Hic, haec, hoc – Gavin winds back the Clock

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Williamson promoting Latin – Source: Martin Griffiths

The Education Secretary’s recent announcement that he wants state schools to start teaching Latin again was met with a mixture of disbelief and assorted expletives. It is a predictably badly thought-out initiative. At a purely practical level the question is whether this will mean increasing total teaching hours per week. Or will some other subject have to be sacrificed to make way for Latin? Given this government’s contempt for anything creative, the ‘other subject’ would almost certainly be Art or Music. Or both.

Then we have to ask ourselves why this announcement is being made just now. Presumably it is yet another knee-jerk attempt to divert attention from the supermarket shortages created by the Brexit-induced lack of lorry drivers.

Is it an attempt to bring state schools in line with the commercial sector? But a lot of state schools already teach Latin.

And, more fundamentally, why Latin? Henry Sweet (1845-1912), eminent linguist and possibly model for Henry Higgins in Shaw’s play Pygmalion, once said – on the subject of classical languages – that Latin should not be taught until the sixth form and Greek not at all. It used to be a matter of pride for members of the Establishment to be able to spout meaningless passages from the Classics which they had learnt parrot-fashion. It was a waste of time and effort, of course. Now, you could argue that very little of what is taught at school will be of practical use to the average man or woman in the street. I had to endure physics. I dimly remember Boyle’s law which said (correct me if I’m wrong): If you switch on a kettle sooner or later it will boil. But I remember nothing else.

But let’s face it: Latin is a dead language. In 1940 the President of Estonia, whose country was about to be invaded by the Russians, broadcast to the world in Latin appealing for help. Result? Nihil (Nothing).

It is sometimes claimed that Latin is a ‘logical language’, but this is deliramentum (nonsense). No language is logical. Why, for example have a case system if you have prepositions? The only system that follows the rules of logic is … wait for it … logic. On the other hand, all languages are ‘rational’ – otherwise communication would be impossible. But rational is not the same as logical.

Then there is the argument that learning Latin will make it easier to learn another language subsequently. But this is an empty truism. Once you have learnt one language – any language – you will find it easier to pick up another one. If you’re concerned about ease of learning, there is plenty of evidence that Spanish is ‘easier to learn’ (for Brits) than most European languages.

So, why Latin in particular and not, say, Turkish? I think this stems from the misconception that English is derived from Latin. It’s not. English is a Germanic language. Its core vocabulary (words like father, mother, eat, sleep, come, go, work etc.) is purely Germanic. Try recasting that last sentence in vocabulary of Romance origin. Its grammar is purely Germanic (with the possible exception of the continuous tenses – I am going v. I go – which could be of Celtic origin). It might therefore make sense to make German the first foreign language in schools.

This leads one on to the question of whether one should learn a language as an intellectual challenge or as something practical. If you want an intellectual exercise, any language will do (except Esperanto). If the idea is to serve a practical purpose then German and French should obviously be top of the list: German because of the political significance of Germany in the EU and French because it is our closest neighbour and Brits like to go on holiday there.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am a linguist – forty years a translator – and I love learning and playing with languages (including, believe it or not, Latin). But, like any other rational being, I am deeply suspicious, and contemptuous, of the Education Secretary’s latest foray into the blackboard jungle; although it has to be said he has achieved the near impossible: making Liz Truss appear a towering genius by comparison.

No doubt this ludicrous suggestion will die the death, but as my old Latin teacher would have said: ‘Guglielmi filius caput ricardi est’.

Ed: As a physicist who loved Latin, I’m at odds with out illustrious linguist on Latin and Boyles Law. However I do agree with him that our Education Secretary’s motives are dubious and foolish.


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