Our cultural roots are in Latin and Greek

Pupils love the logic and complexities of ancient languages, says Alexander Jolliffe

Teenagers are studying Latin in large numbers. Some 7,000 pupils took the GCSE this year, 150 more than in 2018, according to the exam board OCR. Greek also appeals to intelligent pupils, to judge by anecdotal evidence. A website for studying classical Greek, Basil Batrakhos – the word means “frog” – has had 631 visits since it went live in March, says the charity Classics For All. “Greek especially is intriguing to the young mind because of the mysterious letters,” says Fr Henry Wansbrough, a classically educated Bible scholar.

But why should children not understand grammar and syntax – the structure of sentences – by studying a spoken language such as German? Dominic Sullivan, head of Classics at the London Oratory School, says it’s the logic of the Latin language that appeals. “Latin has the advantage that words change their endings a lot, and this helps focus [pupils’] attention on grammar. For example, the accusative case – which shows that a noun is the object of a verb – has distinctive endings, so this aids children in concentrating on the roles of words in sentences.”

Latin literature is also popular, he says. This month he will have 18 pupils in the Lower Sixth starting A level Latin – a record number – and they enjoy grappling with the ambiguities of verbs and nouns. For example, the verb colo has several separate senses: first, I live in; second, I cultivate land; third, I worship. Similarly the noun munus can mean a gift, or a sacrificial offering to a god or goddess, or gladiatorial games. “So studying Latin at A level requires a great deal of careful thought,” he said; his sixth-formers must consider each of the meanings.

Then there is the fun of word roots, or etymology. “Democracy” is derived from two classical Greek words which mean “people power”, “oligarchy” comes from a pair of nouns which mean “the power of the few”, “philosophy” – which the ancient Greeks invented – means “the love of wisdom” and “theology” is derived from two terms that mean “the study of God”.

But surely they could study the ancient Greeks and Romans in good translations? No – to translate is to betray, says Fr Nick King, another classically educated Bible scholar. “Whenever one translates, one has to make an interpretation of what the author means [and exclude certain possibilities]. But in the original language, you consider the possibilities and the different interpretations,” says Mr Sullivan.

A related benefit is the chance to begin at the beginning, adds Simon May, the head of classics at St Paul’s, an independent school in London. The Greeks invented epic poetry – think of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, composed orally in c 750 BC – as well as tragedies (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were Athenian tragedians), comedies (think of Aristophanes’s political satire) and history – Herodotus was the father of history (though the ancient Chinese were also early historians). The pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, invented science and philosophy: “The Greeks’ big achievement was to try to find rational explanations, not just divine accounts,” says Mr Sullivan.

Latin and Greek are exciting for children when compared with, say, German, says Mr May. “There is something uniquely thrilling about being let in on the ground floor.”

He says pupils relish researching classical Athens, the city-state (called polis in Greek) because the Athenians invented direct democracy – each male citizen was equal before the law and the assembly – and yet they owned slaves and did not give these legal and voting privileges to women.

“There is a unique appeal to the young imagination about much of what is studied: what did it mean to grow up in a culture ‘similar but different’, for example in a slave-owning society or one where the seeds of democracy were sown but where social inequalities were so rife and where the role of women was so different,” says Mr May. Bishop Challoner, an independent school for Catholics in London, has just reintroduced Latin. “Knowing the language helps with one’s liturgical participation,” says Mr Sullivan of the London Oratory School.

Alexander Jolliffe is a freelance writer