Ludus cum Dick et Jane

“Habemus papam,” read the shortest announcement on the website of what I’m pretty sure is the world’s smallest (in area) sovereign power. Not that I was monitoring the Vatican’s website. I was monitoring the Washington Post’s website, which had a screen shot—and a translation. The first was enough: I could read “Habemus papam” without giving it a thought.

“Latin Surges in Popularity” is the headline on a U.S. News article from October 2008, the most recent such article I can turn up right now. “In the past 10 years, the number of students taking the National Latin Exam has risen by 30,000 to about 135,000, while the number of students taking the Advanced Placement Latin exams has nearly doubled,” the story says. “Some say the resurgence is linked to increased interest in SAT preparation and Latin’s ability to help students succeed on the test’s verbal section, while others believe young adults’ obsession with Harry Potter and his Latin spells are driving the trend.”

The article notes that students also love the engaging links to archeology, literature, and mythology. “The reason we know about the Greeks and the Romans and the reason we can talk about the significance of the literary works is because of the language. Language and culture are inseparable,” says the president of the American Classical League.

Those are the two halves of my answer to those who say, “Latin is a dead language. Why bother?” To back up the first half, I could be obnoxious and point to—mirabile dictu—my 5 on the Advanced Placement English exam despite never having read any of the books listed as essay subjects. (Long story. Thank goodness for a clear memory of Billy Budd.) Studies show that two years of Latin tend to boost a student’s SAT verbal score by 100 points.

Generally, though, I mention how knowing Latin strengthens a person’s understanding of English—both vocabulary and grammar. (Some 60 percent of English words come from Latin.) It makes a person a better writer, a better speaker, a better speller. A better reader, too, probably.

Not to mention a better citizen. After all, our form of government is derived from England and Old Europe, and the Founding Fathers had a classical education, meaning Latin and Greek as well as history, science, math, and geography. Want to enter law, medicine, science, economics? Expect to see a lot of Latin. And if you add another Romance language, you’ll pick it up much more easily. Without Latin, I’d have been tempted to drop out of French tout de suite.

And then there’s just getting a fair amount of popular culture, everything from books to articles to movies and even music and TV. When the aforementioned Mr. Potter wanted to knock a wand out of an opponent’s hand, he looked up expelliarmus. Years ago, I was sitting in a Georgetown crowd with two pals, one of whom I knew had taken Latin. “Like all of Gaul,” the speaker began, “my talk today is divided into three parts.” Mike and I looked at each other and exploded in giggles. “What?” hissed the friend sitting between us.

I was corresponding this morning not with Mike but with Rick. “Sic, habemus papam. Sed ubi, o ubi, est eius sub ubi?” went the email. (“So, we have a pope. But where, oh where, is his underwear?” One of the hits among a certain segment of the eighth grade.) I’m not telling who said what to whom, but there I was giggling again. Who says “dead” languages aren’t fun?

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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