The Universal Language
"That's Latin," said an ever-helpful commentator during the funeral mass for John Paul II. Like the belief that television is necessary, the idea that Latin is "dead" is as bogus as it is recent. It's true that Ben Franklin's autobiography pits the "living" tongues against that unspoken one, but the Sage's most important point was that French, or another romance language, can serve as a bridge to Latin. My students who know French or Spanish can vouch for this. Another who knows Russian has recognized Latin's influence on that language. And I have learned that even Welsh owes much of its vocabulary to the speech of the Caesars. Anyway, James Madison busted his rump studying Latin and Greek to pass the entrance exam at what would become Princeton University, and it didn't do him any harm.
"I won't say anything about the death of Latin," writes retired linguistics professor Tore Janson in A Natural History of Latin, "[for] the language is still very much alive." Save for those who have labored under the direction of cruddy teachers, everyone who has studied Latin knows that Janson is right. As he regularly points out, one obvious thing that keeps Latin in the category of the living is its presence in just about every sentence English-speakers utter. Here, for example, is the Pledge of Allegiance with the Latin taken out:
I to the flag of the of America and to the for which it stands, one under God with and for all.
Indeed, something like 75 percent of the multisyllabic words in the English lexicon come from Latin, or from Greek via Latin, or from Latin via French. As I put it to my students, if Yiddish were erased from contemporary English we'd have a hard time talking about bagels, ...