Latin is the Illuminator

Originally posted on January 9, 2018, by Dr. Laurie Duesing, Upper School Latin III teacher

I did not study Latin for any of the right reasons. I was in the first year of a Ph.D. program in English Literature at UC Davis and attempting to dispatch ‘nattering requirements.’ Among such requirements was proficiency in two foreign languages. French was my college language, and I dispensed with the requirement quickly. Now what? I took a look at a very long list of acceptable languages, and with one exception, three semesters of study were required. The exception was Latin. I am a practical woman, and I was also teaching full-time at Solano Community College, which offered two years of Latin in our evening program. Perfect! I could teach my classes in the day session and stay on one evening a week for two semesters and fulfill my second language requirement. I thought, “How hard can it be?”

My first Latin teacher was Ken Bubb, a former Jesuit priest, who was charismatic, knowledgeable and kind. Just as we do at Louisville Classical Academy, I started my Latin study with Wheelock’s Latin, and I was almost immediately blindsided for one simple reason: Latin made sense. Already a seasoned English instructor, I was accustomed to the irregularities, inconsistencies and bewildering plethora of rules (and exceptions) governing English grammar, pronunciation, you name it. . .  I was stunned: Latin was orderly. It had constant rules. All I had to do was learn them and apply them, and I could do the homework and translations as if I were a first century Roman. A few weeks into the semester, Mr. Bubb said, “You can almost count the number of irregular Latin verbs on one hand.” Astonished, I yelled out, “I’m in!”

The clincher came when Mr. Bubb showed a clip from The Gladiator where Russell Crowe is speaking to his troops and utters “Hold the line” and “Stay with me.” Explaining how this dialogue truly replicated Roman ideals, Mr. Bubb launched into a further exposition of Roman culture. I was so moved, I wept.

So Latin had its way with me. I fulfilled my second language requirement and made a vow I would study Latin in depth whenever I had some time. That time finally came when I moved to Louisville and discovered that U of L had an undergraduate minor in Latin. Since 2007, I have taken every Latin course offered (and more because the Chair of the Department keeps changing the authors in the senior level classes so that I can repeat those classes for credit.). At last count I had garnered 84 Latin credits.

The irony in all of this is that I have learned more about English language (my specialty!) from studying Latin. Latin is the ideal; it shows how a language should operate. It’s gorgeous rhetorically and poetically. (To my chagrin, I now believe that Vergil is a poet superior to Shakespeare.) At the conclusion of every semester at U of L (when I was teaching Latin 101 and 102), one or two or three of my students would come up to me and say, “I understand English now better than I ever did.” Of course. Latin is the illuminator, the illustrator, not to mention the firm basis of the English language. (Percentage estimates range from the low 90s to the 97th percentile.)

Is it any wonder that Classics majors (more than any other major) invariably perform better on all kinds of graduate school qualifying exams? This is no surprise to me because graduate entrance exams are language exams. And Latin is the grand template of them all.