In this day of computers, and the triumph of science and technology, when there is so much to learn and so little time, why study a dead language? Why not study something practical and useful? Like Spanish, for instance. While we agree the study of Spanish is a very good thing, what I propose to show you here is that there is no subject most useful, more practical, and more valuable than Latin.
Latin is the next step after phonics.
We all understand the importance of phonics, the systematic study of the English letters and their sounds. But phonics only covers half of our language, the English half, those good old concrete words that students learn to speak and read first. But then we stop, even though there is another half of English that has a whole new set of root words, spelling, and pronunciation patterns.
English, you see, is a hybrid language, a marriage of two languages—English and Latin. The name English comes from the Angles who, along with the Saxons and other barbarians, invaded Britain after the fall of Rome in the 5th century. English is a Germanic language and, the Germans being barbarians, had mostly concrete, common, everyday words, the words children learn to speak and read first in primary school.
But, beginning in 3rd grade, students start to encounter the Latin half of English. Latin words are bigger, harder, have more syllables, more abstract meanings, and different pronunciation and spelling patterns. How do we teach the Latin half of English in a systematic orderly way like we do phonics? We don’t. But we should. And the only truly systematic way to continue the study of the English language after phonics is to teach Latin—the foundation of the Latin half of English.
Half of our English vocabulary is made up of Latin words and roots.
mortal, immortal, mortality
morbid, morbidity, moribund
mortuary, mortician deaden
patriot, patriotic patriotism, compatriot, expatriate
Here’s the problem. The child has learned the English word for father, but then as he progresses through school he meets a whole new set of words: 3-5 syllable, difficult, abstract words that come from the Latin word for father, pater, patris (Figure 1). How do we prepare students for these words? We don’t. Do you know the meaning of paternalism, expatriate, and patronize?
Here’s another example (Figure 2): The young student has learned the English word for death, but how does that prepare him for these abstract words that come from the Latin word for death, mors, mortis? How do we teach these Latin words masquerading as English? We don’t.
Here are some Latin words that illustrate the Latin style of spelling and pronunciation:
DEM o cratdem o CRAT ic
de MOC ra cy
Look at the shifting accent on these three Latin words and the vowel o that changes its sound. In the first two words, the o has the schwa uhsound, but in the last word o is in the accented syllable, and you can now hear the short o sound. There is nothing like this in the English side of English.
By the way, one way to help students spell these Latin words where the interior vowel is muffled is to try another form of the word. If you can’t remember what the muffled vowel is in dem uh crat, you can hear that the vowel is o in de moc ra cy.
To present a present
To progress with good progress
To record a record
To rebel like a rebel
Look at these noun and verb combinations of Latin words (Figure 3). When present, progress, record, and rebel are verbs, the stress is on the root and the vowel in the first syllable is long. But when these same words function as nouns, the stress shifts to the prefix, and the vowel in the first syllable is short. In the English style of spelling, the vowel in an open syllable is always long, but in a Latin word it can be long or short. More than half of English words are Latin and observe spelling and pronunciation rules different from the English words students learn in primary school. Is this not one of the reasons for the failure of many of our students to advance beyond a 4th or 5th grade reading level? They are no longer reading English; they are reading Latin!
But there is more. There are many Latin words that come straight into English without any change, retaining their Latin endings and all.
Why is the plural of memorandum, memoranda; datum, data; appendix, appendices; matrix, matrices; synopsis, synopses? Why is a male graduate an alumnus and female graduate an alumna? The student who has learned Latin will never have to wonder at these strange endings. They are common plural endings in Latin (Figure 4).
You see, Latin is the next step after phonics. It continues the systematic study of English throughout elementary school, right when children need it, right when they are encountering thousands of new words and building their vocabulary and reading skills.
Students who study Latin develop an interest in words. They learn something they had never thought of before. Words don’t just drop out of the sky—they come from some place; words have a history, sometimes a very long and interesting history. Many words are world travelers, traveling from Greece to Rome to France to England. Words are fascinating.
So, Latin is the next step after phonics because it continues the study of the Latin half of English vocabulary in a systematic, orderly way. Skip the vocabulary courses. Learn Latin. It will teach your children the history of words, and happy is the man who knows the causes of things.
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.