Long live Latin!
In what are still commonly referred to as the island’s older secondary or grammar schools, first form classes around this time, following the start of every academic year, used to reverberate with the melodious strains of excited students reciting “amo, amas, amat” as if they were singing a chorus.
This ritual, which symbolized an important rite of passage in the education of many a Barbadian boy and girl of yesteryear, represented their formal introduction to the study of Latin which, along with ancient Greek which was taught at some schools, constituted what were known as the Classics.
I consider myself fortunate to have gone through this initiation at the then Boys’ Foundation School at the feet of the illustrious and immortal Colin “Couchie” Reid. His warm smile and friendly greeting of “Salvete” (Hello) as he entered our class room for the first time, to which we were told to respond “Salve, magister” (Hello, teacher), remain as fresh in my mind as if it occurred only yesterday.
Thus began my life-long love affair with Latin on that September morn back in 1971. It only grew stronger over the succeeding years as we were introduced to the diverse writings of Vergil, Horace, Caesar, Ovid, Pliny, and Cicero, to name a few. Speaking of love, by the way, “amo, amas, amat” constituted part of the present conjugation of the verb “amare”, meaning “to love”.
Reciting the conjugations of verbs and declensions, in the case of nouns, pronouns and adjectives, enabled the development of a profound understanding of the structure and mechanics of the Latin language. This exposure nurtured communication skills which treated writing and speaking as more than a simple case of randomly stringing words together but rather a creative process where the final product is akin to a work of art.
The removal of Latin from the Barbadian school curriculum was an unwise and shortsighted policy decision which has deprived many Barbadians of a rich intellectual experience that would have positively impacted on their overall development. We are seeing the fall-out today in the appalling poverty which afflicts both the written and spoken word. Expressing oneself clearly and elegantly is a daunting challenge for many.
For some, their vocabularies are so limited and the mastery of language so deficient that every third or fourth word coming from their lips is a profanity or expletive. Gone too is the oratorical magnificence which once graced political discourse where, in the cut and thrust of debate, opponents would be floored with great finesse through the sheer force of argument or sharp turn of phrase.
Our great political orators of yesteryear — Sir James Tudor, Tom Adams, Errol Barrow, among others – stood out because of their exposure to the beauty of Latin. Of the present crop of politicians, only Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, former Prime Minister Owen Arthur and Opposition Leader Mia Mottley come close in such facility of language. When Barbadians complain today that political debate today is sterile compared with bygone years, what they are essentially lamenting is the demise of classical Latin and Greek influence.
The average person today, owing to a limited knowledge of the classics, is usually quick to dismiss Latin as a useless dead language with no practical value in this modern technological age. They are dead wrong. The truth is Latin never really died. It simply evolved, taking on a different form where it finds practical expression today in several languages.
About half of the vocabulary of English is Latin-based. Take the word “eradicate” for example. When we eradicate a problem, we essentially pull it up by the root. Eradicate comes from a merger of two Latin words: “e” meaning “from” and “radix” meaning “root”. Latin also lives on in what are called the Romance languages which include Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian. Classical Latin remains the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.
Contrary to common belief, the study of Latin involves more than learning a language. It is, broadly speaking, the study of a civilization – the civilization of imperial Rome – which dominated life in the ancient world and has had profound influence in shaping modern Western civilization under which we live.
Indeed, knowledge of Roman civilization is critical to a full understanding of Christianity which began as a Jewish peasant movement under Roman colonialism. Some of the titles given to Jesus, including “Son of God” and “Prince of Peace”, amounted to a show of defiance against Rome. These titles originally belonged to Caesar, the Roman emperor. After Christianity became the official state religion of Rome, it rapidly spread throughout the world.
Roman influence also pervades other key aspects of contemporary life – the legal system, science, medicine, culture, to name a few. The concept of a fair trial originated in Rome and was the right of every citizen. Many common legal and judicial terms are in Latin – for example, affidavit, caveat, amicus curiae, and sine die. Many persons who claim Latin is dead, use these terms unaware of their origin.
I always find it humourous when the moral purists among us complain bitterly about skimpy costumes and drunken behaviour by some Crop Over revellers. Obviously, they are unaware of the Roman influence on playing mas’. When we speak of bacchanal, we are, in effect, referring to a celebration of drinking and revelry. Bacchus, at the root of word ‘bacchanal’, was the pagan Roman god of wine.
Carnival comes from the Latin words “carnis” and “vale” meaning “goodbye to flesh”. In terms of sexual expression, the Romans were quite liberal. It was basically a case of anything goes. Most men were bisexual or “ambidextrous”, as “Couchie” Reid would put it. The naked male body was glorified. Hence, the many statues with phallic organs in full view. Paedophilia, then called pederasty, was commonplace. So too were wild orgies.
Life is a continuum. The past is connected with the present to shape the future. Studying Latin — and alsao theology – provided for me an unbroken link to the past. For most people today who have not had this experience, there is a fundamental disconnect. Both learning experiences powerfully drove home for me the fact that there is really nothing new under the sun and that human beings behave the same way today as throughout history. Such knowledge provides a remarkable sense of calm in this age of turbulence where so many people seem rudderless as they journey through life.
A few countries, including the United States, are rediscovering the value of Latin and have reintroduced it in their schools. With this resurgence, the demand for Latin teachers outstrips the supply. We should consider reintroducing Latin here. However, the problem would be finding enough qualified persons to do the teaching. Not many people with this knowledge are around today. I was the last A Level Latin student at the Barbados Community College.
Besides “Couchie” Reid, I am eternally indebted to my other Latin teachers – Earl Glasgow and the late Arthur Sealy – for collectively helping me to develop an enquiring mind which does not accept things at face value but digs beyond the surface to see if it is really what it appears to be.
Come to think about it, Latin really involves the study of key facets of life. Being able to live and enjoy life to the fullest is practically impossible in the absence of a clear understanding and philosophy of what it is all about. That, unfortunately, is the predicament of today’s anxious generation. They could do with a good dose of Latin.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)