When school libraries are "media centers" and education increasingly depends on microchips, Latin isn't the most obvious choice of studies.
To the unschooled, the language can look a bit daunting. Nouns change form; the word order seems arbitrary. Why hack through a dense thicket of ablatives and datives for something no one even speaks?
About 30 years ago, it seemed no one would. Critics called Latin a dead language, irrelevant and elitist. Even the Catholic Church, its strongest champion, no longer found it necessary in worship services. But it's been going strong lately, especially in Connecticut. In 2004, 7,297 high school students were enrolled in Latin programs, a 48 percent increase from 1995.
It's doing well nationally, also. Almost 135,000 students took the National Latin Exam this year. That's 4,000 more than last year, and participation has increased each year since the American Classical League first offered the exam in 1977.
There's even a small movement to adapt Latin to modern use. A radio station in Finland broadcasts news in Latin every day for five minutes. There are Latin translations of "Harry Potter" and Dr. Seuss books. A dictionary provides Latin terms for contemporary items, some of which can be rather unwieldy. "Capsellarum magnetoscopicarum theca," for instance, is the term for "video store." In Latin, an FBI agent works for the "Officium Foederatum Vestigatorium."
So why now? About 11 centuries have passed since Latin was anyone's native tongue. It stayed on as the international language of science and politics for a while, but even that ended in the 18th century.
One oft-cited reason for the revival is that it helps you do better on the SATs. With at least half of all English words deriving from the Latin, the thinking goes, it gives test-takers an advantage on the verbal portion. According to the American Classical League, Latin students scored the best of all foreign-language students on the verbal portion of the 2004 SAT. And they beat the overall average by 166 points. That's one of the reasons Jackie Crocco, a junior at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, decided to take it. Seeing the connections between Latin and the languages it spawned helps her make better sense of both English and Italian, the other foreign languages she's studying. Once you get the hang of it, she says, Latin's really not so tough.
"It's actually easier than English," she says.
Whether we can really attribute the higher SAT scores to Latin, or whether it just happens that Latin students are more academically ambitious, is a matter of debate. Geri Dutra of the American Classical League figures it's a combination of both. The College Board, which created and administers the SAT, has not researched the correlation between Latin studies and SAT scores.
"We always have Latin teachers calling about it, but we can't draw any conclusions," says Caren Scoropanosof the College Board.
Either way, Jerry Clackat Duquesne University in Pittsburgh hates to think that kids are learning the language of the ancients simply for help on multiple choice questions. The real benefit of learning Latin, he says, is that it provides a direct line to the minds of the Romans. Sure, the ancient texts are translated into English, he says, but it's not the same. The texts lose all their spark when converted to English, and it doesn't give you the same insight into its authors.
Reading the texts in the original Latin, he says, "gives you a comprehension of history and its mistakes, an understanding of the mindset of a foreign culture."
No Longer Lingua Franca
Latin's value fell dramatically between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s. It was an odd combination of the pope and the hippies that dealt the language its biggest hit. Most Catholic Masses were held in Latin until Pope John XXIII tried to modernize the church by switching to the vernacular. The change prompted 50 scholars, only a few of whom were Catholic, to petition the pope not to let the Latin Mass die off. They warned him of the "appalling responsibility it would incur in the human spirit." The tumultuousness of the time added to Latin's woes. As pillars of culture in a countercultural era, Latin and Greek became academia's first casualties.
"It was during the era of Vietnam war protests. Colleges were doing away with final exams, and a lot of schools were dropping the traditional courses, and Latin and Greek and were among them," says Marty Abbott, of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "It was just a strange time in terms of college curricula."
But in the 1980s, the anti-Latin revolt produced its own backlash. Pope John Paul II called for more Latin Masses in 1988, and some churches have taken him up on it. University officials again saw the value of teaching the classics.
"People started to rethink what had been lost when the old ways had gone out," says Roger Travis, assistant professor of classics at UConn. From 1998 to 2002, there was a 14 percent increase in college and graduate students taking Latin.
The language also re-emerged in high schools. At the Modern Language Association's last count, in 2000, 177,477 high school students took Latin. That's a far cry from the nearly 900,000 enrolled in 1934, but about 18 percent more than 1976 figures. It's still well behind the number of students taking French and even further behind those taking Spanish, but Latin has found a secure spot behind third-place German.
Travis partly attributes Latin's rebirth to better teaching at the high school level. No longer a set of grammar rules and vocabulary detached from historical context, he says, Latin instruction now includes the ancient mythology and culture. Now you have students dressing in tunics and competing in chariot races at events like the Classical Association of Connecticut's annual Latin Day in May.
The demand for Latin programs in Connecticut has led to a shortage of teachers, says state world language consultant Mary Ann Hansen.
"We would have more programs if we had more teachers," she says. "Districts have had to go out of the state for teachers." The Old Saybrook school system, for instance, had to put its long-running Latin program on the shelf this year when school officials couldn't find a teacher.
Travis has heard the arguments that those well versed in Latin have a better time picking up on the terminology of law and medicine. He thinks such claims are exaggerated. But learning Latin is going to help people in any field, he says, in a more profound way: It helps you think more clearly and express yourself better.
"It lends a critical element to your thinking that you really can't put down schematically on paper," he says.