It isn’t Latin that’s a dead language. It’s English!


Here is a rather old one (2002, no less) but a classic piece of silliness, and as it’s still there on the Times online website, I think it deserves addressing.

Ann Widdecombe sets out in this article her thesis that the explanation for falling standards of English amongst the young is the disappearance of Latin classes from most secondary schools in the UK. In essence, she is claiming that if you taught Latin to children their English would improve. And it really, really needs to improve because we are currently in a terrifying world,

in which linguistic anarchy prevails, where children are no longer taught the function of a verb, much less its precise formation and where bright, enthusiastic graduates produce a jumble of words, randomly punctuated, and call it a letter.”

Even allowing for hyperbole, this is over-egging things. Linguistic anarchy does not prevail, cannot prevail, because human languages are always rule governed. Always. Take the sloppiest person you know, record a few sentences he or she says, write them out and count dozens of phonological, morphological, syntactic, phonotactic and semantic rules therein. Perhaps none of the rules are consciously known, but they are rigidly adhered to nevertheless. (Want to see what linguistic anarchy really looks like? It looks like this: much although seminar very January, sign lunch; taking would and! go bear when premature vanilla. If anyone, graduate or not, wrote that and called it a letter, I’d advise a 999 call because there’s serious brain damage going on.)

And what about the claim that children are no longer being taught the function of a verb?  Do they have to learn consciously the function of a verb before they can use a verb? If a two-year-old says Bunny chase you, is it the result of someone explaining to him what a verb is for? Has the child who develops over a period of two or three years from saying no brush teeth to he didn’t brush his teeth received lessons in syntax? Of course not.

Throughout this piece, Ann Widdecombe assumes that you only learn the rules of your language once you get to school. In fact, by the time you get to school, you have already learned them. It’s an implicit process that follows its course without any child’s conscious awareness or any parent’s conscious teaching. And thank heavens for that because if language learning depended on a child’s will and a parent’s spare time, there would be a lot of mute children out there.

But, then, what Ann Widdecombe is really moaning about (though she does not make this clear) is the written language and not the spoken language. Speech is, well, a bit rough and ready for Widdecombe. Her pet hate, she says, is with singulars and plurals getting mixed up. Did anyone leave their umbrella here? has the unpardonable concordance of a singular subject (anyone) with a plural pronoun (their). Teachers trying to eradicate this in writing would explain the grammar in order to elicit Did anyone leave his umbrella here? A class of children from the old days would have no trouble with understanding how very much better that is because they would recall their own Latin lessons:

In exercise after exercise we applied the rule that an adjective agrees with its noun in number, gender and case and that the same rule applies to pronouns and possessives.”

She claims bizarrely that laziness explains why people today don’t want to write, Did anyone leave his/her umbrella, and it’s fear of political incorrectness that makes others avoid using his umbrella.  Well, no it’s not, and no it’s not. We do not say things like, Did anyone leave his umbrella here? because it’s weird. We say, Did anyone leave their umbrella here? because the rule in English is this: if you don’t know the gender of the person involved, use the pronouns they, them and their. This is not confusing. Nor ugly. It’s clear. It’s easy. It’s used all the time. In fact, it’s even mirrored in the second person pronoun ‘you’ which can be singular as well as plural, and Ann Widdecombe is not sounding off about that, though probably she would have done if she had been alive in the late sixteenth century when the words ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ were losing ground.

It gets worse: 

We have managed to deprive several generations of basic knowledge of the construction of their language, which, in common with many others, finds its roots in Latin.”

 Wrong again, and you’d think that someone who has been in Parliament so long would know how to do a bit of fact-checking. English does not find its roots in Latin. It shares a very distant common ancestor language with Latin (i.e. Proto-Indo-European), but English descends through the Germanic branch of that family, and Latin descends through the Italic branch. Teaching Latin grammar can in no way contribute to a child’s explicit understanding of English grammatical structures. It can acquaint a child with knowledge of grammatical terms like subject, preposition and tense, but you can do this just as well by studying English itself, or any modern language. Latin grammar is not and cannot be the arbiter of what is correct in English.

By the way, I am all in favour of teaching about grammar because grammar is interesting. What I deplore is the teaching of grammar as vehicle for humiliation, or to show children how to sneer at others with less Latin in their blood. It is not ugly to write or say things like, Did anyone leave their umbrella here? It is not ugly to split an infinitive, or put a preposition at the end of a sentence. All these uses are overwhelmingly current in English today. What children need to learn at school is the important difference between spoken and written, formal and informal use. This does not require Latin.

  So, Ms. Widdecombe, please remember:

 Literacy is not the same as language development. Most humans cannot read or write, but all have mastered the rule systems of their native languages perfectly well. English is not derived from Latin.  There is no reason to import a couple of Latin grammatical rules into English to tidy it up. And finally, some of the most turgid and impenetrably ugly writing in history was done by people trying to make English fit a Latin mould.  

By the way, I was taught Latin at school right up to A-level. I loved the subject and I think it could do with a comeback. I do not regard it as either nasty or irrelevant. It certainly comes in useful for spelling English words of Latin origin. But the real benefit for me was the entry it allowed into the poetry and prose of a long-vanished civilisation. Priceless.

Quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur, sed naturalia non sunt turpia.




3 thoughts on “It isn’t Latin that’s a dead language. It’s English!

  1. I teach Latin, Ancient Greek and Italian Grammar in Italian high Schools, and I have to fight with such commonplaces everyday (even though they, ehm ehm, help me to keep my job…). Too much rhetoric is spilled over Latin! The only and sufficient reason to study it is well summarized in the last two lines of this post.By the way, in Italy we teach tons of grammar as Widdecombe means it but the essays of the students keep being, on the average, quite poor.

  2. Unfortunately, the article is no longer available – when was it published? I don’t think it’s as old as 2002.

    I don’t regard Latin per se as nasty or irrelevant, but rather, many of its advocates. If you’re into poetry and prose, fine, but not everybody is. As Viv Groskop wrote, it’s that kind of snobbery that has turned us into a nation of monoglots –

    Lots of linguists [sic] collude with this, mystifying the process and blathering on about how you haven’t lived until you’ve read Proust in the original.

    Widdecombe is not the only person to peddle the myth that English is what it is because of Latin, as illustrated by this quote from Joanna Lumley –

    I am a great fan of Latin. I love it. I did it at school at both O-level and A-level, and I am a great supporter of Classics for All because apart from anything else Latin is the basis of our language

    From then on, I ignored anything she had to say.

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