On Latin and Greek

“Alphabet” comes from the names of the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta. But you knew that.

Rita Mae Brown, in her book Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind Of Writers’ Manual, suggests that in order to be a writer, one must study Latin. With all due respect to a highly successful bestselling author, I had three years of Latin and two years of Greek in high school, and it’s a load of crap. The only people who have any use for it are either celibate or dead. Or, in the words of the poet:

Latin is a language,
Dead as Dead Can Be,
First it Killed the Romans,
Now It’s Killing Me.

All are dead who spoke it.
All are dead who wrote it.
All are dead who learned it,
Lucky dead, they’ve earned it.

Nevertheless, I was ordered to take Latin in high school by my mother, using the same logic as Ms. Brown in her book. She told me that I would learn English better, because so much English vocabulary was derived from Latin.

I thought I was being smart when, at the end of sophomore year, I told my mother that I would be taking Greek in junior and senior year. She grumbled, but consented. The following year went well, although I got a lot of static from the college counselors (and my mother) reminding me that I really should have stayed with Latin for four years if I wanted to avoid having to take more of it in college. I guess I should have listened to them. I took both Latin and Greek in senior year, did well enough to pass, and ended up taking a quarter of Latin anyway.

The fisrt thing we had to learn, of course, was the alphabet:

This came in useful when my brother decided to join the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and needed to learn it. It was also useful when, as a math major, I had to use many of the letters in formulae (the nominative plural of formula, a first-declension noun, not that anyone needs to know that). It went downhill after that. I passed both, barely.

The thing that bothers me the most is that I can walk into a room to do something and forget why I went in there, I can forget things that were just told to me, and yet you could wake me at 3 AM and I could recite the Greek alphabet and decline the word “nauta” (sailor). If I could clean all the old junk out of my head, there’d be plenty of room for new stuff. Oh, well.


Author: John Holton

I'm a writer and blogger who writes and blogs about things that interest me.

36 thoughts on “On Latin and Greek”

  1. This is interesting stuff. I’ve long maintained that rudimentary latin should be a standard part of the school curriculum to understand the roots of language. I guess maybe Greek should be added as well. I think it would simplify a lot of learning later on if these were start early–maybe even 5th or 6th grade.

    Good start to A to Z.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out
    Twitter: @AprilA2Z


    1. I think, to the extent that knowing Latin and Greek helps understand English, they are useful, and Homer, Ovid, Virgil et al. were amazing storytellers. And saying the Mass in Latin would have ended lots of arguments in my old parish in Chicago, where Masses were held in three different languages (Lithuanian, Spanish and English). However, in a country in which a significant portion of the population speaks Spanish, I’m not sure that we shouldn’t be focusing on basic fluency in it, even to the exclusion of offering French as a foreign language option for high school kids. As the world changes, we’ll see more of a need for people who understand Asian languages (specifically Chinese and Japanese, perhaps even Hindi), Arabic, and possibly Russian. Maybe we should give them Latin in junior high…



    1. I’m a lifelong Catholic and I really have no use for it. When I was nine, the Mass had just started to change, and I had to learn all of the responses in Latin. It just about killed me, but I managed to do it. I served my first Mass on a Thursday morning. That afternoon we had an altar boys’ meeting where it was announced that we were going all English and had to learn all the responses in English and start using them. As I said, everyone who speaks Latin is either celibate or dead.


    1. I think that if you’re going to learn a language in high school, you should stick with something that’s still spoken in the real world. I was a supervisor at a food company after I graduated college, and my crew all spoke Spanish. It would have been nice to be able to talk to them and be understood. (It wouldn’t have helped much with the guys that came from the Mexican countryside and who spoke an Indian dialect, though.)


  2. Great post and interesting theme. I never can remember those proper words when trying to spell something out.

    I have a question. Hhow did you manage to get the A2Z logo on the right? I’m wordproess too and too it illiterate to go figure that one.. please email me instructions…

    Twitter: @lynneinPborough


  3. Great post from you alpha male ;). I studied one year of latin which proved semi-relevant in my legal career, but then the plain English revolution came and latin went out the door to everybody other than judges. My son learned 6 years of Greek which proved most useful in our travels to Greece 5 years ago. We were sitting on a bus with my son reciting the Greek alphabet by heart and being only 7, he had the Greek mommas in the palm of his hand..to the point where they stood up and offered him thier seat. It’s about the only thing he remembers from his Greek lessons.


    1. At least with Greek there’s a modern version that’s still spoken, and the alphabet is still the same. A teacher that I know used to walk through Greek Town in Chicago, and let the proprietors of the stores and restaurants know that they had errors on their signs.

      I’ve heard that the optimum age for learning languages is somewhere around seven or eight. It’s good that he learned the language when he did. There’s also a better than average chance that he’ll retain most of it. When a kid gets to high school, they don’t learn as well and forget more of it later in life. Excellent foresight on your part…


  4. I, too, took a couple years of Latin in high school. Looking back, I wish I had taken Spanish or French instead, but the teacher was such a character. Everyone thought he was cool, and took the class because of him. I still have my textbook, and look at it from time to time.


    1. I spent my first year at a Catholic high school, and the old priest we had probably spoke it as his first language, but his class was a lot of fun. I had the same teacher for sophomore year Latin and both years of Greek, and we got to be good friends. I probably should have taken another language when I got to college.


  5. What a great choice of topic. No fretting about what you’re going to write for you; how clever! I seem to have blundered into the challenge this year (to be truthful, I’m blundering into everything because I’ve only been blogging since January). But I blunder quite well, or so I’ve been told. Next year, however…
    Rhia #873 on A to Z list


  6. My high school only taught Spanish. I managed to avoid Latin in college. I read the other post about your theme. Lots of fun themes going on around the challenge.


    1. Only taught Spanish? That’s interesting. I’m kind of surprised that schools are dropping languages, particularly modern ones. I can think of a half dozen that they should be adding. Thanks for stopping in.


  7. agricola, agricolae, agricolae, agricolam, agricola
    agricolae, agricolarum, agricolis, agricolas, agricolis

    When I’m introduced to someone new these days, I’ve forgotten their name before I’m done shaking their hand. Yet I can still decline words I learned the first day of Latin, despite having quit the language 17 years ago. Figures. (Maybe if I only met farmers, I’d remember their names.)


    1. Now that I’m thinking about it, all five declensions and all four conjugations are coming back, and I have to leave myself a note to remember if I took my pills this morning. Thanks for visiting.


  8. I’m impressed that anyone can learn another language – I barely passed French at school!
    Thanks for the follow. I’m here on B day, but I know nothing about baseball to make an intelligent comment – much like this one, really 🙂


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