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Learn Latin To Ace English Literature

By Remi, published on 21/06/2018 Blog > Academia > Latin > Learn Latin To Better Understand English

“If Romans had to learn Latin to begin with, they would never have conquered the world.” – Alber Willemetz, French songwriter (1887-1964)


If Romans haven’t had time to conquer the world (or the bit of the world they knew of), most European languages would be very different today.

The further the Roman legions marched and conquered, the further the Latin language went. In continental Europe, many local dialects died because of the Roman efficiency to impose their official language and culture onto the conquered indigenous people.

Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was so well established in the provinces of Rome that it took over as the language commonly spoken by most of Europe’s population.

To one exception, Britania. The remote province that was made of the British Isles extended as far north as the Hadrian Wall.

There Latin did not do so well. After the last Roman legions retreated to Rome, many successive invasions took place. The first and probably most important regarding the evolution of the language on the island was the invasion of the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes as early as the 6th century.

The Anglo-Saxon language took over Latin and by the 7th century, Old English was the lingua franca (common language).

However Latin did leave important marks on the English language. Linguists affirm that at least 70% of all English words come, directly or not, from the vulgar Latin that was spoken throughout the Empire.

Today, language directly inherited from Latin (sharing the same grammar, syntaxis, lexicon, etc) are called Romance Languages and because of the colonisation history of European powers for the past 600 years, romance languages are spoken by more than 1 billion people on the planet. From South America to Canada, from Portugal to New Caledonia (east of Australia).

Also, the Latin alphabet is used by 39% of the world’s population, more than 3 billions people. Countries which language have nothing to do with Latin; such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines or Turkey use the same alphabet as England.

For all those reasons and more, we will show you how learning Latin can actually improve your English.

Roman temple dedicated to Minerva. Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. This temple that was dedicated to her was left by the Roman in Tunisia.

Understand the English Alphabet

Learning Latin has been proven to improve the overall results of A-level students (at least in the U.S. where SATs results show that Latin learners have better grades in all other subjects too).

To learn any language, no can do with no alphabet.

But no problem here since the English and Latin alphabet is (almost) the same.

The Roman alphabet archaic version only had 20 letters. G, J, U, W, Y, and Z were all missing.

Many letters were actually Greek alphabet letters to be included in the Latin alphabet, without any change in the writing (A, B, E, I, K, M, N, O, T and X). The use of the K was extremely rare and C was much more common.

Other letters’ writing changed to form the letters C, L, S, P, R and D in the Roman alphabet. The letters V, F and Q which were no longer used by the Greeks were adopted anyway in the Roman Empire system.

During the 3rd century BC, the letters G,Y and Z, all derived from the Greek alphabet are added to the Roman alphabet to help with the transcription of foreign words.

The letters J,U and W will only appear during the Middle Ages help with the transcriptions of some words and help to differentiate consonants from vowels (J and U were until then used as both consonant and vowel).

The Latin alphabet was mainly borrowed from their Etruscan neighbours, which themselves had mostly copied and adapted the Greek alphabet, who themselves had mainly adapted the Phoenician alphabet.

It was first used to transcript the Archaic Latin dialect that emerged in the Latium, a region of central Italy.

Unlike other continental languages, and mostly due to the influence of Proto-Germanic languages, English doesn’t use any diacritic glyphs (accents on letters) to a very few exceptions.

Find out how learning Latin will help you excel in class!

Blackboard alphabet. Learning the Latin alphabet is easy, it’s the same.

Be An Etymology Champion

Etymology derived from the Greek etumon, meaning “true sense” and logia referring to “the study of”.

As a scientific field, it is the study of the history of the words and how they evolved over time, both in form and meaning.

Because Britain was once occupied by the Romans, and then the Anglo-Saxons, and the Norse, Danes and eventually the Norman (essentially French), the English dialect is full with words often having the same meaning or representing the same idea but coming from a completely different origin.

For example, many Germanic-Latin doublets exist in English.

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Also, more than 80% of French words come from Latin but 29% of English nouns, verbs and adjectives come from French.

A few common examples of these:

  • cul-de-sac (kew-duh-sahk): Dating from 14th century French, lit. ‘bottom of sack’, meaning a dead end (street).
  • déjà vu (deh-zhah vew): literally  “already seen”.
  • liaison (lyay-soh(n): in French it means a ‘bond’, which can describe several things, like a relationship, an affair, a link, a connection, or a chemical bond.
  • sauté (soh-teh); literally  ‘jumped’. From the verb ‘sauter’ (to jump). It is used either as an adjective or a noun and mainly refers to a cooking method in Englis.
  • Et voilà ! (eh vwah-lah): literally  ‘see there’; in French, it is used to announce something is completed or done with success, with a feeling of satisfaction or pride, in front of others.

Read more about learning other Romance languages through your Latin studies!

And to make it even easier, many words that we commonly use every day in English have remained exactly the same that in their Latin version:

Alibi: this thing you desperately might need if you are suspected of some shenanigans, alibi just means “elsewhere” in Latin. And if you were elsewhere, how could you have stolen the cookies?

Agenda: from the Latin verb “agere” meaning to act, agenda is used to describe a list of items that might be discussed during a meeting, a plan of actions to be done or the ulterior motives of a particular person.

Ego: what today describes one’s self-esteem simply meant “I” (first person singular pronoun).

Acumen: the noun describing someone’s quick perception and sharp spirit comes from the Latin word meaning “sharp point”.

Maximum and minimum: the Latin words meaning “the biggest” and the “smallest”.

Quid pro quo: the phrase means “taking something for something else”, the term was originally used by apothecaries when they would substitute an ingredient for another. Today it is mostly used to describe an exchange of service “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”.

Gratis: meaning kindness in Latin, this word is used in English as free of charge, at no cost.

Ultimatum: from the Latin word for “final” (ultimus), it is used to describe a requirement demanded by one party to another, often as a threat of retaliation or war.

Veto: meaning “I forbid” in Latin, this right, often political, is used to stop the process of a decision such as the signature of a new law. In the U.K., the Queen can veto any bills that affect the Royal Prerogative of properties. It is the Royal Consent.

Vice versa: the Latin phrase for “the position having been reversed” is used in English to describe a situation in which two things or people have been reversed.

Via: this Latin word simply means “road” but is mostly used today to say “by way of” or “passing through”.

Visa: in Latin, the expression was used to describe a document that had been verified “charta visa – a paper that has been seen”. Today it is a permit that allows you to enter in a foreign country and that will be “seen” by the border authority.

Video: literally “I see” in Latin, the word is used in English to describe any film, short clip or an old VHS cassette.

All this shows that learning Latin is actually perfecting your knowledge of English and it will definitely give you extra confidence when you will be winning that spelling contest.

But unlike Spanish, French or Italian, our English grammar comes from Germanic language and not Latin.

In English, the standard order of words will be Subject, Verb and Object (or SVO).

While writing in Latin, the order of the words will have a lot less importance. The declension of the words will give you the Subject, the Verb and The Object.

Discover also some of the great benefits of learning Latin!

Buste of Antinous. Bust of Antinous, friend and lover of Emperor Hadrian.

That is why the same sentence can be written in many different ways in Latin. While the sentence “The legate sent the servant” can only be written this way in English to keep its meaning, in Latin, it can be written in five different ways:

  • Servum mittit legatus,
  • Mittit legatus servum,
  • Legatus servum mittit,
  • Servum legatus mittit,
  • Mittit servum legatus.

To avoid confusion when reading Latin you will have to the Latin declensions like the back of your hand.

There are 6 different declensions for almost every word of the Latin language:

  • Nominative case: it marks the subject of a sentence and refers to the person or the object that performs the action in the statement.
  • Vocative case: it is used to address someone or something indirect speech.
  • Accusative case: it refers to the direct object of a verb and its meaning may vary according to the proposition it is used with.
  • Genitive case: is the mark of possession in Latin. It is mostly the equivalent of the word “of” in English.
  • Dative case: it refers to the recipient of an action, the indirect object of a verb. It is the Latin equivalent of “to” and “for”.
  • Locative case: it refers to the location where an action takes place. t was widely used in the early Latin but was letter mostly abandoned during the Classical Latin period as it was in most instances replaced by the ablative case.

Superprof gives 10 good reasons to learn Latin…

So, What Is Latin Useful For?

Well, learning Latin will mainly open your mind to the culture and civilisation of the Greco-Roman world.

You will not be able to fully grasp ancient Latin text written by Ovid, Cicero, Titus Livius, Seneca or Pliny the Younger, without being slightly curious about the life, struggles and hope of the citizens of the Roman Empire.

So when you will learn Latin you will also learn about:

  • The Antic Rome civilisation
  • The history of classical literature
  • The Greco-Roman mythology
  • The everyday life of the Romans
  • The history and geography of Europe
  • The institutions of the Roman Republic and Empire

While knowing all this will make you the best teammate for the weekly quiz night at your local pub, learning to speak, read and write Latin will also help you to decode much more easily any of the romance languages.

So if you’re thinking of learning Italian, Spanish or French, start with Latin, it will be a real piece of cake after that!

Uncover how learning Latin can help you discover ancient civilisations…

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