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Gravissima latina est, and why you should know what that means


“What’s your name? What year are you? What’s your major?” Every Princeton student is now prepared to robotically answer these three standard questions. The first two answers are, thankfully, easy enough, but the third gives me grief. As a prospective classics major, I face a lot of confused looks and raised eyebrows. Either after I’ve stated my intended concentration or explained what it is, I am frequently met with the more dreaded question: “What could you possibly do with a concentration in that?” I have lied in the past about my intended major — saying I want to study law or something of the sort — to avoid these questions. It’s possible I may turn towards these career areas with my background in classics, but still, that answer is not entirely truthful. However, if I have the time or if the inquirer is genuinely interested, I will give my spiel for the weight of classics. In fact, I believe that Latin or Greek should be a mandatory element of the high school or college education, regardless of career plans. The education system would benefit from a mandatory requirement of — or at least a greater emphasis on — the classical study.

Today, the majority of schools are devoted primarily to spoken languages like Spanish or Mandarin. In schools where Latin is available, interest is often low, and many registrars fail to offer classics courses at all. As of 2017, approximately 1,500 U.S. high schools offered Latin, as opposed to the 8,177 offering Spanish. Spanish, French, and German make up about 76 percent of all language programs in the United States while Latin covers under 9 percent.


Not only do the majority of people think that “classics” is some kind of classic literature study, but they also fail to see the transcendence of the study of Greek and Roman culture. Rather, the languages and the richness they entail hold deep insights into the modern human psyche: how our language affects and reflects our perspective, how culture balances on communication, and how we can look at our own world differently after reading ancient texts.

Without the oral component, much of the study of Latin is devoted to the nuances of grammar and connotation. The way we use phrases and words, assigning one word or emotion to an object, can demonstrate our values and thought process. For example, the Latin adjective for “left” is sinister. That word today has bled into our own language as a negative descriptor. Why? Perhaps because Romans, in a right-handed majority, often viewed left-handed people as inherently deceptive or wrong because of their difference. And on the opposite side, the word dexter, meaning “right,” was often associated with loyalty or agreement or other positive emotions and actions. In an agreement, Romans would often give their dexter manus, or “right hand,” as a signal that all was right.

Latin also has certain qualities that grant deeper insight into the subtleties of modern language. For example, like Latin, many languages have gendered words: masculine and feminine, and sometimes neuter. According to Lera Boroditsky’s TED talk, the word “bridge” happened to be a feminine word in German and a masculine one in Spanish. So when speakers of both nationalities were asked to describe the bridge, they tended to use adjectives related to the gender they had assigned to the word; German speakers were more likely to call the bridge “beautiful” and “elegant,” while Spanish speakers more often described it as “strong” or “large.”

Even little details like this shape how we consider and approach different ideas or people in our lives, creating a wave of cultural norms and beliefs. Language is at the base of everything we do; we are in an unceasing dialogue. It is fundamental to every part of life, from greeting your cashier to maneuvering international diplomacy. Since it is so unavoidably crucial, is it not also essential that we study how our words and their connotations are perceived by others? Our environments are so diverse, and because of their diversity, we often fail to empathize with cultures we do not understand. The beginning of this road to understanding is grounded in language and communication. These aspects of our culture have ramifications far beyond academia.

A frequent argument against choosing Latin over Spanish or an equivalent language is the lack of immediate utility. Indeed, as the United States shifts to bilingualism, Spanish, Mandarin, and other spoken languages are crucial to learn — and Latin assists with that. As the root of modern Romance languages, Latin enables students to pick up other languages with much more ease. Despite having never studied French or Spanish, I can adequately slug my way through simple text just based on my knowledge of Latin. The benefits of knowing Latin and Ancient Greek are both innumerable and ubiquitous. In addition, the number of adequately trained teachers of classics dwindles; perhaps spreading an awareness for the pervasive benefits of the languages would attract more to the field and therefore create a larger fund of classical scholars to teach future generations. Beyond the awareness of language morphology and Latin phrases in our vernacular, the study of these languages shapes its learners as citizens deeply attuned to human psychology and cultural perspective. Thus, as the title states, Latin is most crucial.

 Emma Treadway is a first-year from Amelia, Ohio. She can be reached at