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Sic Transit Gloria … What ever happened to Latin?

By Gloria C. Endres

By Gloria C. Endres

Whenever the subject of the ancient Latin language comes up, one in- variably hears the adjective “dead” inserted somewhere. It is a “dead” language according to some people because you do not hear it spoken around the dinner table anymore.

But they are dead wrong. Latin is spoken in many places all the time — often even in its classical form. And not just in church where you can occasionally hear the strains of “Ave Maria” or even “Panis Angelicus” (Angelic Bread). English uses some Latin in its classic form, while two- thirds of our words contain Latin roots. When, for example, we write a PS to a note, what we are abbreviating is “post scriptum” or after writing. We measure our time in “Ante Meridian” and “Post Meridian” (AM and PM). We use a calendar with months named for Gods and Emperors (July and August — can you guess who?), and the months from September to December spelled exactly the way the Romans did.

We go to sporting events at a “stadium” or “arena.” We watch them on “video” (I see) or turn up the “audio” (I hear). And if the games are Super Bowls, they are numbered in Roman numerals.

If you really want to hear modern Latin spoken, you can listen to its derivative languages, mostly Spanish and Italian, but also Portuguese, Romanian and French. They are called “romance” languages because of their Roman origins, not because they are spoken by sweethearts. Well, some- times.

When I attended Saint Maria Goretti High School back in the nifty fifties, classical Latin was considered a requirement for college. So those of us on the “academic track” had to take at least two years. I took four as well as three years of French. After that much study, college was a breeze.

Once upon a time, before the “reformers” from Harrisburg came along to see how many for profit businesses they could establish using Philadelphia public schools as their guinea pig, Latin was taught in middle grades in many Philadelphia public schools including some in South Philly. The program was nationally recognized. The idea was to build vocabulary, while also teaching ancient history, literature and an appreciation for the classics.

I was lucky to have an itinerant Latin teacher visit my classroom at the John H. Taggart School at Fourth and Porter to give my fourth-grade students lessons in everyday Latin — as in mottos on our money or the state seal; the gods and goddesses of the solar system; and stories from the Zodiac. They learned how to greet each other and ask each other’s names. They studied maps of the Roman Empire and saw how it matched modern Europe and North Africa. Everywhere the Romans built roads for trade routes, they left their language. The children enjoyed myths like the story of how Jupiter became King of the Gods and one of his brothers Neptune became God of the Sea. The animated story of “The Little Mermaid” features her father as the Sea King with the same trident that Neptune held.

To make the language come alive, I supplemented their lessons by organizing plays using only Latin dialogue. The children dressed in togas or tunics and some played soldiers or members of a Roman family at dinner eat- ing fish (pisces).

Then it all ended when the School Reform Commission took over the district 16 years ago and decided that they could save money by firing all the itinerant Latin teachers. That was their idea of “reform.” Eheu!! (Yipes)

I retired from the School District in 1997 and soon after took a job supervising practicum students and student teachers for Temple University. Once in a while, I would ask my college students what the words: “cum laude,” “magna cum laude” and “summa cum laude” meant. None of them knew. They could not distinguish the different levels of academic honors spoken in Latin.

I tried to keep a small flame alive by teaching Latin pro bono to the classes where my students worked during my observation visits and on other days. I continued to use dialogue to help children get the drift of Latin gram- mar and always connected Latin to their everyday speech. They also performed plays with the aid of itinerant music teachers who generously helped them put song and dance into the production. They played characters from fairy tales and Aesop’s fables like “Testudo et Lepus” (The Tortoise and the Hare). That all ended when I retired from Temple.

PS — At least for now.

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