‘Why study an ancient language?’ Acceptable answers to what can be an irritating question
Since I’ve started studying in the Classics Department, one of the most common questions I get asked about my degree is in reference to the fact that I spend just under a third of my contact hours studying Latin. As Classics students will know, it is compulsory to take either Latin or Greek in your first year, and so all of us will inevitably be asked: ‘Why bother to study an ancient language?’, or perhaps the ruder, but no less common: ‘What’s the point in learning a dead language?’.
I have faced this question several times over the last twelve months, and nine times out of ten it is easy to deflect with a smile and a simple response. However, over the summer I had an experience with this question which made me feel I had to truly defend my choice of degree and the linguistic elements of it. I enjoy a good debate as much as the next student, but when it begins with being told that I’m ‘never going to make any money’ from my degree, and that ‘dead languages are pointless’, I tend to get very defensive.
So here are a few acceptable and honest responses that I hope will be useful to those who will be asked this question in the future, those who are sick of answering it, and those who are genuinely interested to find out why I study a language that, in my opinion is very much alive.
1) Because I want to understand the people I study
There is a reason Warwick insists upon its students learning either Latin or Greek for a year, and that is because it is paramount in truly understanding the civilisations we have chosen to study. When faced with a Latin or Greek piece, you do so much better to translate it yourself than to read the given English. A text can be translated in so many different ways, and can be surprisingly affected by personal opinion and prejudices, as illustrated in the article below. Therefore, it is vital to get your own interpretation of something, not just to make a good point in your essays, but also to uncover previously unconsidered thoughts hiding in classical literature.
2) 2) Because it isn’t dead
Ancient languages are only dead if we kill them ourselves, and comments demanding to know the point of learning them only reinforce this slow death. Latin is still widely used within the church, on immersion courses, and in architecture. The 70 or so first year Classicists, the second years continuing, and the various lecturers and professors who feature Latin or Greek on their university biographies are living proof that these languages are not dead if you don’t want them to be, and I for one certainly don’t.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21412604 (an interesting article about those keeping Latin alive)
3) 3) Because it’s cool
Shout out to the person that backed me up over the summer by saying they think it’s cool that I study Latin. It really is cool. Honestly, how fun is it to tell people you study an ancient language? It might be slightly arrogant (and nerdy), but the joy of watching the surprised and slightly impressed expressions on the faces of those who aren’t rude about my degree is enough positive reinforcement for me. If you study Latin or Greek, it’s probably guaranteed that your parents have boasted about it at some point, so it’s not just you that thinks it’s great.
Finally, and most importantly:
4) 4) BECAUSE I WANT TO!
Never feel like this is not a sensible answer to any questions about learning ancient languages. I have always enjoyed language learning, and learning the language that was used in the historical period I find most interesting is the icing on the cake for me. Don’t let anyone slate what you do if it’s something that you enjoy and won’t bring harm to others.
Apologies for what has been a rather long post, but I felt I had to do a rant on this one. I love learning Latin, and if you’ve ever been in the same boat you will know how frustrating it can be when people question its utility. I hope this has provided some good options for polite responses to what are sometimes less-than-polite questions.
PS: If you’re still looking for reasons, this Monty Python scene is MUCH more entertaining when you’re a Latin learner