Why Classical Languages?

Greek and Latin languages and literatures are fundamental to Western Civilization. Latin forms the basis of the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, and others). Knowledge of either ancient language, with their detailed and logical grammars, makes learning any other language easier. A good deal of English vocabulary derives from Greek and Latin, especially in science (e.g. "physics"), medicine ("dialysis"), technology ("telephone"), and law ("justice," "habeas corpus").

The literature of the Greeks and Romans is the starting point of Western thought. It is hard to imagine what our culture would be like without the philosophy of Plato and St. Augustine, the dramas of Sophocles and Seneca, the epics of Homer and Vergil, the courtroom arguments of Demosthenes and Cicero, the mathematical discoveries of Euclid and Archimedes, or the medical investigations of Hippocrates and Galen. Modern authors from Dante and Milton to Eliot and Walcott have regularly turned to the classical texts as building blocks for their own new houses. The modern world prizes critical acumen, clarity, and precision in speech and writing. These were the qualities of language and thought most extolled by the Greeks and Romans.

Why Classical Languages?

My Big Fat Greek Mojo

THE BRAIN GYM: You take Latin and Greek for the same reasons you work out—they’re bench-presses for your brain. You memorize vocabulary and grammatical forms, to recall when you will.  Memorization allows you to exercise your intellect fully—you can’t be a lawyer in a courtroom, and ask the judge to wait while you look up some particular point of the law code on your iPad. Neither can you stop a surgery to consult your Kindle to find out which nerve goes where. Most professions require you to memorize large bodies of data, to recall and manipulate these quickly in order to devise answers to particular problems. Latin and Greek will train you for that. 

EASY READER (AND WRITER): More than 70% of the English language derives from one or other other of these ancient tongues, especially technical vocabulary. While your peers are looking up every other legal, medical or economic term in the dictionary, you’ll already know what they mean from their roots. And studying Latin or Greek also improves English grammar, which will raise your writing and speaking head and shoulders above the monolingual pack.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES: Latin and Greek are linguistic Swiss Army knives: they equip you to learn other languages.  With Latin, you have Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Roumanian in your back pocket. Both Latin and Greek teach you how to deal with a highly inflected language, so languages such as German and Russian are easier to learn. Helps if you’re not sure whether your career will eventually land you in New York, Rio de Janeiro or Heidelberg.

CACHET: Learning Latin and/or Greek also separates you from the rest of the pack. Law schools, medical colleges, business schools are looking for that extra qualification to separate the acceptances from the rejections. Having the intelligence and self-discipline to master one or both difficult ancient languages says a lot about the prospective applicant. Latin and Greek often supply the extra “oomph” applicants need.

EYES ON THE PRIZE—FASTER: Latin and Classical Greek are “dead” languages, rather than currently spoken—and that’s an advantage. Spoken languages place a high priority on speaking quickly and simply. Reading a dead language enables you to focus on understanding deeply sentences of increasing levels of complexity. A third semester Spanish student is still having basic conversation. A third semester Latin student is reading one of the classics of Western Literature, like Vergil’s Aeneid.

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON GREEK: Think long term: people who have mastered at least two languages have less chance of developing dementia. Latin and Greek allow you to get that same bang for less buck—no time spent shivering in over-air-conditioned language labs.