‘What is the use of Latin, sir?’

Since 1954, the book which has given the greatest insight into education and teaching is, without doubt, How to be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. The protagonist Molesworth, the delicate ‘Hello clouds, hell sky’ Fotherington-Thomas, and Sigismund the mad Maths Master have populated the thoughts, dreams and nightmares of generations of teachers. Of course, chapter 3, Akquire Culture and Keep the Brane Clean – How to be Topp in Latin – is the acme of this oeuvre. Consider these aperçus:

Actually it is quite easy to be topp in lat. you just have to work hard.’

Lat. master is always frightfully keen on lat. which he calls classicks amo amas amat gender rhymes bonus and hic haec hoc. Fancy a grown man saying hujus hujus hujus as if he were proud of it it is not English and do not make SENSE…. Lat. masters are always convinced that lat. is easy quite pappy. They encourage you. It is so simple molesworth they cry if you will only try.’

And then, of course, there are the drawings of the private life of the gerund, by far the best teaching resource for teaching the ‘verbal substantive’.

In the midst of all this, Molesworth asks the hardest of all questions, ‘What is the use of Latin, sir?’ Under the forensic questioning of Sir Nigel Molesworth Q.C., his Lat. teacher does little better than the current Prime Minister when asked to give a detailed answer to a simple question:

er well er that er quite simple Molesworth. latin is er classicks you kno and classics are – well they are er – they are the studies of the ancient peoples.

So what?

er Latin gives you not only the history of Rome but er (hapy inspiration) its culture, it er tells you about interesting men like J. Caesar, Hannibal, livy, Romulus remus and er lars porsena of Clusium’

In fact, Molesworth has to concede that he has to hear ‘the same old stuff about Latin giving you depth and background. It is also the base of English words but it canot be base enuff for me chiz.’

Despite such fundamental challenges by Molesworths down the ages, Latin has survived – just – as a school subject for perhaps 500 years, even though many Latin teachers have not been much better at teaching or justifying the subject. But here’s a thought and perhaps even a defence which might have silenced Sir Nigel Molesworth QC.

An ‘inflected’ language is a language that relies on changes to word endings – and even word beginnings – to convey meaning. English is a remarkably ‘uninflected’ language: it is remarkably short on changes to word endings and relies greatly on word order: the present tense’s only change is to add an ‘s’ to the he/she/it form; adjectives don’t change form to agree with nouns; nouns only add an ‘s’ for the plural and, infuriatingly ‘apostrophe s’ for the possessive; pronouns have subjects and objects –‘ ‘I and ‘me’, ‘we’ and ‘us’, ‘she’ and ‘her’, ‘they’ and ‘them’ – and genitives – ‘ours’ and ‘mine’ and ‘hers’, but nothing else does.

There is a reason for this: English is such a hybrid/mongrel language that, in all the cross-breeding, the different endings of different languages went missing. However, Latin is an inflected language: hence all the hilarity about ‘amo, amas, amat’, ‘hujus, hujus, hujus’ and Churchill’s questioning about why it was necessary to have the vocative of the Latin word mensa, the Latin word for ‘table’. And almost every language is much more inflected than English. So, Latin, which feels like a friend because it is the parent of all Romance languages and the provider of so many English, is a very good preparation for learning other languages which are even more inflected. In the last 48 hours, friends of mine, prompted by something I wrote, have said that even the elementary study of Latin helped them to learn German, Arabic, Czech (7 cases) and Mongolian (9 cases and 23 vowels). I am not sure that even this would force Molesworth into retreat, but it is worth pondering as one of the reasons for studying Latin in this big, wide, multilingual world.

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