Latin is a vital portal into other worlds and cultures
Far from being dead, Latin lives on in most European languages, especially English, writes Andrew McKimm
Joseph O'Connor occasionally tells of a recurring dream that he has where one of his two Latin teachers comes to him in the middle of the night incanting the words, "The verb 'To Be' never takes an object," over and over again. Joe says that it is one of his more frightening nocturnal experiences.
I used this – what I had thought to be – highly amusing anecdote during a retirement speech for the same teacher. Nobody laughed.
Joe's other Latin teacher, Geraldine FitzGerald, sympathetically informed me afterwards that jokes about grammar usually don't play well – even to educated audiences. I told her that she should try telling maths jokes sometime.
Joe O'Connor is one of Geraldine's most famous proteges and over the years has been unfailing in his praise of her skill as a teacher. In an article for this newspaper, Joe has described Geraldine as one of those "people who loved what they taught and who shared what they knew with the most immensely touching generosity of spirit. In this, (she is a) born educator. (Educare – to lead out)".
When Joe writes of the language his love of Latin is palpable: "The great poet Ovid has a beautiful line: 'Caelum videre iussit, et erectos ad sidera tollere vultus.' 'He bid them look at the sky and lift their faces to the stars.' Latin became a portal into other worlds, fabled times, famous deeds, a means of thinking about language logically, with structure and order, an unearthing of the roots of our own beautiful English so that we could see it more clearly and learn to love it.
"As people we are our own inheritance. We are always what we came from. The same is true of the languages we have made. 'Look at the sky,' and those of us who did saw wonders."
When I asked Geraldine why young people should still take Latin as a subject, her reply was a pithy "Why not Latin?" It was delivered with a succinctness that was worthy of Rome itself.
"Some people view Latin as a 'dead language'. This is a mistake since it lives on in most European languages, especially English," Geraldine added, her passion for the subject remaining unabated, after 41 years of teaching it.
We are bombarded by Latin expressions in everyday life – AD (anno Domini), ad nauseam, per annum, PM (post meridian), verbatim – to list but a fraction.
"Think of all the terms from specialist areas that are derived from Latin," Geraldine enthused as she sought to remind me of my school Latin.
Medical terms such as vaccination, inoculation, biceps even the word pill have a Latin root. Law, in particular, seems to pride itself on its use of undiluted Latin phrases – prima facie, sub judice, sub poena. Science and mathematics are littered with words of Roman origin – calculus, element, gravity, and radius. Latin is used all the time in sport. The motto for the Olympics is Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Braver/Stronger).
"Latin is popular with students who enjoy doing puzzles. Any translation is a matter of piecing a verbal jigsaw puzzle together. Latin also has the extremely useful quality of teaching you to read the fine print in any legal document – surely a vital survival skill for one's life!" The primary place occupied by Latin in world culture is well acknowledged by Harry Mount in his book Amo, Amas, Amat.
As he puts it: "In The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst described those people who know all the big turning points in history as being able to look back at the world as an enfilade of rooms: "Greece gives way to Rome ... Rome to the Byzantine Empire ... the Renaissance ... the British Empire ... America ... and so on. Knowing a bit of Latin is an invitation to the biggest room in the building, with a view down the corridor to all the succeeding ages."
Broadcaster Ryan Tubridy, a long-term champion of the cause of Latin in schools, is also one of Geraldine's famous pupils. He has been unstintingly positive about the benefits of a classical education throughout his broadcasting career. I asked him why he is so passionate about the subject.
"I've always been a lover of words, plain and simple. As I got older and started enjoying novels properly, I loved the idea of coming across a word I wasn't familiar with and breaking it down by separating it into parts, usually derived from Latin. It's like solving a verbal puzzle and never ceases to amaze and intrigue me."
If Latin were ever to be dropped as a Leaving Certificate subject, what would the principal losses be?
"Verbal curiosity, cultural knowledge that will travel with you across the globe, interest in the world around us now and the fascinating world of the classical past. "
Ryan has gone on record as saying that Geraldine was his favourite teacher in school and influenced his choice of Greek and Roman civilisation as part of his degree. I asked him, what had the Romans and their language ever done for Ryan?
"The innate curiosity I have in stories generally, but in political intrigue particularly, can be attributed to the quest for knowledge that was taught to me in Latin class by a teacher whose personal enthusiasm was infectious and has stayed with at least one of her (very grateful) pupils to this day."