Latin, the dead tongue? Hardly.
Just ask members of the National Junior Classical League, which for more than 50 years has preached a love of the classical language among American teens and their teachers. The league now has 50,000 members nationwide, nearly 2,000 of whom gathered this week on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus for an intense spell of academic competitions, pep rallies, mythology-themed costume pageants and Olympic-inspired athletic contests.
"Dead language? That's a technical term," said Jeremy Walker, a high school Latin teacher from Crown Point, Ind. "That doesn't mean the language is not in use."
The list of Latin-inspired elements of contemporary society reeled off by Walker is impressive, from classical architecture, art and music to the periodic table of chemical elements and, that most essential tool of modern commerce, the dollar bill.
"Every time you spend money, you have Latin in your pocket," said Walker, referring to the Great Seal of the United State that proclaims "Annuit Coeptis. Novus Ordo Seclorum." Translation: "Providence favors our undertakings. A new order of the ages."
For Texas high school student Amanda Childers, Latin was initially a way to get a leg up on the classically derived names of body parts she'll need to know in medical school. The "dead" language quickly became alive in ways she didn't expect, fostering improved critical thinking and a love of the written and spoken word.
"If you take Latin, you can learn almost any other language," said Childers, 16, of suburban Austin.
At times, the NJCL convention resembled the two political parties' quadrennial events, with state delegates gathering for the league's general assembly through sartorial shows of support.
There were inflatable cows and bovine-horned helmets (California); bandannas and Lone Star flags (Texas); straw hats (Kentucky); and toy lobsters (Maine, of course).
Alvin Duggan, a 68-year-old retired Lutheran pastor from Eden, Minn., took the frenetic scene in stride. As the first NJCL president in 1953-54, he presided over a group that numbered just over 100 students.
"Latin is alive and well," he said. "Classics are anything but dead."
Duggan went on to study Hebrew and Aramaic in the seminary, a scholarly asset he regularly relied upon when crafting weekly sermons.
"Understanding these ancient languages gives you a concept of where we've come from - and where we could go if we understood where we came from," he said.
Anatole Mori, an assistant professor of classical studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, credits pop culture in part with fostering the resurgent interest in Greek, Roman and Latin. Movies such as "Troy," "Gladiator," "Passion of the Christ" and especially "Lord of the Rings" and the Harry Potter series enliven ancient civilizations for the masses, she said.
The number of classical studies majors at Missouri nearly doubled in the past year, said Mori, who will teach a class in mythology to 300 students this fall. Five hundred students are enrolled in another section of that course, she said.
"There's an immediate sort of indirect benefit" to studying Latin and other classical languages, Mori said. "They're transferable skills."