty much read Latin inscriptions in/on churches and other monuments – much to my advantage, too, because in my Australian school we were not offered Latin. Not that I would have profited much, judging by my other exam results …
    As for conversing in Latin, the Roman clergy seem to get along quite well, though I have heard it is not at all Classical Latin.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Stu: Why not reintroduce Latin as the lingua franca of the “West”, especially in business ?

    This idea was actually put forward by the French linguist Claude Hagege, who is rightly concerned about the domination of English. I don’t think he was completely serious, given the difficulties of implementing such a program, but he had a point.

  15. One point in favor of teaching Latin, or at least making it available, at the high school level to English-speaking students: a large body of English literature of the past is difficult to penetrate for someone who doesn’t know Latin. Milton, who often uses English words to mean or to connote what the Latin original meant, is the outstanding example, but Shakespeare too. Certainly, you can look up references to ancient mythology in a dictionary, but a familiarity with Latin literature, and Greek too, in the original languages would seem very helpful for anyone studying English literature. Students of English literature who encounter the classical languages at the college or post-graduate levels must be at a big disadvantage, I would think. And personally, I sometimes worry that with the loss of the classical languages, a large portion of English literature will also be lost.

    That said, it’s obviously impossible for everyone to learn everything, and choices have to be made. Having studied a fair amount of Latin and Greek in my formative years–and I still enjoy reading both languages–I can personally attest to their limited utility in the larger world in which most people, myself included, have to provide for themselves and their families. Still, I can’t help being saddened by the loss.

  16. John Cowan says

    Latino sine flexione, also known as Interlingua de Peano (the mathematician), as opposed to the very different Interlingua de IALA.

    Latino es lingua internationale in occidente de Europa ab tempore de imperio romano, per toto medio aevo, et in scientia usque ultimo seculo. Seculo vigesimo es primo que non habe lingua commune. Hodie quasi omne auctore scribe in proprio lingua nationale, id es in plure lingua neo-latino, in plure germanico, in plure slavo, in nipponico et alio. Tale multitudine de linguas in labores de interesse commune ad toto humanitate constitute magno obstaculo ad progressu.

    Peano’s description of the language begins in pure Classical Latin; as he introduces each rule, however, he applies it to the rest of the text. So, for example, when removing grammatical gender, he says:

    Nomen isolato non habet genere. Quum volumus indicare ille, scribemus explicite “mas, femina”. Ita “mater est bona” fit “mater est femina bono”; sed idea de femina iam continetur in mater; igitur post simplificatione: “mater est bono”.

  17. This idea was actually put forward by the French linguist Claude Hagege, who is rightly concerned about the domination of English.

    Why “rightly”? Presumably not for nationalistic reasons?

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    The Flemish situation as set forth in the original post seems focused on a slightly different issue than the utility-of-Latin points rehearsed above, namely whether it is desirable: a) for all/most students (at least those on a particular “elite” track) to read at a minimum the same core of “canonical” works for tradition-and-culture-specific reasons; b) if so, whether any of those canonical texts should be read in the original (by most students on the relevant track, as opposed to specialists); and c) if so, whether a significant number of such texts are in Latin such that being able to read those canonical texts in the original is an independent Good Reason to emphasize Latin. In Anglophone elite education, I think the answers to all of these questions were yes until roughly a century ago. These days, I’m not sure how many originally-Latin texts are “canonical” in the sense of odds above x% a graduate of a reasonably elite college (let’s not talk about high school) has read them in translation. Maybe Virgil, maybe Augustine in the less-secular subset of the elite. But who else? Cicero and everyone else have suffered a pretty catastrophic drop in market share even in translation compared to their cultural position a few generations back, at least in the U.S.

  19. des von bladet says

    I learned, or pretended to learn, Latin at school, and I continue to hold it was the least useful thing I have ever done with my time (and there have been some doozies).

    Arguments of the form “Knowing the Latin word cromulus was invaluable when I encountered the English word cromulant – knowing how to decline the former in the ablative subjunctive was, of course, a great time-saver compared to looking up the latter in an appropriate dictionary” are still occasionally to be found – even in this thread! – and to me are compelling evidence that study of ancient languages in fact hopelessly corrupts children’s powers of reasoning.

    I propose that children instead be taught Z80 assembler language – which is pretty just much as obsolete – in their first year of secondary school, and those who excel should be allowed to study enough 68000, from the second-year on, as one might need to write the back-end for a COBOL compiler.

  20. John Cowan: the advantage of teaching Latin, as opposed to teaching English grammar, is that the continuous back-and-forth translation from Latin to English and English to Latin forces pupils to take an overall “outsider’s view” of the structure of English which the mere teaching of English grammar cannot realistically achieve. In particular, if my own experience (as a student and as a teacher) is any guide, it quickly makes you detect ambiguities in your L1 that you otherwise never would have noticed. It is no coincidence, to my mind, that law schools are one of the bastions where Latin is still taught today: among other reasons this is because ambiguity, in legal language, is quite undesirable.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    Latin is not taught in U.S. law schools. Latin has never, afaik, been taught in U.S. law schools as such. If there was a generation of U.S. lawyers who could take the various bits of frozen Latin in fixed phrases they had learned in law school and accurately parse them, or switch them around to fit a different syntactic context in a way a Latin teacher would approve of, it was a generation that had retired long before I was born. (And of course, some of the phrases are used in AmEng legalese in such an idiosyncratic/idiomatic fashion that parsing is irrelevant – if you could parse “pro hac vice” you still wouldn’t have any idea what it means to a U.S. lawyer, and even being able to gloss “res ipsa loquitur” as “the thing speaks for itself” doesn’t tell you what sort of thing speaks for itself in what specific context and specific sense that is highly relevant in AmEng legalese) The only practical advantage to having had some formal study of Latin before law school (beyond the vaguer advantages adverted to above) is that I am less likely to misspell things since e.g. without that study it is not intuitive that “de minimis” is correct and “de minimus” is not.

  22. “Certainly it would be better to teach Latin grammar than no grammar at all, but why would it not be as good or better to teach English grammar?” Hear, hear.

    I find the vocabulary argument feeble too: when we started Latin, the children with the large English vocabularies were inferring the meaning of Latin words, not t’other way round. Latin was, at least in the way I was taught it, a dreadful waste of my time. I am, however, glad to have learned French and, later, to read German.

  23. marie-lucie says

    I took a total of nine years of Latin (5 hours a week the first year, less later), enjoyed it and was considered good at it, but I don’t remember having any appreciation of Latin literature, or even of the differences between the styles of various writers (let’s say, Cicero and Cesar!) except for their degree of difficulty. I never got the impression that we were expected to actually read the authors as we read French ones. In the upper grades Latin poetry was very difficult, and would have been more meaningful if we had been exposed to a pronunciation approximating the ancient one, with differences in stress and vowel length (as in the “Italian” pronunciation which respects those features). Sure, we saw diagrams of the stress values of iambs, trochees, etc but they did not mean anything to us as French speakers (or to our teachers, apparently – I don’t remember any of them explaining what it was all about, let alone demonstrating the effect). At least we were not expected to compose Latin verse as did students in earlier centuries (described for instance in the works of Balzac and other 19C authors – I think the custom survived longer in England). I certainly don’t regret taking Latin but given a choice I would have preferred another modern language beside English, which I started at the same time. After two years of Latin I could have added Greek, but the Latin teacher told my mother that Greek needed imagination and I had none (as I mentioned in another thread), so I took German which was the other choice. I was glad to be taking another modern spoken language, but unfortunately the German teacher was very poor at teaching German, so I learned very little and would have probably done better in Greek.

    Whether a background in Latin but no Greek had any influence on my understanding of French literature seems to me very doubtful. Of course, older literature in French, English and other European languages often refers to Latin or Greek authors, even if they don’t quote the ancient languages verbatim, but I don’t think that it is necessary to be able to read those ancient languages to understand the later authors. Compare for instance the knowledge of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, necessary to understand a lot of English literature: does it mean that English literary scholars should be required to learn Hebrew?

    A few years ago I saw and browsed through a book by Jacqueline de Romilly, a classical scholar who became one of the first women elected to the Académie Française, about the place of Latin in the French educational system. I think that her conclusion was that learning Latin was a leftover from past centuries when Latin still had practical uses (eg for international communication between scientists) and that the vast majority of students (nowadays and even earlier) derive no later benefit of having been taught Latin, except that it was seen as a badge of class membership. I don’t think she meant that Latin should no longer be taught, but that it did not need to be compulsory.

    As for when Latin study (if chosen) should start, I think that it should be later than for spoken languages. In the US, foreign languages are typically started around 13 or so years old, when the psychological changes of incipient puberty cause students to be very self-conscious and their personalities, tastes, and abilities to learn different things (usually quite striking in the case of second languages) become more differentiated than those of younger children. There is also the question of intellectual maturity. Learning a language no longer spoken is a more intellectual pursuit than learning a spoken language, as it does not require oral performance, which scares many adolescents.

  24. marie-lucie says

    Me: This idea was actually put forward by the French linguist Claude Hagege, who is rightly concerned about the domination of English.

    LH: Why “rightly”? Presumably not for nationalistic reasons?

    Because of the worldwide spread of English as a language of communication, so that people learn English rather than the languages of their neighbours, reinforcing English to the detriment of the local languages including their own. For instance, he mentions how ridiculous it is that a French person and a Spanish or Italian person should only be able to communicate in English when their own languages are so similar and would be easier for both of them to learn than English. At the same time, English speakers find themselves at an advantage over second-language speakers, especially in writing. Those points have been made by others, but I was quoting Hagège in relation to Latin.

    Hagège was born in Tunisia and grew up there speaking four languages: French, Italian, Arabic and a fourth one, perhaps English.

  25. John Cowan says

    I agree in general, though I am not so certain about how French in particular (spoken, not written) constitutes a good example of this.

  26. des de grégoire says

    But Monsieur Hagège, why should we condemn people to an assortment of parochial patois and deny them access to the only viable candidate for a language of world civilization?

    (I kid, I kid! I myself even have a limited reading knowledge of the eighteenth century’s diplomatic lingua franca!)

  27. (let alone required before you’re allowed to take Greek!).

    If “cultural heritage” were really the goal then Greek would correctly be given much less emphasis than Latin in schools in Western Europe – and there would be greater focus on medieval and early modern Latin literature rather than just the usual classical suspects. We are still teaching Latin the way it was taught 4 centuries ago, back when it was still a living written language of international diplomacy, scholarship and science. Studying Greek and Roman literature is a valuable pursuit on its own, but if European “cultural heritage” is the goal it seems odd to ignore Erasmus, Isaac Newton, Descartes, Schopenhauer, etc.

  28. In Ireland the debate is about teaching Irish, which is currently compulsory for all students in primary and secondary school. There are obviously many ways in which this differs from debate elsewhere over Latin: the cultural ownership is potentially greater but more contested; the body of literature made accessible is much smaller and less prestigious; the language is not actually dead. FWIW those arguing for “optional Irish” tend to earmark the time freed up for learning German or Japanese rather than technology or what have you.

    Latin was taught to boys in Catholic schools case they might want to be a priest. Girls did French. After the expansion of secular education from 1967, Latin survived into the 80s as it was said that mathematically-inclined students could get a high grade more easily than in a modern language. This said more about the structure of the syllabus and exams than the structure of the languages themselves. Or perhaps it was just a spiel by obsolescent Latin teachers.

  29. rootlesscosmo says

    I took compulsory French and compulsory Latin in grades 6. 7, and 8. (You could just see the heads of the taller dinosaurs passing by the schoolroom windows.) The Latin teaching method was torment–I recall the class being made to recite pronoun declensions (“hic haec hoc, hujus hujus hujus” etc.) in unison like a demented litany. I forgot almost everything almost immediately; my French, however, though it never approached fluency, improved gradually over the years. One friend suggested that the reason might be as simple as never having seen any movies with Latin dialog, and since I saw a lot of French movies and used the subtitles as a crib to the spoken dialog, I think this is a plausible explanation.

  30. marie-lucie says

    JC: about French and Spanish speakers communicating:

    I agree in general, though I am not so certain about how French in particular (spoken, not written) constitutes a good example of this.

    I am sure he was not suggesting that the languages were mutually intelligible! But they have a common basic structure and much common vocabulary, which make learning easier then for speakers of either to learn English. On the other hand, it would be easier for a French speaker to learn Spanish than the opposite, since pronunciation and spelling are more complex in French (although the pronunciation of Southern French would be relatively easy for a Spanish speaker).

  31. marie-lucie says

    I mean, the Southern pronunciation of French, since there is no separate Southern French except for pronunciation.

  32. John Cowan says

    Traditional Jewish boys began to learn Hebrew at age three, which is within the window for native acquisition of a language.

  33. marie-lucie says

    JC, but were they learning to speak it? were the parents addressing the boys in Hebrew? Were they speaking Hebrew before the usual language of the community? Or did they start by learning the letters?

  34. Etienne argues that studying Latin would make it easier to learn French. Well, I studied both simultaneously in high school, and Latin was one of my best subjects (I won the Latin Prize in grade 12, a copy of Quo Vadis, which I never read), while French was one of my two worst.

    That being said, being Canadian, I’ve retained more French than Latin, since I’m exposed to it daily. My vocal chords and French pronunciation are still implacably hostile to one another, sadly.

  35. m-l: but were they learning to speak it?

    For me, nursery at age four and kindergarten at age five, though conducted in English, included exposure to individual Hebrew words and probably (I forget — it’s been awhile!) Hebrew song. Instruction in grades one through seven was evenly split between the standard Ontario curriculum conducted in English and Jewish studies conducted in Hebrew. I learned the Latin and Hebrew alphabets simultaneously. At a guess, about 20 percent of Jewish kids in Toronto get a similar education today.

  36. I have never studied Latin and cannot read the language or parse it. However, when I was going to high school we did study something called ‘Latin and Greek roots’ as part of our English course. It was extremely useful. I don’t know if they still teach this at school. Given that the teaching of even basic knowledge of grammatical terminology appears to have been watered down, I suspect that Latin and Greek roots went out long ago.

  37. John Burgess says

    I took Latin, starting in the 7th grade in an American Catholic school as I intended to enter the priesthood. That intention waned, but I still continued with it through all four years of high school. My son, who attended an English boarding school in the late 1990s-early 2000s had Latin as a required course. Greek was optional and he passed on it in favor of French.

    I certainly don’t regret learning Latin. I actually found it useful in deciphering inscriptions in ruins across Turkey when my father joined the Foreign Service. While I don’t find much use for it today, it still serves when I come across Latin phrases in legal texts and the odd phrase that pops up in my Internet surfing.

  38. Another point in favor of Latin. I know someone who graduated from high school five years ago and moved to Europe to become a fairly successful professional model. She told me that Latin was the second most useful subject she learned in high school. Most useful was basic math, so she could make sure her manager wasn’t cheating her and stay within budget while spending various currencies. Her four years of Latin was second-most-useful because most of her modeling jobs that were not in English-speaking countries were in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and she could figure out the basics of menus and airport signs and such in all four, just from the resemblance to Latin. Then again, perhaps she was flattering me as a Latin teacher (not hers, that was my predecessor).

  39. J. W. Brewer says

    So we seem to have a silent consensus that many (but not all!) people who learned Latin in their Anglophone-country educations thought it was good for a variety of reasons, but absolutely no one endorsing the specific proposition that high school students being able to read “Caesar’s De bello gallico, but also Sallust, Tacitus, Cicero, Lucretius and Vergil” in the original (for cultural-heritage reasons or otherwise) is one of those reasons. Of course, for cultural-heritage purposes we have a rather larger corpus of stuff in our own L1 that can be semi-arbitrarily deemed canonical than the Flemish do, so we may not be well-positioned to give them advice.

  40. Bear in mind that it’s only human nature to find meaning and importance in anything one has spent a great deal of time and effort acquiring; this is one of the biggest obstacles to convincing Sinologists that Chinese characters are an encumbrance that should be done away with for the current language.

  41. marie-lucie says

    Re the fashion model who uses Latin to help her in deciphering Spanish, Italian etc. It is likely that if she had learned Spanish, it would have served her just as well, plus she would be able to converse both with Spanish-speaking employers and colleabues both in Europae and in Latin America.

    My own knowledge of Latin has served me well in acquiring a reading knowledge of Italian, but mostly in recognizing and interpreting the verb forms, which (except for the present indicative) are hardly necessary for the casual tourist or the fashion model on location.

  42. J. W. Brewer says

    Except of course the decline of Latin as a mandatory or near-mandatory subject in U.S. high schools and colleges was presumably presided over by administrators who themselves had been educated under the old order.

  43. Christophe Strobbe says

    First of all, thanks to Language Hat for posting my question 🙂

    And thanks to “minus273” for the information about Classical Chinese.

    To J.W. Brewer:
    In Flanders, students don’t start learning English until secondary school. The order in which I started learning foreign languages was as follows:
    * French was taught in the last two years of primary school (which lasts six years); this was and is compulsory. English was not available as a choice. In fact, primary school teachers are required to know French at level B1 for reading and writing and at level B2 for listening and speaking skills. See However, a more recent document requires level C1: (The levels refer to the Common European Reference Framework for languages or CERF). This does not mean that primary schools are not allowed to teach English; they just can’t do it at the expense of French.
    * French continued at secondary school (four hours per week) and it was now taught in French (well, mostly, depending on the teacher). After the first year, it was possible to drop French in favour of English, but there were so few students at our school who made this choice that those who preferred English needed to find another school.
    * If you followed a track with Latin, English started in the third year of secondary school; otherwise English started in the second year. I had three hours per week of English and it was consistently taught in English (no translations or grammar explanations in Dutch – we were just thrown in at the deep end). You could choose German instead of English, but nobody did this at our school.
    * Continuing in the Latin track, German was added in the fourth year, but with only one hour per week and it was not taught in German, sadly. You could choose Spanish instead of German, but nobody at our school did this. Spanish has become more popular as a “third foreign language” after I finished secondary school. German is reputed as being “hard”, a judgement based both on the perceived difficulty of its grammar (grammatical cases and the other joys of morphology) and its phonology.

    Latin and Greek were never discussed in the context of the above L1, L2, L3 choices. Nobody would have said they were learning Latin or Greek as L2 or L3. Since these languages were taught in a different way and did not learn to speak them, they were in a class of their own. This is different from e.g. Germany, where it seems to be normal to say that you are learning Latin as L1 or L2.

    (With regard to instruction in the target language, this is also practiced in adult education – at least at CLT in Leuven. E.g. Spanish is taught in Spanish from the start; students aren’t even allowed to say anything in Dutch. Of course, this does not work in all languages. E.g. for Mandarin, instruction in the target language did not start until the fourth or the sixth year, depending on the availability of native speakers as teachers.)

  44. Christophe Strobbe says

    To marie-lucie:
    With regard to writing Latin: I tried (at home) and foundered after the first hexameter. However, in the last exam in the last year, we were asked to translate a Latin poem written by a last-year student from around 1900.

    The point about intellectual maturity is interesting because the first year of Latin introduced or solidified a lot of grammatical terminology and knowledge that we had started to learn in the last years of primary school. Our teacher of Latin often exclaimed in exasperation: “What, you’ve never learned [grammatical term x]??” So he had to teach us.

    Someone once claimed that children are generally not ready for the kind of grammatical parsing and analysis required for Latin (perhaps he should have said: for the way they taught us Latin) until the age of 11-12. I can’t remember who said this, nor what this claim was based on. (Teaching experience? Research?)

  45. Christophe Strobbe says

    I recently talked to someone from Greece who told me that they read ancient Greek authors (e.g. Sophocles) in secondary school and that there are no debates about reducing the number of hours spent on this. After a few years, however, students need to make a choice between a track where they continue reading such texts and a track that focuses more on sciences.

  46. John Cowan says

    Latino sine flexione

    TIL that Peano suppressed case even in the 1st and 2nd person singular, so it is me/te in all cases (literally). I think that was over-schematic, and he should have left ego/tu intact, as all the Romance languages (except creoles) do. With no verb inflection for person or number, LsF cannot be pro-drop any more than English or Esperanto can.

  47. Stu Clayton says

    LsF cannot be pro-drop any more than English or Esperanto can.

    I complained about that word here, within living memory. It was then generally acknowledged, grudgingly, that “dropping pros” is a misleading expression. According to David Eddyshaw it is a misleading convenient one.

  48. John Cowan says

    Or a convenient term with an unfortunate etymology. Another such term I’ve complained about is isogloss, which is not a line connecting points with the same pronunciation of a particular word, analogous to isotherm, isobar, isohypse, (though the last is usually called acontour line). Rather it is a line between two regions with different pronunciations, and might better be called a wordshed, analogous to watershed, though in AmE that is often used for an area in which all ground water drains one way rather than a dividing line between two such areas.

  49. @John Cowan: A “wordshed” would probably be the spatial region in which a given pronunciation is is use, rather than its boundary, since watershed is most commonly used by geographers to refer to (per the OED), “the gathering ground of a river system; a catchment area or drainage basin,” rather than the older meaning of, “the line separating the waters flowing into different rivers or river basins; a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas.” Curiously, the OED says the former meaning (indicating the region, rather than its boundary) is “now chiefly North American,” despite an 1877 quotation from Thomas Huxley favoring the former (and specifying he we will “water-parting” for the latter). So “wordshed” does not necessarily give a better description. Moreover, since changes in usage are generally going to be continuously varying over the terrain, which gradations between solid wordsheds, it makes sense to draw “isoglosses” through the transition region.

    There are a number of other technical terms formed by analogy with watershed in geography. The most common is viewshed, for the region that can be observed by line of sight from a given point. (A panopticon is defined by having the viewshed of each point be the whole space.) Personally, I do not like these coinages, but they are the established terms, regardless of how I feel about them.

  50. “the line separating the waters flowing into different rivers or river basins; a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas” is the only meaning I’d heard of — but I’m not North American.

    A “watershed event” refers to a defining event, similar to the way that a ridge sends water to two different rivers on either side.

    For the North American sense of “watershed” I would use the word “catchment”.

  51. David Marjanović says

    Huh, I never commented here.

    I was taught basic grammatical terminology (in doublets or even triplets – the usual calques and the Latinate originals) several years before Latin started, indeed before English started in earnest. That frankly makes more sense than learning grammatical terminology and Latin at the same time.

  52. I took a year of Latin in my first year of grammar school — age 11 — and that was the first time I’d ever encountered grammar in a formal way. My Latin teacher was very good, but I gravely disappointed him by giving up Latin in favor of German despite getting almost a 100% score on the end of year Latin exam. He was a great guy — taught Latin, a bit of Russian, some Greek, and when I told him I was going to Finland for six months he pulled out an old Finnish textbook and recited the days of the week. I still feel bad that I let him down.

  53. @Bathrobe: You can use catchment for that in American English too, although it can refer to catching things other than water. Each regular public elementary school in America has a catchment area, for example.

  54. @Brett The same anywhere.

  55. I think it was Winfred Lehmann who tried to introduce heterogloss, but it got nowhere (like his other, I think, coinage, linguistician).

  56. Winnie Lehmann! We used to make fun of him in my day; I have no idea how he’s seen now.

  57. Wasn’t he the one who also tried to replace “hypercorrection” with “hyperurbanism”? Which of course won’t work because a prestige dialect isn’t always the, or even an, urban dialect. I know nothing about his reputation then or now. I do know that he wrote an Old Irish primer that was pretty bad, including inconsistent phonetic spellings.

  58. Yes, I’ve got it, it is pretty bad.

  59. David Marjanović says

    For an IEist he is cited astonishingly seldom by other IEists.

  60. That tells you something right there.

  61. John Cowan says

    Actually it doesn’t, not necessarily. Here’s one of my email signatures, which I adapted mangled from an article by Daniel C. Dennett. He is not to be confused with his Australian counterpart, Denial E. Dunnitt: the linked article is also relevant here.

    Consider the matter of Analytic Philosophy. Dennett and Bennett are well-known. Dennett rarely or never cites Bennett, so Bennett rarely or never cites Dennett. There is also one Dummett. By their works shall ye know them. However, just as. no trinities have fourth persons (Zeppo Marx notwithstanding), Bummett is hardly known by his works. Indeed, Bummett does not exist. It is part of the function of this and other e-mail messages, therefore, to do what they can to create him.

    (In a monowidth font, as God intended email to be viewed, this is exactly six lines of exactly 80 characters each, the width of a classic video terminal. Unfortunately it looks like ass in LH’s narrow column of text, so I’ve had to lose the line boundaries.)

  62. Trond Engen says


    Consider the matter of Analytic Philosophy. Dennett and Bennett are well-known. (79)
    Dennett rarely or never cites Bennett, so Bennett rarely or never cites Dennett. (80)
    There is also one Dummett. By their works shall ye know them. However, just as (78)
    no trinities have fourth persons (Zeppo Marx notwithstanding), Bummett is hardly (80)
    known by his works. Indeed, Bummett does not exist. It is part of the function (78)
    of this and other e-mail messages, therefore, to do what they can to create him. (80)

  63. John Cowan says

    79 is correct; I was forgetting to deduct the newline at the end of each line. But they are all the same; are you counting trailing blanks that aren’t there?

  64. Trond Engen says

    I was just curious how it looked and copy-pasted it into Windows Notepad. Then I narrowed the window until it sorted itself into six rows. They weren’t the same length.

    I didn’t count anything. I did what I do when I want to check the number of characters — I made a ruler by filling a line with sequences of ” – – – – 0 – – – – | ” (demagine the blanks). In this case eight sequences fit exactly inside the window. The line lengths came by subtracting the blanks at the end.

    Oh, and I emended an unwarranted full stop after “as” in the third line.

  65. Trond Engen says


    Consider the matter of Analytic Philosophy. Dennett and Bennett are well-known. (79)
    Dennett rarely or never cites Bennett, & Bennett rarely or never cites Dennett. (79)
    There is also one Dummett. By their fruits shall ye know them. However, just as (79)
    no trinities have fourth persons, Zeppo Marx notwithstanding, Bummett is hardly (79)
    known by his works. Indeed, Bummett does not exist. It is part of the function, (79)
    of this and other email messages, therefore, to do what they can to create him. (79)

  66. John Cowan says

    Here are all my quotations. You can also get a single random entry, renewed once a minute, which is what I use for email.

  67. 79 is correct; I was forgetting to deduct the newline at the end of each line.

    Nuh-uh. You use two spaces after a full stop. Like a monospace should.

    And Trond, you are featured there, twice at least. You are signing off JC’s emails. Next thing we know, they will exchange handles on the comments.

  68. David Marjanović says

    Consider the matter of Analytic Philosophy. Dennett and Bennett are well-known. (79)
    Dennett rarely or never cites Bennett, & Bennett rarely or never cites Dennett. (79)
    There is also one Dummett. By their fruits shall ye know them. However, just as (79)
    no trinities have fourth persons, Zeppo Marx notwithstanding, Bummett is hardly (79)
    known by his works. Indeed, Bummett does not exist. It is part of the function, (79)
    of this and other email messages, therefore, to do what they can to create him. (79)

    …So that was weird. I put double spaces between the sentences. The software strips them out despite the <code> tag, and yet the lines line up.

  69. Trond Engen says

    That’s my suggested change, not John’s original. I didn’t think of using the code tag.

    Featuring in John’s signature file is a life goal achieved. Bring the pandemonium!

    (No, really, don’t! I hope all stay safe and well through the next weeks.)

  70. Lars Mathiesen says

    You want <pre> (‘pre-formatted’) to strictly preserve spacing and line breaks. <code> just gives you a monospaced font — typically Courier or Courier New — but the text is reflowed as usual. No sane site operator would allow people to input the PRE tag, though. &nbsp; is your friend.

    Consider the matter of Analytic Philosophy.  Dennett and Bennett are well-known.(80)
    Dennett rarely or never cites Bennett, so Bennett rarely or never cites Dennett.(80)
    There is also one Dummett.  By their works shall ye know them.  However, just as(80)
    no trinities have fourth persons (Zeppo Marx notwithstanding), Bummett is hardly(80)
    known by his works.  Indeed, Bummett does not exist.  It is part of the function(80)
    of this and other email messages, therefore, to do what they can to create him.(80)

  71. Lars Mathiesen says

    Ha, I spotted the missing hyphen in ‘e-mail’ two seconds too late. You people really should trust John in these matters.

  72. David Marjanović says

    Oh, I hadn’t noticed how many changes you had made to get everything to 79!

  73. John Cowan says

    I usually write “email”, so that’s no biggie. I don’t know where the bad period in the flowed version came from.

    It’s not that people should trust me, it’s that they should trust “awk ‘{print length}'”, which writes out the length of each line supplied to it (including the terminating newline character).

  74. Lars Mathiesen says

    The period looked out of place so I elided it. But what I meant was that you are enough of a tool user that when you insert your signature text, I trust it will be equipped with the exact punctuation that happened to make 6×80 chars. (Except for that period. Trust can be carried too far). I started from Trond’s version but I hadn’t realized how many changes he had made to try to make it work with French spacing (sensu LaTeX).

  75. January First-of-May says

    a subject that might be translated as “engineering” or “technology” (the Dutch word is “techniek” and sounds vague to me)

    I’m guessing that this is the subject that Soviet schools called труд “work, labour”, and my brother’s current school calls технология “technology”.

  76. Since this is the only comment thread I could find containing, “Res ipsa loquitur,” I’ll just leave this joke I came across today here:

    How do you tell Dr. Seuss and John W. Campbell apart?

    The Lorax speaks for the trees, but the Thing speaks for itself.

  77. @Brett:

    Are you sure that the joke has “W. Campbell” rather than “Carpenter”?

    Campbell’s work, as adapted by Carpenter, was titled “Who Goes There?”.

    On the same topic, I recently read a sample chapter of Adam Robert’s “The Thing Itself”, an attempt to mash up Kant and Carpenter’s movie. I didn’t like the sample that much (working in “Ding! [as onomatopoeia] and Sick” seemed forced; I had other issues with it), but the book exists, for those who might want to try that sort of thing.

  78. @Owlmirror: The name “the Thing” for the alien is original to Campbell:*

    The Thing launched itself at Connant, the powerful arms of the man swung the ice-ax flat-side first at what might have been a head.

    “Who Goes There?” chapter V

    * And if it post-dated Campbell, the name would probably be credited to Howard Hawks, not John Carpenter.

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