My own vocabulary has expanded significantly because I studied this dead language
I have to admit, 14-year-old me wasn’t a complete moron.
There were days when that statement would be hard to defend, but one decision I made paid off for me.
As I entered high school, I had to pick a foreign language to study. I chose Latin.
There have certainly been times in the 25 years – oh my, 25 years – since I graduated from high school that I have wished I had taken Spanish or French.
However, when I talk to several of my friends who took two or three years of Spanish in high school, I think I know as much as they do 25 years later and my only Spanish tutoring has come from reading subtitles on Univision.
If you don’t master a new language and put it to good use often, you lose it quickly. But Latin isn’t like that.
Sure, it was fun to try to have conversations in Latin. But everyone who knows anything will tell you how Latin is a dead language and unless you are going to be a Priest, doctor or lawyer, Latin will mean nothing to you.
That is patently false.
I took four years of Latin in high school and Minnie Belle Churchill made sure that we knew why we were there. Learning Latin is to learn the building blocks of English.
According to “Borrowed Words: A history of loanwords in English” by Dr. Phillip Durkin, more than 13,000 words in the English language come directly from Latin. Almost 2,000 more come from French or Latin.
Similar numbers are true for all of the Romance languages – Spanish, Portugese, Italian, French, and even Romanian.
No, I can’t grab a copy of the Iliad and translate it for my kids each night before bed, although I’m sure that would be an effective bedtime story.
But all of those weekly vocabulary tests paid off. I can hear an English word for the first time and know what it means. Whether it is a word directly imported from Latin into English or a root word with a prefix or suffix that are also from Latin, I frequently find myself understanding words I have never heard before.
More than 6,000 words come into English from French but many of those have a basis in Latin as well. Greek has contributed about 3,000 words and German about half that.
By comparison, you can see why I am proud of a much younger version of me for taking a language that many thought was a waste. I understand what prime-time doctors and all of the lawyers on Law & Order mean when they use Latin jargon that sounds so mysterious.
My own vocabulary has expanded significantly because I studied this dead language.
According to Dr. Durkin’s book, 25 Zulu words have entered the English language from Zulu. We use 16 Punjabi words in conversation and at any given moment, speakers of English may incorporate any one of more than 50 native Hawaiian words that have entered the language – most of which probably come from Don Ho songs.
But the vast majority of our ever-expanding English vocabulary comes directly from Latin.
If I could go back in time, I would give 14-year-old me a hug for making a good choice. Not really, 14-year-old me hated hugs as much as I do now.
But I would tell him he was doing the right thing.
Kent Bush is the publisher of the Butler County Times Gazette and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org