Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
Now is the time of year where normality takes a break. It is okay to eat sweets out of your sock, and stare at a dead tree with stuff on it. It is also okay to drink sherry at 11am and bellow out things like “Gloria In Excelsis Deo”, “In Dulci Jubilo” or even “Adeste fideles”.
Just as this is the time of year that the egg-box polystyrene bells you made when you were three get taken out of the old box from the loft, and put on proud display on the tree, so it is also the time of year when Latin gets dusted off, and enters our common lives for this special few weeks of the year.
I was lucky enough to have Latin inflicted on me when I was 11 years old. I say “inflicted” because this is what I felt about it at the time. Stupid dead language, I thought: it killed off the Romans and now it’s killing me. So imagine my horror when I found I was actually quite good at it, and then the profound, bewildered surrender as I found I’d fallen in love with it. Yes, I’d fallen in love with Latin, and it is a passion that has never died (even if my memory for vocabulary and for verb constructions has fallen into deep disrepair.)
Latin elegantly solved an issue I’d had with the English language even as a small child. I wanted to know that when I went into “the old sweet shop”, it would be the shop that was old, not the sweets. It seemed pathetic that a language as developed as English wasn’t able to tell me straight away. Latin, with adjectives that agree with nouns in gender and case, solved that problem with (in most cases) a consistent pattern of logic that had a mathematical beauty, to my (albeit mortified) 11-year-old brain.
And as I explored the language and its grammar more deeply, the world of verbal constructions, of the future pluperfect, of the gerund and gerundive, and of verbal nouns came to light. Here were tools of beautiful linguistic precision. But I found Latin is far from a dry, purely forensic language. Think of the power of its precision in expressing emotion, as in Catullus’s cardiac bullet of a poem, no. 85:
“Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio, et excrucior.”
(“I love and I hate. How can I do this, you might ask.
I do not know. But I feel it happening, and I am tortured.”)
My translation is clumsy. It is hard to find a word with the tormented power of ‘excrucior’, and it is hard in English to say so much in so few words, but here is the precision of Latin – not so much in forensic potency as emotional power.
This is why Latin is so important. Precision in language really matters – it is all we have for effective, nuanced communication of complex concepts. It is what makes us human.
In many ways, the subjunctive, which I only appreciated through Latin, divides man from beast. The subjunctive is a linguistic form of expressing wishes, conditions – “oh that it were so”; things beyond the ‘indicative’ tense, of statements of fact such as “ I want food”. That mental step encapsulated in the subjunctive is the fundamental tool of abstract thought – what it is to be human. And because it is Christmas, I will say for those of us with a Christian faith that perhaps it is what divides the humanity that God became, as a baby in a manger, from the beasts munching hay from that same stall.
But I worry because with ease of communication, we risk relegating precision of expression to something of a bygone era. We text-talk, we use smileys to communicate emotion – reverting to pictures, as our caveman ancestors once did. (If you are feeling literary, look up the famous classicist poet Louis MacNiece’s prescient poem about this: “To Posterity”). Smileys are easy and contagious, I find myself using them too much. Sad face. But if we forget our tools of precision, we are left with blunt instruments which cannot begin to meet the challenge of communicating complex concepts – like trying to do a precision surgical operation with a toddler’s plastic fork.
If we lose our ability to use language with precision, we lose our ability to use language effectively in resolving conflicts, negotiating terms, explaining more complex issues and options. In the face of an inability to communicate, people generally become frustrated, more emotional, and resolution becomes more distant.
But most worrying of it all is that the fact that this essential tool-kit of expression is still generally the preserve of the posh kids, the posh schools. That is utterly wrong. Everyone deserves the opportunity to access Latin, this users-manual of language – which, incidentally, looks good on any CV. In recent years, thanks to the great work of some brilliantly dedicated classicists, ancient languages have become more prevalent in schools. But we still have a long way to go. Precision of expression is a gift that should belong to everyone. I want to see a day when for all our school children, Latin can be for life, not just for Christmas.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate this blog to my teachers, Mrs Hutton, Mr Essem and the brilliant Mrs Hopkins, and to my Balliol tutors: my magnificent Greek tutor, Jasper Griffin, and to my tragically deceased Latin tutor, Oliver Lyne, who died in 2005. Thank you.