From The Guardian Monday December 10, 2007 by Charlotte Higgins
As Latin is introduced to inner-city schools, says we can finally stop thinking of it as a 'posh' language
Latin, it was reported last week, is making a comeback in inner-city schools in London: 20 primaries are trying Latin lessons, under the aegis of Project Iris, run by teacher Lorna Robinson. Something similar is happening in Oxfordshire, where the language is also being introduced to selected primary schools.
Robinson has spoken of its benefits in helping children get to grips with English, but one of the refreshing things about the move to teach Latin in perfectly ordinary primaries in Hackney is that there is no nonsense here about it being the preserve of the posh.
Alas, the impression that the language is for toffs and Fotherington-Thomases has probably been reinforced by its most vocal contemporary champions: Boris Johnson may be many things, but he is not what we classicists would call one of the profanum vulgus; or to put it another way, he is not a man of the people.
In 1968, students protesting in Paris actually cared enough - bizarre as it may now seem - to rail against the compulsory study of Latin; and one of the first moves by the Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia was to banish the language from schools. Latin has long been regarded as the preserve of the few, a position to which it gradually declined after a staggeringly successful stint as the universal language of first the Roman empire and then the church.
It had a robust development through the middle ages, a retention of power through the start of the early modern period, and then a swift downward canter, as the language ceased to be the essential carrier of European thought and became the bastion - and the mark - of the wealthy, educated classes.
Until quite recently it retained a useful side function (which it can still claim to an extent) of being a vehicle for excluding the masses from certain areas of privileged knowledge. Legal and medical terminology was obscured in Latin, as was stuff that was too sexually explicit to be revealed to morally susceptible members of the working classes and, naturally, of the weaker sex. (An unintended consequence was that Latin has been associated with titillation; in 1881 an edition of an 18th-century work of pornography called Academie des Dames was put out, in deliberately easy Latin, with a crib provided.)
The association of Latin, then, with upper-class males is a mere trick of history. Just as Project Iris is doing in Hackney, it's time to reclaim Latin for the proletariat (a good Latin word, after all). Why? Partly, as Project Iris hints, it's an excellent way of improving language and general learning skills. And partly because it is difficult - and why shouldn't children be challenged? Latin is a tricky beast, but if it's taught well children can have a lot of fun with it.
One might ask, why not learn something useful, like Spanish or Mandarin or French? Well, do that too, but your efforts will be made easier by a knowledge of Latin: because it's a "dead" language - as people are so fond of saying - learning it presents the advantage of sidestepping all that business of ordering a beer or reserving a hotel room. Instead you delve right down to the bones of the language, understanding it at a deep, structural level that is both immensely rewarding for its own sake and very useful when that understanding is applied to any other language.
Mostly, though, Latin is worthwhile because it creates the opportunity for an encounter with the intellectual world of the ancient Romans, through the fantastically rich corpus of literature that remains to us. This encounter with Rome is important because so much of what we do and think - from the way our laws are organised to the nature of our education system, to how we look at our rights and duties as citizens - has its roots in Rome. Encountering Rome through its literature is one of the most exciting journeys the life of the mind can offer. To engage with these strange creatures of 2,000 years ago - so like, so unlike us - is to embark on a relationship that is often deeply unsettling, but never anything less than enriching.
Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian's arts correspondent and author of Latin Love Lessons