Open Up to Latin!

Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome

Every try to analyze all the elements that contribute to a student’s intellectual development? There’s plenty of research, but don’t plan on doing a meta-study without lots of help. The field is big, and the experts all have much to say.

My meager contributions to this conversation have been dissed more often than not, but I get a warm feeling when I read about others who share my respect for the power of learning Latin.

I was lucky to have gone to high school in a day when nobody questioned to utility of studying Latin (1958-1962). As you will learn, if you read the article linked to above, Latin fell on some hard times in our goofball American education culture, but Latin is making a comeback in some more enlightened sections of the country.

You’re thinking, why Latin? What’s so special?

I studied French (two years) in high school, and two years of Spanish as an undergrad in college. Yes, I enjoyed the experience, it’s certainly valuable, especially in the absence of Latin, but nothing affected me like the four years I studied Latin.

Vocabulary study (by second year, 100 words per week learned) provided the gift of root word recognition in English; intense grammar study in Latin II gave me a better understanding of my own language than the previous nine years of school ever had; and the study of the history and culture of an ancient civilization that, although quite foreign, was very familiar and exciting. (I even built a gladiator’s short sword in wood shop class to use as a prop in the annual Festum Romanum Saturnalia.)

But mostly, it was the vocabulary study in Latin II, which, by coincidence, was taught by my Dad, Hugh J. O’Donnell, at Levittown Memorial High School, Long Island, New York. Dad’s the one that required the 100 words per week and quizzed us faithfully to make sure we were on top of it. (He also sponsored the Saturnalia, and took all the qualifying Levittown Latin students to the annual Baird Memorial Latin Translation Contest in NYC.)

We can’t think, or learn to think better, or critically, if we haven’t the words to represent our thoughts. Certainly, we’re at a disadvantage communicating our thoughts without appropriate vocabulary. In fact, thoughts, without words, are mere feelings . The more words we know and can detect differences of meaning between, the more refined our thinking and ability to communicate those thoughts.

I’m not doing the study of Latin justice with the recital above, but I’ve been inspired to refine my thinking about the myriad aspects of Latin study that contribute to heightened intellectual development, and I’ll add to and revise this post as I move along with it.

Meanwhile, open up your mind to the advantages of the study of Latin.

I will admit, I was pretty lost when I had to deal with Virgil’s Aeneid (fourth year), because the three of us (two girls and me) that stuck it out for four years had to share a class with about 27 third year students! The teacher, Kevin Aylward (by this time, I’d moved on to Farmingdale High School), was brilliant, but the third year kids’ needs outweighed ours! We just didn’t get much teacher time, and fourth year Latin poetry is h-a-r-d.

First year Latin was fun and easy. The course I took from my Dad, Latin II, was intense, with all the vocabulary, grammar, and Caesar’s Gallic Wars to translate. But he made it great fun, and was totally fair to me, his kid. And then Latin III exposed us to the orations of Sallust and Cicero, and the relatively easy poetry of Ovid, which was kinda sexy.

One more point I overlooked on my first pass here: French and Spanish are much easier after having studied Latin. After all, they are Romance languages, derivatives of Latin!

Here’s a photo of my Dad about a decade and a half (or more) after I had him in class. This is from the mid-seventies at Hillsboro High School (Oregon) when he was teaching Language Arts (English for you old-timers).


4 thoughts on “Open Up to Latin!

  1. Hugh, I support your encouraging the studying of Latin. It is one of the main language roots of our English. I never studied it, but my father did in high school in the early 1930s.

    A few years ago I attempted the daunting task of putting together a (long) list of root words and syllables. The task went away but I was inspired with the realization that most words had root or roots in them or a longer word is built up from more roots.

    Take an example from the Greek language, “eu-“ meaning well (from the greek “eus” meaning good). Several words used this prefix: eugenics, euphemism, euphonium, euphemism, etc., but not eunuch. There are countless examples from Greek and Latin.

    I have read two Norman Mailer novels. I read “Harlot’s Ghost” when it came out in 1991. Mailer was truly an intellectual, and the characters in his novel were also intellectuals (in the CIA). As I read the novel I found it was best to have a dictionary at my side because the vocabulary was so extensive. He used words like preternaturally, priapic, cryptonyms and sobriquet. As I looked up each word I did not know I tried to capture the roots and structure of the word.

    Studying languages like French, Latin, Greek, and to a certain extent Spanish and German can significantly increase understanding of our English. Or you could pick up Mailers 1310 page tome, Harlot’s Ghost, with your dictionary and read a good story as you increase your vocabulary.

    Yes, it all comes down to words and the rules for their use.

    We can’t communicate without words. The more words and the finer the shades of meaning, the more meaningful the communication. And Latin, besides being culturally and historically fascinating, serves to develop most directly our vocabulary and understanding of the structure (grammar) of the English language. –Hugh

  2. I had to do Latin at school as I was in the top set. I hated every minute of it, and it was of zero use to me at all.
    You develop your vocabulary by reading ENGLISH, not by learning Latin. My time in Latin class could have been better spent on the sports field playing cricket. Bah to Latin says I! Bah!

    I loved it, you hated it. Different strokes for different folks.

    I disagree somewhat with you notions about vocabulary, though…rigorous study of Latin vocabulary accompanied by the study of Latin grammar, along with reams of translation (not transliteration) puts one’s mind through much more vigorous activity than merely reading English, although I will say that reading in one’s native tongue is highly desireable! 😉 –Hugh

  3. I’ve read that Latin is making a comeback. Even my French helps my English vocabulary, and Latin is even better.

    Yup, Latin comes more directly (usually) into English.

    I’ll let you in on a little family secret…Dad’s biggest frustration with me was that I never asked for help with my Latin homework! But I figured he needed to kick back after school and not nursemaid his first-born. Of course, now I know it’s a parent’s joy to help their kid! (Should I feel a little guilty about my independence? It seems to run in the family. My son was the same way in high school!) 🙂 –Hugh

  4. And your Dad looks just like James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek) in that photo!

    Yeah, but Dad was more dangerous than Scotty — 6’2″ and 240 pounds of Brooklyn Black Irish. But, besides being the smartest man I’ve ever known, he was the kindest and his students still talk about him today. –Hugh

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