Gaudeamus igitur linguam latinam dum loquimur

28 Dec

(Let us rejoice, therefore, because we speak Latin.) Christmas is one of the few times that speaking, or at least singing Latin is commonplace. You may well have belted out the words “gloria in excelsis”, “in dulce jubilo” or (if you’re hardcore) “adeste fideles” yourself this festive season. While teaching the Sunday school about Christmas I noticed how ubiquitous it is at this time of year. “What does ‘advent’ mean?” “It’s from the Latin for ‘arrive’.” “What does’ nativity’ mean?” “It’s from the Latin for ‘born’.” And so on. It’s not just in church that you find Latin though. There are bestsellers other than the Bible that benefit from a little Latin magic – literally, in the case of Harry Potter. Most of the spells taught at Hogwarts are just instructions in slightly mangled Latin, and there are secret wee clues on the books for Latin speakers, too. I was kicking myself when I discovered the secret about Remus Lupin because it was there in his name all the time. J K Rowling isn’t the only author putting her classical education to use. The author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, uses a lot of Greek and especially Roman references, particularly in the names of Capitoline characters. When I found out that the name of Panem, her fictional land, was from panem et circenses, bread and circuses – the only things the Emperor Tiberius said Romans cared about – it gave me a lovely satisfied feeling all day, it was so right. The moral, clearly, is if you want to write a best-selling book for younger readers, speak Latin. In all seriousness, though, Latin is amazingly useful. I often say that it was the most useful subject I ever studied (barring reading, writing and arithmetic, which are the sine qua non of any education) and that’s no exaggeration. In Latin classes I learnt not only how to read Latin (although that’s sometimes handy) but also European history and geography (which weren’t really covered in History and Geography classes at that time, due to the vagaries of educational fashion). I picked up the bones of all Latin languages, so that I have an advantage when it comes to understanding Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and even Romanian. What’s more, by studying a dead language I learnt how to take a language apart, understand its components, and put it back together again. That has made it so much quicker and easier for me to pick up any language, as well as making my English grammar pretty much impeccable – no bad thing for a writer. Latin classes were also my first introduction to another culture, one that still fascinates me now. It was because I enjoyed GCSE Latin that I went on to study Classical Civilisation at A Level, and then Ancient History at university. If I hadn’t learnt Latin I might never have met my darling Alexander, and would almost certainly not have written my new book Augustine: The Truth Seeker. It’s no exaggeration to say that the course my life (my curriculum vitae, if you like) would have been quite different if I had never studied Latin. For centuries, Latin was the international language, spoken by all educated people (although admittedly the proportion of people who were educated was a lot lower than it is now). All those old documents and inscriptions in Latin were written not so that people couldn’t read them, but so that they could. With a knowledge of Latin you could study at any university in Europe in the Middle Ages, because that was the language they all taught in. Even today, the University of St Andrews (my alma mater) uses Latin in its graduation ceremony, so that I became a Master of Arts by the use of the secret magic words “et super te”, or Super Ted, as we liked to call it. These days, Latin is a bit of an elite pursuit, usually available as a subject only at private schools. I think that’s a terrible shame. Such a useful subject (and an enjoyable one, if you do the Cambridge Latin Course) should be available to everyone. So if you ever do get the chance to study Latin, seize it! Or to put it another way, carpe diem! For those of you who already speak Latin (or rather, read it, since conversational Latin isn’t very useful), here’s a wee Christmas treat to make you smile: image


2 Responses to “Gaudeamus igitur linguam latinam dum loquimur”

  1. Jackie December 29, 2013 at 8:31 am #

    I feel the same way about calculus. It’s beautiful, and surprisingly everywhere.

    • kcmurdarasi December 29, 2013 at 8:49 am #

      Maybe a bit less Christmassy, though?

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