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Latin for fun and profit

Salvete omnes qui aut forte aut sua sponte tempus die exceperunt adesse nunc mecum. Quod scripsi est ordini maximi et certe dignus legendo multitudinis discuplorum. Ego ipse pollicior. 

Congratulations! You made it farther than many of your peers, who almost started reading this article but were deterred by the first word of the title or the three sentences’ worth of Latin words. To preface, I am neither compensated by The University of Notre Dame’s Classics Department to write this nor am I compelled by my major to tout its current benefits and future monetary promises. In fact, I am a finance major — not a classical studies major or anything of the same vein. I have no plans of pursuing a career in classics wherein I would most likely end up as a high school Latin teacher; I will leave those implications up to you. I am writing this article to share my well-informed opinion about a noble subject matter that, I estimate, receives a bad reputation from ill-informed opinions. I have been studying Latin for almost five years by now, and for almost five years, I have been the subject of ridicule. Essentially, I have heard it all. 

My favorite assertion against Latin is “Latin is a dead language!” In response, I say, “Yes! And no!” I agree with one sense of the word “dead” and disagree with the other. Latin is a “dead language” in the sense that there are no more native speakers. Such is the case with many other ancient languages like Sanskrit and Biblical Hebrew. However, the alternative sense of dead, the colloquial one, implies that Latin is useless. And this could not be any further from the truth. 

Firstly, the colloquial sense of “dead” is loaded with negative connotation and ubiquitously appears with a standoffish tone. “Dead” in this context is akin to my telling a friend “The party was dead, bro” when, the assessment stems not from measuring the decibels of the noise or tallying the amount of people there but rather from a deeply harbored frustration after seeing my crush talking to another guy. Calling Latin a “dead” language is the equivalent of responding to a heavily corroborated, fool-proof argument with a resounding “CAP” and saying nothing else after. These are incredibly hyperbolic analogies, but the truth lies in that calling Latin “dead” is an unfounded statement, based purely in opinion. The Anti-Latinist position would be much more respectable if it were based in reasonable rebuttals like, “There are other more relevant, beneficial languages to learn in the 21st century.” 

I concede that Spanish and Mandarin are probably more significant languages to learn to speak given the U.S.’s demographic trends as well as the future of commercial business. However, Spanish is a Romance language, which means that it is a derivative of Latin, as are French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. Therefore, there is tremendous overlap between Latin’s vocabulary and grammatical constructions and those of any Romance language. Latin could possibly be used as a linguistic foundation before one is to delve into new languages or even be used as a concurrent study aide, a handy point of reference. However, this relationship does not end with just the Romance languages; English, a Germanic language, still has much Latin influence. 

Like Romance languages, English implements a sizable amount of Latin vocabulary and grammar rules. Moreover, countless English words have etymological roots in Latin. Latin even influences idiomatic English, colloquial vocabulary. Take the phrase “willy-nilly,” which implies doing something whether one wants to or not. What if I told you that this phrase is an extension of the Latin words volens and nolens, which mean willing and unwilling, respectively? I could go on and on, applying the same principle to other words and phrases. The important takeaway is that there are many subtle Latin influences in English, many of which go unnoticed. 

At this point, you are probably exhausted by the linguistic jargon and are wondering how Latin can be for fun and profit. Let me explain. Classical studies have something for everyone. If you are dying to compete with your grandparents by clearing the ancient civilizations category on “Jeopardy,” consider studying Latin history. If you are dying to learn the words of an exorcism, learn oral Latin. If you are just dying to prove to that one problematic English teacher that you can, in fact, write an essay, practice analyzing Latin texts. The skills are the same! If none of these applied to you, still consider learning some Latin, so you can avoid the near occasion of improper grammar or botched Roman numerals in tattoos. Vinni Viddi Vicci!  

On a more serious note, Latin and classical studies, writ large, are multifaceted: There is much culture, history, language, politics, liturgy and literature to be appreciated. As I said above, there is something for everyone. Perhaps I am alone in this, but I think it is possibly fun to read Cicero’s “First Catilinarian,” a 63 B.C. equivalent of a diss track. Accusations. Slander. Mudslinging. In fact, there is a valuable storytelling aspect, akin to that of a novel, in every Latin text. In my personal writing career, I have profited from reading the prose of great writers like Julius Caesar and Pliny Minor, whose writing styles and rhetorical motifs have tremendous effect on my own. I am not saying that I copy the way they write, but I would be a rank liar to say that the implementation of antithesis, chiastic word structure, hyperbole, anaphora, aposiopesis, tricolon crescens, praeteritio and ring composition in this very article happened by accident. Think of these people more as quasi-ghost writers, literally. 

These rhetorical devices, all of which I acquired during my Latin career, add stylistic nuances to the texts I produce. It absolutely enhances the quality of my writing, an indispensable skill in any professional career. Latin has had such a profound impact on my life that I am continuing my education with a classical studies minor, to the dismay of my parents. A major reason for why I write for The Observer stems from a passion for writing nurtured by an even greater passion for Latin. I mean, my byline “De Re Publica” is a nod to Cicero and his work of the same namesake. 

What began as another boring high school grammar class eventually became an intellectual passion that influences how I express myself. I hope that what I have written has given you a new informed perspective of Latin, maybe even lightened some of your disdain. If not, call me a Latin loser. It is victus Latinus

Jonah Tran is a first-year at Notre Dame double majoring in Finance and Economics and minoring in Classics. Although fully embracing the notorious title of a “Menbroza,” he prides himself on being an Educated Young Southern Gentleman. You can contact Jonah by email at jtran5@nd.edu.