Why Latin is an essential skill in the digital age

2 Jan|Harry Mount

Get ahead, learn Latin: Cicero

Learning Latin is a great way to transcend the limitations of social media and today’s fragmentary discourse, says Harry Mount

Many congrats to Benjamin Auslin, a pupil at Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland, America.

Not only has this boy genius twice achieved a perfect score in the National Latin Exam; he’s also written a marvellous piece in the FT [note: behind paywall] about the joys and usefulness of Latin in the digital age.

We’ve all heard the usual defences of Latin: it trains the mind; it’s the root of all romance languages; yadda-yadda… All those defences are true but they’ve become tired through overuse.

Master Auslin brilliantly constructs another defence:

“In today’s digital world, the language is more necessary than ever to teach us critical thinking and powerful expression… Being able to break down and rebuild sentences — that is, being able clearly to comprehend or construct a thought — is a skill that translates well into English. But my generation speaks a dialect of English that is native to the internet, and we are losing our ability to understand how our language works. English, mostly thanks to politics and social media, is being degraded tweet by tweet. We live in a world of hashtags, of broken sentences and fragments of ideas published on social media…”

Auslin is spot on. Yes, the internet is bloody marvellous – I spend most of my waking hours on it. And yes, texts, tweets and emails are crucial ways of communicating – I use all of them. And yes, it’s fine to abbreviate language for these little chunks of communication.

But what if you only ever deal in the chunks? If you never look back at the full-length, source language (I mean English)? Then you’re cutting yourself off at the knees.

A good education in the English language enables you to write down exactly what you’re thinking or saying and communicate every single aspect of your words. If you only know a few basic written chunks, then you can only transcribe a limited amount of the spoken or the thought word.

The anti-grammarians like to say that, because we can all speak fluently, then we can naturally write fluently, too. Not true.

Actually, to clearly write down what we say in a colloquial way takes a great command of written English. I used to edit Boris Johnson’s copy at the Daily Telegraph when he was a columnist there. I say “edit” but his articles never needed a word changing because he wrote with such skill and facility. His style was chatty and jokey but the prose only flowed so well because every word, comma and full stop was artfully placed.

I’m sure his classical education had a great deal to do with it. On the Telegraph, I was in charge of interns. They were universally bright but, whether they were privately or state-educated, most of them got their grammar wrong. Except for the classicists – they never slipped up.

And that was because, like Master Auslin, they had studied language down to its bare roots. People say Latin and Greek are very like English; and it’s true, two thirds of English words are classical in origin. But, in fact, Latin and Greek are extremely different from English: how often do you use a gerundive or an ablative absolute in English?

It is in crunching the brain’s cogs – as Boris puts it – in working out how one ancient language changes to another and, in turn, morphs into English, along with all its other ingredients, that you really think about the structure, not just of English, but of all languages.

Then you begin not just to hear how language works – as all language speakers do – but also how to see how it is constructed and how it can be transferred from mouth and brain to page.

Benjamin Auslin knows how to do this, as his beautifully written FT piece shows. But, sadly, his skill is all too rare. Only six out of 698 pupils in his school year take Latin.

Harry Mount is author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That (Short Books)