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Latin - a Dead Language? Not quite, just sleeping

Blog | By Henry Goodall | Jun 26, 2020

The Colosseum (Credit: Trials and Errors)

After surviving the shock of being sent away to boarding school at the tender age of nine, soon to be learning compulsory French and, in the top form, four years later, compulsory Latin (and Greek), I little knew what benefit they were to be, when reading Anatomy a decade later, at the start of a medical career. The dull orange Kennedy Latin Primer, fading at the edges, was the ‘bible’, introducing such wonderful eccentricities of syntax as the past pluperfect and other unknown tenses. Amo, Amas, Amat etc. soon tripped off the tongue with ease; even fourth declension nouns, spelt the same, whether singular and plural, but pronounced differently.

We were taught Latin by Mr Hugh-Jones (H-J as we knew him), a tall fair-haired aquiline creature, with a sharp high pitched voice and prominent nose, who battled gamely with our muddled understanding of the language. He could have been the model for the teacher depicted in Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s classic “Down with Skool”, who intoned dismissively, “And when I asked him the supine stem of confiteor, the fool didn’t know!”

H-J had the bright idea of ‘updating’ the dull sentences, which seemed to be mostly about ancient Roman battles, the stuff of history. “Labienus is attacking the Gauls with atomic weapons”. Wow! That’ll show them! Nuclear Armageddon was translated as “tela atomica”, certainly up to date with the Cold War and the ‘Four Minute Warning’, which we all knew about, because a classmate’s father was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot and then CO of Fylingdales, always on the lookout for incoming Soviet missiles.

H-J was also a kind soul, who introduced us to the joys of model aeroplanes, paint and glue (before sniffing!). His weekly trips to Winchester included a stop at the bicycle shop, opposite the library in Jury Street, whose owner sold Airfix plastic model kits as a side line. H-J would take our kit orders, paid for by a week’s pocket money (no sweets that week) and distribute them on his return. Our manual dexterity blossomed, alongside our linguistic skills. The windowsills of the sixth form classroom soon bristled with Spitfires and Hurricanes, even a desert Stuka, in leopard like camouflage.

And so the bedrock of our future linguistic skills was laid. Most school children today have no inkling of the roots of our language; it must be difficult for them, without “tela atomica”, in their armoury.