The Continuing Importance of Learning

Ancient Languages


by Anna Tagliabue


This paper was written in 1998 for a high school English class in Houston, Texas

About the Author / The Paper / Works Cited




I was born in Bonn, Germany, on April 3, 1981, I live there with my mother and my older brother, and (very important!) my cat Tiger.  I met my first ancient language in 5th grade when I started studying Latin in school.  4 years later, I added ancient Greek.  I thoroughly enjoy learning languages of all sorts.  Other interests of mine lie in music and art — I play the violin and recorder, and I like to draw and do Origami.  At present I am spending my 11th grade in Houston, Texas as an exchange student.  I wrote this paper for my English class here.  This year I have also begun to learn Hebrew.  I will return to Germany in June.


Teacher: Mrs. White

School: Clear Lake High School

              2929 Bay Area Blvd.

              Houston, TX 77058-1099

(Clear Creek Independent School District)


The Continuing Importance of Learning

Ancient Languages


            Thousands of years ago, in ancient times, people expressed their thoughts and feelings in other languages than they use today.  The world spoke Latin, ancient Greek and Hebrew, and even earlier on, Egyptian.  In time these languages changed and developed into today’s modern tongues.  For a long time Latin stayed the common language of the educated, and every school required its students to learn Latin and Greek.  Then, slowly, people stopped studying Latin and especially ancient Greek.  Now only a few schools require their students to study Latin, and fewer still even offer Greek or Hebrew.  Often people will say, “Nobody speaks these languages any more — why should I study them?”  But even though languages like Latin and ancient Greek are not generally spoken any more today, it is still important to study these so-called “dead” languages.

            Of course it may be true that the use of ancient languages as actual communication tools today is limited.  Only in the Vatican is Latin still actually spoken, and only enthusiastic philologists deny the fact that the ancient languages are extinct.  Scholars still get together to invent “new” Latin words for things that did not exist in Roman times (Wilkes 2).  In a sense, though, they are right.  These languages can be kept alive by studying them.

            But why should people study ancient languages?  “I was four years old, and my young uncle was practicing his Greek on me.  He read me the Iliad and the Odyssey, translating as he went.  The unknown words poured over me like dark music, and when he turned to English it was always a letdown.  I was very glad to hear what was happening, and wanted to know what happened next — but still there seemed something missing, the golden hero voices, sea whispers, spear shock.  I had been bitten by poetry in the dark and didn’t know it.  Later, modeling myself after my uncle, I studied Greek and Latin and read the stories the way Hesiod told them; and Herodotus, Homer, Virgil, Ovid... and knew the old enchantment.  Then I went to them in their English versions, and again felt this terrible loss” (Evslin 6).  Evslin says that the translated version of the masterwork of an ancient writer can never have just the same effect on its reader as the original text, because a translator can only convert the meaning of words into another language, but not the feel and atmosphere that is connected to the original words.  The introduction of the book “Latin Made Simple” agrees that all translations have their failings (Hendricks 5).

            Another argument is the use of ancient words for international communication.  “ the dawn of modern science, back in the sixteenth century, Latin was the language of scholarship.  Any educated man could speak Latin; many could read Greek.  So making up [scientific] words out of those languages was as though we were making up words out of English.  The practice continued even as Latin and Greek slowly lost their place in the school curriculum — but for once inertia served a good purpose.  By keeping to the ‘dead’ languages, the scientific vocabulary has remained very largely international” (Asimov 2).  The author shows how ancient languages can prove useful as sources for scientific terms, especially since this way no country has an advantage over another because the international language of science might happen to be its national language.  For instance, many chemical elements have Latin names (Hendricks 7).  “But Latin is still seen in everyday writing about matters of law, and the law is a serious matter” (Ehrlich xi-xii).  So not only in science, but also in law, Latin serves a useful purpose.

            Yet another advantage of learning ancient languages is its positive influence on the student’s English, and more generally, all linguistic abilities.  “If all educated people still had their Latin and Greek, each would see at once that thermometer, for instance, is a word that combines the Greek ‘therme’ (heat) and ‘metron’ (a measure).  It is a ‘heat measure’, and what could be plainer?” (Asimov 6).  This example shows that the study of ancient languages can help us to speak and understand English better, even esoteric foreign words.  When the Normans invaded Britain in AD 1066, they brought not only the French language with them, but also Latin, which was the trade language of Europe (Hendricks 7).  Words like historical, philosophical, mathematical, cosmological, rhetorical and political show that not only the concepts described by these words, but also the terms for them come from the ancient languages, knowing the roots of today’s modern languages makes it easier to see what an unknown word means even at first sight.  “The most common misuse [of Latin] I encounter is the confusion of e.g. with i.e., but there are many others” (Ehrlich xi).  So Latin can not only help p0eople to understand English more thoroughly, but also to speak better English themselves.  Many Latin abbreviations and words are still part of the English language in their ancient form.  It is easy to use them in a wrong way if one is not familiar with the language.  “The next time you feel like using the immortal language of Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, and Horace to turn an ordinary remark into a timeless utterance, don’t let feles, felis, feli, felem, fele (the cat) get your tongue” (Beard ix-x).  Here the author makes clear that using ancient languages while speaking can make what somebody says sound more important.  He also calls the ancient languages “immortal”.  Mario is another author who thinks ancient languages are more stable than modern English.  He quotes: “Waller says, in his Of English Verse: Boets that lasting marble seek/Must carve in Latin or in Greek/We write on sand...” (Pei 286).  Here is another example of the usefulness of Latin in the English language: “For instance, for some reason I find it handier even in idiomatic exchanges to say ‘per impossibile’ over against, say, ‘assuming that the impossible were actually to take place’” (Buckley 1).  In this example, the Latin phrase is simply shorter than the awkward English equivalent.

            Now three arguments for studying ancient languages have been found: the preservation of ancient literature in the original, the use of ancient languages as international languages for science and law, and the facilitation of speaking and understanding ;modern languages like English through the study of ancient languages.

            But back to the first point: much of the ancient literature that has survived to this day is a work of art. Therefore it would be a great loss if ancient writings could be no longer read and enjoyed in the original language.  A classics student says, “In my experience, few translations, however sensitive and literate, can accurately convey the spirit and flavor of the original” (Sampath).  Whole libraries full of books would be lost to the world in their original form — the meaning of the words could be preserved, but if no one could read the original texts any longer, the artistic talent and expertise of the ancient writers would be forgotten and no longer honored.

            The second point states that the ancient languages remain useful as communication devices between scientists of different nationa.  In this way there is no hindering language barrier between scientists of different nationalities, and they can discuss important projects and discoveries without a problem.  Without the international scientific terms, taken from ancient languages, scientists of the world might never have gotten together to boost the progress of modern technology.  Hereby we see that Latin and Greek can bring the people of the world closer together and serve as a binding force of humanity.  With law it is the same — since the law often decides about the lives of people, everyone should be able to defend himself in the ancient and universal language of law, in any country.  This is made possible only by the study of ancient languages.

            The third point is this: by studying the roots of today’s modern languages, it becomes easier for people to see the likenesses between them, and picking up a new modern language becomes less difficult.  “Students who have studied Latin go on to learn other languages like French, Spanish or Italian so much more easily,” says a high school Latin teacher (Rawlings).  And since the English language, too, comes from ancient languages, many of their words are still part of it.  With only a vague knowledge of the ancient tongues, it is easy to pronounce the different-sounding words in a wrong way or misuse them in a sentence.  A very practical use for students is that their SAT scores are usually higher if they are learning Latin or Greek.  A former classics student agrees with regret: “Latin enhanced my English vocabulary almost over night!  Studying Greek did the same.  I realized, while in college, that if I had taken some high school Latin, and maybe a little Greek, I would have done so much better on certain standardized exams high school students take before going to college” (Dickens).  Latin teacher Linda Rawlings says the same thing: “Many high school students take Latin, because it will help them on the SAT” (Rawlings).  And not only Latin words appear in the English language, even some Latin sayings are still in use.  Also, phrases in ancient languages are sometimes handy to use.  If everyone still spoke and understood the ancient languages, people could take advantage of Latin or Greek conciseness without the worry that their listeners may not understand.

            In conclusion, these are the reasons for learning ancient languages in our modern world: One, supported by the anecdote of Bernard Ehrlich, is that ancient writings are infinitely more valuable in their original form, since a translation can never sound quite as impressive.  The second reason is that ancient languages are still in use for international terms in science, as Isaac Asimov tells in his history of scientific words, and in law, as stated by Ehrlich.  The third reason is that the study of ancient languages can help us speak and understand English and other modern languages more thoroughly, because many words from the ancient tongues are still part of our languages today.  This is agreed upon by Asimov, Ehrlich, and Henry Beard.  These three points prove that it is still important to study so-called “dead” languages today, even though they are not generally spoken any longer.


Works Cited


# Asimov, Isaac.  Words of Science and the History behind Them.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959.

# Beard, Henry.  Latin for all Occasions/Lingua latina occasionibus omnibus.  New York: Villard Books, 1991.

#Buckley, William F., Jr.  Introduction.  Amo, Amas, Amat and More by Euguen Ehrlich.  New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1991.

# Dickens, Timothy.  Correspondence interview.  9 March 1998.

# Ehrlich, Eugene.  Amo, Amas, Amat and More.  New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1991.

# Evslin, Bernard.  Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths.  New York: Four Winds Press, 1979.

# Hendricks, Rhoda.  Latin Made Simple.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

# Holmes, Eva.  Correspondence interview.  10 March 1998.

# Humez, Alexander & Nicholas.  Alpha to Omega - The Life and Times of the Greek Alphabet. Boston/London: David R. Godine, Publisher, 1983.

# Pei, Mario.  The Story of the English.  Philadelphia & New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1967.

# Rawlings, Linda.  Personal interview.  10 March 1998.

# Sampath, Divya.  Correspondence interview.  10 March 1998.

# Wilkes, Angela.  Latin for Beginners.  Lincolnwood (Chicago): Passport Books, 1996.

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