Why Bother Learning Latin?

“Who cares? It’s a dead language.”

Yes, people still say this to me on occasion. But fear not! Latin is not dead! Ask any language scholar and they will effectively say the same thing when you look at things in the right context. Latin did not die, it simply evolved. When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, it doesn’t mean that the caterpillar died. But the argument here is not just to prove that Latin isn’t dead, it’s to make the case that knowing Latin can prove useful in mastering several other languages.

This statistic helps to illustrate Latin’s pervasiveness in other languages, even non-Romance languages:

Nearly 60% of all
English words
are derived
from Latin.

I will say again, English is not a Romance language. It is, at its core, a Germanic language (more on that later). Now, aside from the large number, the main takeaway here is the keyword derived. Remember what I said about Latin evolving? Well, that 60% did not come directly from Latin—but from French. But, French is a Romance language (meaning that French evolved from Latin), so those words did essentially come from Latin.

So, how is this all useful? Let’s take a look:

  1. If you learn Latin, you’d have familiarity with many English words that you may not have ever seen before. For example, the word Latin word paucum means “a few.” If you came across the word “paucity” in a sentence, you’d automatically know that it would roughly equate to “a small quantity.” But please, use this power only for good. Don’t be one of those guys who uses convoluted words just to sound sophisticated at parties.
  2. You would be a whiz at spelling English words that have Latin roots. Have you ever wondered why some words end in -ent (“incompetent”) and others end in -ant (“important”)? It all has to do with how the verbs are conjugated in Latin. Once you know the verb conjugations, you know a lot about spelling a word.
  3. Latin can give you quite a command over grammar in general. By learning the finer aspects of Latin grammar you can apply that knowledge to learning other languages. You will find that you have a better working knowledge of sentence structure and word usage. Latin essentially gives you the toolkit to ask the right questions when learning a new langauge.
  4. Having a keen grasp over Latin grammar and vocabulary can vastly improve your ability to learn and understand other similar languages, especially the languages directly-descended from Latin. More importantly, you’ll start to recognize resemblances between words in other languages. For example, the Latin word porta means “door.” The French word for the same thing is porte, the Spanish word equivalent is puerta.

Latin is a prime gateway to learning other languages in general, mainly because so much of Western grammatical understanding comes through the lens of both Greek and Latin. Therefore, knowing more about Latin grammar really opens up one’s understanding about English. It also provides us with a historical context that is hard to rival. We weren’t the only ones who wrote history books. Romans were writing history books over 2,000 years ago, and they’re fascinating reads. While the objectivity of these historians might be often misplaced, they add an interesting facet to how Romans understood their own worlds around them at that time.

Aside from that, learning Greek would also be beneficial as well. In fact, Rome owes a lot to the Greeks, because the Romans effectively incorporated everything from them—ranging from their writing system to their pantheon of gods.