What have the Romans ever done for us? Beyond sanitation, medicine, underfloor heating and so on? We’d have worked out all that stuff for ourselves, eventually.
They gave us Latin, but so what? It’s long been deemed pointless in modern Britain. This week, Richmond School, a state comprehensive in North Yorkshire, announced it will stop teaching Latin for the first time in its 600-year history, citing funding restrictions, exam results and pupil numbers.
I have an A-level in Latin, taken while at a state comprehensive, albeit one which had newly been converted from a grammar. There were six grammars in Bolton in 1976 when I was 11, so you didn’t need to be a genius to pass the 11-plus. Most offered Latin from the first or second year. At my school, six of us continued up to A-level.
What use has Latin been? Everything and nothing, depending on your view. At school, it made learning other languages easier, because I could see common roots, connections and how sentences work in different ways. Even now (don’t test me), I can make a pretty good stab at understanding words in languages I have never studied. It’s given me a love and a fascination for all languages (one day, I will be able to understand Dothraki in Game of Thrones without subtitles).
State schools barely offer Latin now. In 2016, just 0.1-0.3 per cent of comprehensive school pupils studied it, compared with 6.6 per cent at grammar schools and 12.4 per cent at independents. The Association for Latin Teaching says there is a historical north/south divide in Latin provision, with huge swathes, presumably oop north, not providing it at all.
Yet, inter nos, Latin is not that hard (again, please don’t test me). The only reason it’s considered so is because private schools have been allowed to own Latin as an elite subject that will give their pupils an academic edge. The only person we hear speaking Latin is Boris Johnson and that, as far as I can tell, is for the ultimate benefit of no one but Boris Johnson himself. It’s unlikely to encourage a mad rush of comprehensive pupils demanding to know their “quid” from their “quo”.
Even at A-level, Latin is not unfathomable. “Infandum, regina, iubes me renovare dolorem,” says Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, to Dido, who wants to know what he’s been up to. “O queen, you command me to relive immense sorrow.” Aeneas is suggesting that he really doesn’t want to talk about his epic travels (although he does, at great length). I reckon most people could clock the workings of that admittedly simple translation. In just a few words, a child could see where “regal”, “renew”, and “dolorous” all come from, deepening understanding of everyday and complex English vocabulary.
More than 65 per cent of English words are from Latin, and more than 90 per cent of those with over two syllables. Latin is described as a dead language, not spoken today (Boris Johnson excepted) but still written. Now, as we communicate more than ever using the written word, Latin could and should help us to understand, develop and enrich our digital language.
Cathy Bothwell, Richmond School’s former lead teacher for Latin and classics, says: “Cutting access to Latin affects social mobility. It is very hard to get access to Latin and the classics anywhere outside of London and the south east of England. That has a knock-on effect on access to university degrees, especially at the leading universities.”
She’s right, of course. Northern state school pupils need the opportunity to learn Latin to compete with private school pupils, to push more over the thresholds of our finest universities. But it’s not just that. Setting aside all the benefits (and joys) of studying Latin as a language, as a child, reading classical Latin literature gave me a window straight through to incredible lands, civilisations, insights and thoughts from thousands of years ago. I still think that’s pretty special.