Rem acu tetigerunt! The importance of knowing Latin

From a reader:

Hi Fr. Z,

While I think you would  appreciate the entire list of 10 that Victor Davis Hanson writes about today, #1 goes to the crux of what you’ve been talking about for years. Here is the link:

Here is the relevant excerpt:

1. Four years of high-school Latin would dramatically arrest the decline in American education. In particular, such instruction would do more for minority youths than all the ‘role model’ diversity sermons on Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Montezuma, and Caesar Chavez put together. Nothing so enriches the vocabulary, so instructs about English grammar and syntax, so creates a discipline of the mind, an elegance of expression, and serves as a gateway to the thinking and values of Western civilization as mastery of a page of Virgil or Livy (except perhaps Sophocles’s Antigone in Greek or Thucydides’ dialogue at Melos). [Nah… stick to Latin.]  After some 20 years of teaching mostly minority youth Greek, Latin, and ancient history and literature in translation (1984-2004), I came to the unfortunate conclusion that ethnic studies, women studies–indeed, anything "studies"– were perhaps the fruits of some evil plot dreamed up by illiberal white separatists to ensure that poor minority students in the public schools and universities were offered only a third-rate education

Again, I want to thank you for inspiring me to teach my young boys’ Latin.

Rem acu tetigerunt!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. I must agree wholehartedly, I teach Latin to the Confirmation kids a little bit at a time. (Though I’ll admit I am biased towards Church Latin ;))

  2. Susan Peterson says:

    Personally , I am partial to Greek.

    But my 4 years of high school Latin have served me well, for understanding grammar, for medical terminology, for learning Greek, for understanding quotes in books written at a time when no person of a sort to be reading such book would not have known Latin, so no translation is offered, and for understanding the mass in Latin. I wanted to insert “last but not least” but when I log on from here at work there is always a problem where the comment box extends way past the edge of the computer and I can’t see what I have written there.
    Susan Peterson

  3. M. Sheiko says:

    I took four years of Latin in 8th-11th grade, plus a semester in college. For a long time all I could see was how much Latin I did NOT know. But now I realize how beneficial even that little bit has been to enriching my vocabulary, ability to learn other languages, participate in the Mass and more. Some call it a “dead” language, but I don’t think any other language can contribute to one’s education as a whole in the way that Latin does.

  4. W. Schrift says:

    M. Sheiko: Some call it a “dead” language…

    Technically, it is a dead language, but all that means is that it isn’t anyone’s native language anymore. Latin has been dead for centuries, and this is what makes it so valuable to the Church!

    “Live” languages are in a state of constant flux. Thus the USCCB squabbles over “archaic” words like gibbet. Latin is anchored in time, so the meanings of its words aren’t going anywhere. (That is, all the words in Latin are archaic!)

  5. Brandon says:

    hehe – did you say “crux”?

  6. chironomo says:

    The idiocy of the public school establishment never ceases to amaze me. While it can be demonstrated….with overwhelming evidence… that learning Latin and receiving general instruction in music, particularly singing…. dramatically improves academic performance, Latin programs were eliminated long ago as somehow “archaic” (not part of the “new education”) and when budgets are tightened, music is the first to go. Perhaps they are afraid that if students learned Latin, they would learn about their culture and take pride in it. It is sad. I was the last graduating class in my HS to be offered Latin as an elective. It was eliminated the year after I graduated.

  7. Mitch says:

    And for those of us fortunate to have had Latin in school it is frustrating to say the least, to not be able to use it in the one place where we all thought we would forever be able. The Church’s abandonment (and I do not mean official, I mean practical)has lead to its further demise. I think parishes should offer not a Latin language class but a study program of the Latin that is used and needed for Mass. Every other Wednesday night for example….Starting small, so as not to create the impression that we must learn a whole new language to understand Mass. Memorize and translate our Prayers and Ordinary to begin (faithful to Vat II instuction)…I am sure then many will look for it in state or private education to deepen their knowledge. We need to re-direct the focus to the parts essential now. Because who is going to take it now when available in school if we can not even use it on Sunday???

  8. One of the reasons we chose Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills High School for our middle-schooler — and most likely her five siblings — is its embrace of a classically-oriented curriculum. Each entering seventh-grader takes three years of mandatory Latin. Sadly, most Catholic schools can’t run away from the universal language of the Church fast enough. Our own parish school ditched a voluntary, before-hours Latin course in favor of mandatory Spanish so that it could win a coveted presidential Blue Ribbon.

  9. Mitch: Because who is going to take it now when available in school if we can not even use it on Sunday???

    The Sanctus and Agnus Dei are now pretty common in Latin in parishes where it was never heard 2 or 3 years ago. Pretty soon the Gloria and Pater Noster will be pretty common in Latin where they’re never heard now.

    Perhaps we’ll find that just a little Latin will go a long way — both towards a more reverent atmosphere at Mass and in new motivation for study of Latin. Actually, I recently read somewhere that the number of Latin students is now outpacing the available number of qualified Latin teachers.

  10. Sed Pater, sed Pater…: estne latina lingua perempta ac defuncta, sicut multi dicunt? Fortasse optabilius est ut omnes anglice (!!!) loquamur, et Ciceronis Augustinique sermonem ad res liturgicas reservemus. Quid putes?
    Vale optimissime!

  11. Henry,

    Do you know enough Latin to pray the psalms?

  12. Greg,

    Being self-taught, I can’t claim any real proficiency in Latin, but the Latin of the Vulgate — including the Psalms, which I do pray in Latin — is quite easy compared with classical Latin, including the ancient Latin propers, which I’ve studied assiduously with Father Z since he started WDTPRS, and which I still find an order of magnitude more difficult than scriptural Latin (and most other liturgical Latin).

  13. Andreas says:

    There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value either of the language of the Romans or of great literature generally. It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for learning highly intelligent thought and speech. (Pp. John XXIII, Veterum Sapientia).

    And he goes on to say: oh hear all you detractors of Latin:
    “It will be quite clear from these considerations why the Roman Pontiffs have so often extolled the excellence and importance of Latin, and why they have prescribed its study and use by the secular and regular clergy, warning against the dangers that would result from its neglect.”

  14. ED says:

    The reason they dont want LATIN is that dumbing down society is the way to control people. Has anybody done a survey how many “Catholic ” High Schools or elementary schools teach LATIN. Of course they all should!!!!

  15. ED2 says:

    I’m pretty new to this site and the three times I’ve posted I went by the name ED but since I now see there’s another ED here who might have been here longer than me, I’m going to go by ED2 from now on. Sorry if I caused any confusion to anyone.

  16. Christa says:

    Latin wasn’t offered at my high school, so I have picked up what few phrases I know from reading. Out of the blue last Sunday the Agnus Dei was sung in Latin…and I didn’t know the words (the cradle Catholics did, so you could easily spot the converts..HA).

    I am going to find translations of all of the major portions of the Mass so I don’t get caught again.

    I think it would be nice if our parish had a little card in the missal with these items, but I don’t want to look like I am criticizing, so I will probably not say anything.

  17. JaneC says:

    I had three years of Latin (6-8th grades), but it didn’t stick very well. I started over in college, and took a year and a half of it. Sadly, I can still only manage basic grammar and can’t translate even fairly simple phrases without looking things up. Still, I never understood English grammar until I had Latin, and I learned a lot of ancient history during my Latin classes, not to mention vocabulary. Studying Latin early has made my life as an academic a bit easier than it would otherwise have been. (For instance, it was a big help when I had to take German for graduate school–the poor students who had only had Spanish or French before were very confused by noun declensions.)

  18. mpm says:


    If you have cable TV see if they carry EWTN, Mother Angelica’s network. They
    broadcast Mass in English/Latin at 8 am, noon, 7 pm and midnight EST. Listening
    in might be a big help for you, especially since they chant much of the Latin,
    and that makes them enunciate and slow down.

    Good luck.

  19. Michael says:

    The suppression of Latin in the Church is an absolute philosophical, theological and pastoral disaster, as well as cultural primitivism of the worst kind.

    Starting from the Roman literature, philosophy and law, then going to the Latin Scripture, ancient Liturgy, Fathers, Scholastic philosophy and theology, Doctors, Councils, other Church documents; and the whole output the Western Church until Vatican II, and all the Church documents since Vatican II – all that is completely closed to the newly ordained priests.

    I still remember the days when the lectures and exams in theological schools were in Latin. And now even the bishops are staring into a Latin text like “calves staring into a mottled door”, to put my native into English.

  20. Copernicus says:

    Rem acu tetigerunt!

    Why in the plural?

  21. Ellen says:

    I grew up with the Latin Mass till the 8th grade, and I took only 1 year in high school, but even with that little bit, I am amazed at how much I’ve absorbed. Not to boast, but I always tested about as high as you could measure when it came to vocabulary. Thank you Latin Mass.

  22. Copernicus: You might try rereading the piece at the top.

  23. MargoB says:

    “—indeed, anything ‘studies’—”

    …Wait, wait! Except UST’s *Catholic* Studies program. That’ll give you solid grounding worth having!


  24. Roland de Chanson says:

    Oops – it looks like my post disappeared. I was asking about the form sessiunculum as opposed to sessiuncula which is more common in classical Latin. I’m not sure whether this is a common form in ecclesiastical or vulgar Latin. Any info appreciated. Thanks.

  25. Jpe from Pittsburgh says:

    Latin was unavailable to me to learn in Catholic school or high school and I never gave it a thought in college.

    My wife is from Colombia, and I have managed to learn some Spanish. I have been able to memorize the Ave Maria, the Gloria, the Agnus Dei, and the Sanctus. In Old San Juan, there is a portal along the sidewalk that sits next to the inlet for the port. Above the portal, there is the inscription “BENEDICTUS QUI VENIT IN NOMINE DOMINI”. My señora did not know how to translate the phrase, but I could!

    I want my baby son to learn Latin (when he’s old enough). It’s amazing how well one understands one’s own language much better after learning another.

  26. Michael says:

    Although I have some Latin background, I think that when the Mass is concerned everybody should be able to learn and understand, gradually, I repeat: gradually, the sung parts of the Mass within a few years, and with a minimal help.

    It should’t be a promblem to learn that “Dominus” means “Lord” and that “vobiscum” is “with you” in reverse, but in one word, whereby “cum” means “with” (as with shares “cum dividend”) and “vobis” means “you”, strictly “to you” whereby “cum” makes “to” unnecessary, but that is already pedantics. And all these words appear many times in other prayers.

    There is no need to go into the intricacies of Latin grammar: simply learn what it means in the form is stands.

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