Science, medicine, law, architecture, pop culture — for a tongue that people haven't spoken for centuries, the influence of the Latin language is so pervasive that we use it every day without realizing it.
Latin is the basis for the Romance languages, including Spanish, French and Italian. Sixty percent of English words — 90 percent of those with more than two syllables — have their roots in Latin. A rudimentary knowledge of Latin, at least certain phrases, remains essential in many professions.
"Latin to most people is a dead language, but even though no one can speak it, Latin is evident in cultures all over the world," said Merlyn Mathew, a 10th-grader at Clarkstown South High School.
Educators have noticed something else about Latin that most certainly will appeal to college-bound students. High school students who study Latin score more than 100 points higher than their peers on college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. For all those reasons, Blind Brook High School added a Latin class this fall, joining a group of local school districts that offer one or more courses in the language, including Mahopac in Putnam County, Clarkstown and Pearl River in Rockland County, and Ardsley, Briarcliff, Bronxville, Chappaqua, Eastchester, Edgemont, Harrison, Hastings-on-Hudson, Hendrick Hudson, White Plains, Rye, Rye Neck, Scarsdale and Yorktown in Westchester County. Private schools, such as the Montford Academy, Hackley and The Harvey School, also teach it.
Educators have tried to keep the language vital and viable, with classes designed to improve students' vocabulary and grammar, comprehension of literary and scientific texts, history, and understanding of the extraordinary influence of ancient Rome on modern society. For 10th-grader Genevieve Marino, Latin opens up an entirely new world.
"It's unique even if you don't speak it; it's sort of mysterious," said Marino, a student at Pearl River High School.
Pearl River ninth-grader Richard Boyko said he saw immediate results after enrolling in a Latin class.
"My writing was good, but after taking Latin, it began to improve," Boyko said.
However, Latin is often the stepchild of the foreign language department, forgotten or misunderstood, rarely chosen by students and stymied by the lack of qualified teachers. Often, Latin classes don't receive the financial priority of other languages.
Nationally, the number of public high school students taking Latin has remained constant in the past two decades. An estimated 177,500 students take the language, a significant drop from 1934 when the number of public high school students taking it reached its peak. That year, 899,300 people studied it.
But all that appears to be changing, said Tom Sienkewicz, professor of Monmouth College in Illinois and vice chairman of the National Committee for Latin and Greek. This year, more than 148,000 students applied to take the National Latin Exam, a test administered by the American Classical League and the National Junior Classical League. Compare that to an estimated 6,000 who signed up for the test in 1977, the first year it was given.
"You have to sell Latin on the culture and learning about other people," Sienkewicz said.
The rise in student achievement and interest has caught the eye of local teachers. For years, teachers in the Blind Brook School District taught their fourth- and fifth-graders the Latin and Greek roots of words. Now, Blind Brook High School students can choose Latin as an elective course, and 45 students immediately signed up.
Blind Brook teacher Christine Blyler believes Latin improves a student's reading comprehensive. Take the Latin word "spectare," which means "to see." That one word is the basis for "spectacle," "spectator," and "respectable."
"Instead of having to look up so many words in dictionaries and things like that, they can — if not get the exact meaning — maybe get a feel for what the word is, from the context and from the root," Blyler said.
Reading an excerpt from Petronius' "Satyricon," teacher Tom Hoetzl spouted out Latin phrases that his 27 students didn't understand. First, he said the phrase "quasi embolum navis" (as if it were the prow of the boat). Then he tried to illustrate a boat on the blackboard. His students giggled because his depiction didn't look much like the seaworthy vessel in the story.
"I don't know," Hoetzl said sheepishly while he drew a sail on the boat.
During sea battles, the Romans rammed the bows of their ships into their enemies, he said. The boats became wedged together, enabling the Romans to walk across and continue to fight. Today, military strategists study Roman battle tactics, yet another reason why Latin language and culture remain relevant.
A lack of qualified teachers also impedes the growth of Latin because there is a nationwide shortage, Sienkewicz said. In New York, there are 919 teachers certified in Latin, compared with 11,553 certified in Spanish.
"To be well-educated citizens, (students) need to be aware of our past and not just our American history, but the foundation of our society in the ancient world," said Sienkewicz. "There's that perception that it's hard, it's for smart people. I firmly disagree. It's for everyone."