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Latin Very Much Alive According To Comp Lit And Classics’ Wida

Published: July 1, 2013

Comparative World Literature and Classics’ Elaine Wida dismisses the reported death of Latin as greatly exaggerated.

“Latin may be a dead language in the sense that it isn’t spoken as anyone’s native language but it is not dead in the sense that Latin has never ceased to be spoken,” said the member of the university since 1996. “That is where it differs from the other ‘dead’ languages.’”

Wida teaches beginning, intermediate and upper-level Latin courses (reading Latin texts of ancient Roman authors) at CSULB to classrooms filled with pre-med, pre-law, history, English, religious studies and philosophy students as well as many others from various disciplines including classics majors who study ancient Greece and Rome.

“There are certainly good reasons for students to learn Latin, especially in preparation for postgraduate work in law school or medical school but also in general. Anyone who needs to research any century before the 18th in the western world needs to know Latin,” she said.

According to Wida, a summary of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test scores formerly posted on the Comparative World Literature and Classics’ department website, titled “The Value of Latin and the GRE,” stated that classical language students earned the top average for verbal sections. “They also scored higher in quantitative tests than any other language major and better than scores of other areas,” she said. “They earned the third-highest score for analytical writing just below that of science and philosophy majors.”

Teaching Latin has moved past rote memorization of noun declensions.

“Now, we teach Latin in a different way,” she said. “I remember a student who took high school Latin using the old method. He could recite all the declensions and verb conjugations by heart. Yet he could hardly read a single word in Latin. That is not how you learn a language, by pulling words from a list in your head. You learn it by speaking, hearing and reading that language. Learning Latin is fun for students when taught this way. Students can read texts about Roman life and culture and can practice speaking and conversing in Latin.”

The great thing about studying Latin to Wida is that, even though classrooms study the Latin spoken from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D., the language spoken by the Catholic Church has remained current.

“There are words in Latin for virtually anything,” Wida said. “Today’s Latin speakers can discuss e-mail, computers and the Internet. First-year students can talk about clothing and jewelry. Students learn how to express their city’s name in Latin. It is possible to have a conversation in Latin about travel, for example, and talk about all sorts of geographical locations.”

Latin is a gateway language. To know Latin is to have an advantage in learning Italian, Spanish and French. “I wish more people understood that about Latin,” she said. “If instruction began as early as high school, students would be better prepared for English and the Romance languages. Students who learn Latin always come out saying ‘Wow, I finally understand grammar!’ Even today, a strong background in Latin can make Spanish and Italian readable with a good dictionary. In any case, the Latin speaker will learn these languages much more easily. Eighty percent of Romance language vocabulary is from Latin. However, for everyone to know Latin is also to better understand English.”

For instance, the popular understanding of “decimate” usually means to wipe out completely when its Latin root means one death in 10. Some don’t realize the word “annihilate” is based on the Latin word “nihil” which means “nothing.” “Mollify” is based on the Latin word “mollis” for “soft.” To mollify is to “make someone soft.” “Latin helps the speaker to understand English words never seen before,” she said. “Even though ultimately meaning is determined by usage, often to understand the source of a word is to better understand its underlying meaning. This allows us to use English more precisely.”

To read the classics in their original Latin is to have a conversation across time. “It’s very exciting to be able to look at a text from the first century and be able to read it in the original language,” Wida said. “The same is true for Medieval and Renaissance scholars. They often read documents that have never been translated. Latin offers a window into the past. As many know, much can be missed when we merely read translations rather than the original texts.”

Wida pointed to two of Rome’s best poets to underline Latin’s relevance. The Roman poet Virgil (70 B.C.-19 B.C.) was regarded by the Romans as their greatest poet, an estimation that subsequent generations have upheld. His fame rests upon “The Aeneid” which tells the story of Rome’s founder. “Reading ‘The Aeneid’ in Latin reveals a much richer work than in English,” said Wida. “The language is incredibly beautiful. Virgil’s ability to create word pictures is magnificent. As soon as I read him in Latin as an undergraduate, I understood why he is so popular after 2,000 years.”

First century Roman poet Catullus (84 B.C.-54 B.C.) continues to test the limits of free speech. There are 116 poems of his that survive and many of them, to put it mildly, are exceedingly coarse, “So coarse that squeamish English translators kept certain lines in Latin or translated into another language like French,” said Wida. “Poems in which Catullus addressed the great Julius Caesar are examples of these. These usually have to be read in the original to find out just how freely Catullus expressed his distaste for Caesar. When I read Catullus in translation, I am disappointed. But when I read him in the original Latin, I realize he is doing many things with repetition and word-play, for example, some of which doesn’t come across in translation.”

It’s a pleasure for Wida to hear Latin spoken whether it is in the doctor’s office or in the movies. She notes the ecclesiastical pronunciation by Roman guards in “The Passion of Christ” while listening carefully to a doctor who enjoys throwing a Latin term into their conversation. “The Pope pronounces Latin differently than I do because I use classical pronunciation and he speaks ecclesiastical Latin which is closer to Italian,” she said. “It’s always exciting to hear Latin used. I feel so lucky to teach something I enjoy so thoroughly. I really enjoy helping students to learn to love it the way I do. I want to help them understand how it can be useful to them.”

Wida earned her bachelor’s from Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Ind., her master’s from Penn State and her doctorate from UC Irvine in 2004.

Wida encourages faculty and staff to become better acquainted with Latin. “Latin has the potential to benefit everyone,” she said. “I have had students come to me and say their advisors told them not to take Latin because it is a dead language,” she said. “I would really like to eradicate this kind of thinking. (Eradicate—Latin eradicatus, past participle of eradicare or to uproot). Learning a language like Latin makes you more attuned to many other languages. You are better able to understand. It sharpens your thinking. In the end, Latin will benefit any student, whatever their major.”