Bill Kirby

Online news editor for The Augusta Chronicle.

Kirby: Latin tried, but couldn't kill me

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Omne ignotum pro magnifico.

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(Whatever is unknown is taken for marvelous.)

– Tacitus

I often see national news reports where some foolish school system is trying to get rid of its Latin language curriculum and cannot understand why people object.

Well, I know.

It’s because Latin is cool.

I know. I’ve been a Latin lover for almost 50 years. While everyone else in high school was signing up for French because it sounded romantic, or Spanish because it was easy, I decided on the language of world conquerors.

I did it back then because a foreign language was required, and though I was surging into adolescence with all the grace of Flipper in a tuna net, I still retained my youthful enthusiasm for gladiator movies.

It was somewhere between learning fourth declension nouns and the pluperfect tense that the ancient grade-school lament hit home.

“Latin’s a dead language.

I certainly agree.

It killed off all the Romans,

And now it’s killing me.”

I survived, I suppose, because I had both a sense of history and a sense of humor. I liked the irony of learning a language with little practical application because nobody spoke it anymore.

Oh, the teachers never admitted that. Why would they? They’d have to go back to teaching German.

No, they told you Latin would improve your English, which is sort of like telling chefs that farming will teach you how to prepare food.

Honestly?

I can’t really say Latin has helped me that much as a writer. In fact, it got me kicked out of a college journalism course where a foreign language was required.

The idea was you would spend class time reading a newspaper in another language and do reports on it.

I was the only Latin scholar in the room, a situation that irritated the white-haired professor.

“Young man,” he said a bit arrogantly, “What country in this world puts out a newspaper in Latin?”

“The Vatican,” I answered.

He sent me back to the registrar and I promptly padded my grades with some more PE courses.

Nevertheless I continued my studies of Caesar’s salad days in college, where Latin got more interesting because our bored classics professors loved to sneak naughty (but historically accurate) Roman jokes into translation exams.

That’s when I discovered the Romans had a word for just about everything in today’s locker room vocabulary. (Catullus, in fact, had several of them.)

The professors at this Harvard of the Heartland were also fascinated with my Southern pronunciations of their antique subject.

I’d enter the class and greet everyone with a “Ut valetis, vos omnes?” (“How y’all doing?”), and it would crack them up.

Maybe one of the reasons those old teachers liked Latin so much is that, unlike all the other languages, it didn’t change.

It had no reason to.

“Experientia docet,” as Catullus might say, although I’m sure he meant something else.


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