Latin is most certainly not a dead language

Res ipsa loquitur is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” That means we do not have to search hard for evidence of the truth.

When I was growing up Catholic, Latin was a big part of our lives. Every religious ceremony we attended, in any part of the world, was celebrated in liturgical Latin. We could sing Latin hymns like Ave Maria (Hail Mary) or Panis Angelicus (Angelic Bread). The only part spoken in English (or French or Spanish or German) was the priest’s sermon,

Changes started in the early 1960s and lasted almost 10 years until the Catholic hierarchy finally decided to translate all Latin liturgy into the vernacular of each country. Some churches might occasionally reserve a special Mass in Latin, but for the most part, it was celebrated in the people’s native tongue. The aim was to make it easier for the congregation to follow the liturgy and participate more. So Mass gradually became a dialogue between the celebrant and the congregation in words everyone understood.

I was a high school graduate long before any of these changes took place. I had the good fortune to receive 4 years of Latin instruction at Saint Maria Goretti High School for Girls at 11th and Moore streets. I recently heard that Latin class is no longer offered at the now co-ed Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School.

Those who have followed the South Philly Review over time might recall that I have previously  written letters and opinion pieces about the importance of teaching classical Latin. As a public school teacher, I was even involved for a while with a British-produced Latin program for grade school children called Minimus – that is until the School Reform Commission ended it. I am totally in favor of Latin instruction for many essential reasons.

Certainly all college-bound candidates, who are trying to achieve a passing score on their SATs, are grateful for any way to improve their understanding of root words derived from Latin. Perfect examples are the Latin words astro (star) and nautus (sailor), which help to unlock words like astronaut. Also, an astronomer is a scientist who studies the stars and other objects in the universe. A nautical mile is a distance that sailors measure at sea. Et cetera.

Obviously, I was fortunate to study both classical and liturgical Latin because it has been my key to unlocking word meanings in English as well as the Romance languages: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and French. (Those old Romans really got around.)

Nevertheless, I sometimes hear someone say that the original Latin language is “dead” because no one speaks it anymore. I would politely disagree. Latin lives not only in those languages descended from the Roman Empire but is also an essential component of everyday English. I happen to own a Latin/English dictionary. Any perusal of its pages reveals countless English words that come directly from Latin as well as the roots of many other English words. (Just ask those SAT exam takers.) As I once wrote in the Review, we would be speaking in grunts if we removed all authentic Latin words or their derivatives from our vocabulary.

Here is just a brief sample of some of the most common Latin/English words taken with no change in spelling from the original language: exit, video, audio, animal, circus, auditorium, stadium, favor, doctor, odor, virus, focus, orbit, labor, et cetera. I could also add my own first name, Gloria, which is Latin for “glory.”

When a policeman mentions a criminal’s MO, what he means is “modus operandi,” or the particular way the offender does the crime. Lawyers and doctors would be mute without Latin. How could a doctor, for example,  describe a human body without using Latin terminology like: humerus, uterus, sternum, femur, corpus, et cetera? And how does a lawyer function without all those legal terms like: ipso facto, non sequitur, post mortem and, of course, et cetera? (I am certain that most readers already know that this last phrase means “and so forth.”)

The world of academia is full of Latin. I received two degrees in elementary education from Saint Joseph’s College and both my diplomas are printed in Latin.

The ancient Romans left their mark on much of Southern Europe, but they also invaded England and taught the barbarians how to polish their speech with Latin derivatives. If we removed all Latin from our language, it would literally become unspeakable. Here is an example: “The moderator noted a loud clamor from spectators in the stadium” Here it is again minus that old “dead” language: “The GRUNT GRUNTED a loud GRUNT from GRUNTS in the GRUNT.”

So let us finally acknowledge that Latin is a basic living component of our native tongue. We would be mutus without it. Res ipsa loquitur.

Gloria C. Endres