Latin is called a "dead language" because no one speaks it as a native tongue anymore. The language of ancient Rome still is taught in Maine classrooms, however, and teachers and students say Latin lives on because it remains so relevant in the 21st century.
"It's a zombie language. It's kind of undead," explained Paul Bayley, 16, a Scarborough High School junior who eagerly joined his classmates last week in translating and discussing a battle scene passage from the "Aeneid" by Virgil in a Latin class. "It's awesome. You learn so much."
Teachers and students say studying Latin today helps with everything from figuring out the meaning of the spells in Harry Potter books to laying a foundation for acquiring other languages. They also believe that Latin helps boost SAT scores, because learning Latin involves logic and reasoning and provides a better understanding of English vocabulary and grammar.
Such benefits have led to a "mini-resurgence" in Latin in Maine schools since the 1990s, according to Benjamin Johnson, president-elect of the Maine Classical Association, a professional organization for educators.
Latin programs eliminated in the 1970s and 1980s have been revived, and a steady stream of students continues to sign up for courses today, said Johnson, one of two Latin teachers at Hampden Academy, a high school in Hampden that serves School Administrative District 22.
One concern, however, is that Maine may not have enough new Latin teachers to replace current ones nearing retirement. The state lists 60 Latin teachers in Maine, but Johnson said few college students today major in classics, and those tend to remain in academia rather than teach at the high school level.
Maine's Latin teachers are encouraging their students to consider a career teaching the language, Johnson said. How best to do that will be among topics discussed at the Maine Classical Association's annual spring conference, scheduled for Saturday at Thornton Academy in Saco.
The difficulty of finding a new Latin teacher is one reason York High School will drop its Latin program after the current teacher retires at the end of this school year, according to Maryann Minard, curriculum director for the York schools.
Minard, who studied Latin herself as a student, said the school district believes Latin has educational value. However, other factors, including limited financial resources and few students taking Latin in a school of more than 660 students, prompted the decision to cut the program, she said.
Johnson said many of the state's 50 other Latin programs at public and private high schools are thriving or holding their own, however. For example, he said, nearly a quarter of the 750 students at Hampden Academy take Latin.
At Scarborough High School, which has about 1,000 students, first-year Latin was so popular that the school had a waiting list last school year, said Shane Davis, the school's Latin teacher. This year 50 students are taking beginning Latin, he said, and almost as many are taking higher-level courses.
Davis and other Latin teachers stress the language's relevance to modern languages and life.
For instance, a poster in his classroom notes that because Latin is a basis for such languages as Spanish, French and English, all contain strikingly similar words. Examples include "infans," in Latin, "infante" in Spanish, "enfant" in French and "infant" in English.
Another poster notes many Latin phrases that English speakers use every day, such as "alibi," which means "presence elsewhere"; and "alter ego," meaning "another self."
As Davis worked with Bayley and other students studying the "Aeneid" in his advanced placement Latin class, he repeatedly drew their attention to English words with Latin roots. For example, when the word "nodus," meaning "knot," appeared in the text, Davis asked the class, "Anybody ever hear of (lymph) nodes?"
Marita O'Neill, an English teacher at Scarborough High School, said Latin helps students with English vocabulary. "The students who take Latin are always saying, 'Oh, I know that word,'" O'Neill said.
Some Maine private schools begin teaching Latin in middle school. They include St. Patrick in Portland, a school run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland for students in kindergarten through grade eight; and North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth, which teaches Latin both in its middle and high schools.
Meghan Casey, who teaches Latin in grades five through eight at St. Patrick, said middle school is a good time to learn Latin because it provides a grammar and vocabulary foundation that helps students not only in English but also in acquiring other languages.
She ties Latin to modern life in her classes. Students decipher the Latin spells in Harry Potter and research the crests of high schools or colleges they might be interested in attending, translating the Latin into English.
"It's not your parents' Latin class anymore," Casey said.
At North Yarmouth Academy, where Latin teacher Marissa Markonish believes Latin has been taught since the private school's founding in 1814, all seventh- and eighth-grade students used to be required to take Latin. However, since 2003 students have had the option of taking French or Spanish instead, said Markonish, a Latin teacher and head of the school's foreign-language department.
But she said that sixth-graders take a "phenomenon of language" course that is Latin-based, and many students still study Latin all through middle school and high school.
Markonish said students who enjoy logic and mathematics often are attracted to Latin, because figuring out its grammar and translating it is like solving a puzzle. "It develops critical thinking skills that are different from what you get studying a modern language," she said.
She said that instead of thinking of Latin as dead because it's seldom spoken anymore (although it remains the official language of Vatican City), educators should focus on all the different ways it affects life today.
"As long as we're studying it, it stays alive," Markonish said.
... we've got to start marketing Latin as the "zombie language" ...