By MICHAEL P. McKEATING, J.D.
Chesterton Academy of Buffalo
At Chesterton Academy of Buffalo we require all students to take three years of Latin.
When I speak to groups of parents about this, I get one of two reactions. Most say: “Praise the Lord.” But some say: “Why do you do that? Latin is of no use today.” I love those comments. They are the perfect foil. They launch me on my favorite speech.
The study of Latin is essential to a classical education, or to any Liberal Arts education for that matter. There are a number of reasons for this.
1. First, Latin is important because it teaches one to read, write and speak English better.
This is true because studying Latin forces one to focus on grammar, syntax and parts of speech. We usually don’t do this when we speak English, because we learned to speak English as infants and we do it without any reflection. Often we are not speaking correctly, but we do not know it.
But Latin has a rigid sentence structure, nouns are declined, verbs are conjugated, and adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number and case. Therefore in every sentence we must think about whether a word is a subject, predicate, direct object, indirect object, part of a prepositional phrase, etc.
In short, we must learn sentence structure and parts of speech, essential in any language but generally no longer given much emphasis in English in our schools.
2. Second, more than 50% of the words in the English language come from Latin, so in the course of learning Latin vocabulary, we necessarily expand and perfect our knowledge of English vocabulary.
As a result of Latin’s effect in strengthening and expanding our English vocabulary, numerous studies have shown that students who have taken Latin in high school score at least 50 to 150 points higher on standardized tests such as the SAT, than do students who have not studied Latin (Townsley, 1985; Morgan, 1989; Barrett, 1996; LaFleur, 1998).
3. Third, a knowledge of Latin is very important in a number of professions, particularly law and medicine.
In the legal profession, for example, there are hundreds of Latin phrases that are used by lawyers every day. Some examples are:
Mens Rea – Guilty mind
Certiorari – Bring it forth
Obiter dicta – Offhand comment in a legal decision not necessary to the decision
Duces tecum – Bring it with you
Ex post facto – After the fact
Habeus corpus – Produce the body
Ignorantia juris non excusat – Ignorance of the law is no excuse
In limine – At the threshold
In loco parentis – In the place of the parents
Non compos mentis – Not of sound mind
And there are hundreds more. One literally could not practice law without knowing the meaning of these Latin legal terms.
4. Finally, studying Latin helps us to better understand the Latin Mass, as well as the original text of the many traditional Latin hymns, such as Tantum Ergo, O Salutaris, Pange Lingua, Ave Corpus Verum, and many others.
Also, the original text of all Vatican documents is written in Latin. From there it is often translated into French, and from French into all other languages. So when we read the English translation, it's often a year or two after the original came out, and it has gone through at least two translations. This is why there are so many disputes over translations, and why studying Latin would help us to better understand them.