Whitefield Academy Blog

Latin and Greek: Why Study Them?

by | Feb 28, 2019 | Classical Christian, Education, Reading | 0 comments

Why do we study Latin and Ancient Greek?  As a classicist, I have been asked this question countless times, and I can rattle off the standard answers – studying Latin and Greek beefs up students’ English vocabulary and grammar, allows them to read some of the greatest literary works of Western civilization in their original languages, and immerses them in the cultures that brought us democracy, Plato, gladiators, and the arch.  Now, these are all great reasons to study languages that otherwise seem arcane, complicated, and, well, “dead,” but the value in devoting oneself to Latin and Greek – even at the secondary school level – extends far beyond such bullet points.

Getting Fancy

Are you ready to learn a fancy word?  Philology. What is this? Well, we probably recognize the first part (phil-) from words like “philosophy,” “Philadelphia,” and “Phillip.”  The Greek verb phileō means “to love,” and thus philosophy is the love of wisdom (sophia), Philadelphia the city where people love their brother (adelphos), and Phillip, in name only, someone who loves horses (hippos).  Returning to our word “philology,” the second part (-logy) may be familiar from the beginning of the Gospel of John where we read of Jesus, the Word (logos), made flesh (John 1:14).  Putting the two halves together, therefore, we find that philology is, literally, the “love of words.”  But philology is more than just getting excited when you recognize English derivatives of your favorite Latin adjectives (sagacious (sagax), anyone?).  Loosely put, this term refers to the practice of analyzing language.

Now, if you weren’t already enthralled by talk of Latin and Greek, linguistic analysis has probably not brought you to the edge of your seat, but bear with me.  Of course we analyze language somewhat routinely in a variety of disciplines – literature, philosophy, and rhetoric come first to mind – but Greek and Latin, with their copious forms and intricate syntax, are especially well-suited to wordplay.    

The Power of a Verb

Let me give a basic example.  Most of the stories we associate with early Roman history – Romulus and Remus, for example – come from an author named Livy (Titus Livius, 59 B.C. – 17 A.D.).  My personal favorite is his telling of the sufferings of Lucretia, the virtuous wife of a Roman military captain. Poor Lucretia catches the eye of one Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the foul Roman king Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquin the Arrogant”), and one night while Lucretia’s husband is away, Sextus Tarquinius comes for a visit and ruthlessly rapes her.  The next day she discloses this horror to her husband and a few others and subsequently plunges a knife into her chest.

A revolution against Rome’s monarchy is thus begun, with Lucretia’s corpse the movement’s rallying symbol.  And as the revolution gathers momentum and congregates in the center of the city, something happens to Livy’s verbs.  Agency disappears. We learn that the crowd of revolutionaries runs into the forum, but what Livy actually writes is “It is run into the forum,” choosing to use an impersonal verb form (curritur) – one with no subject other than just “it” (and yes, Latin can do this in a single word).  Similarly, “a speech is given” (oratio habita) and, after Lucretia’s rape at the hands of the king’s son is related, “the arrogance of the king himself is added in” (addita superbia ipsius regis).  Notice that we are not told who runs into the forum or makes the speech, because at this point in the narrative, it doesn’t matter.  In fact this is actually the point – the story is no longer about Lucretia or any other identifiable person, but rather the faceless revolution that has subsumed Rome and is on the verge of establishing the Roman Republic.  The content of the narrative expresses certainly this, but so too do Livy’s intentionally agent-less verbs.

What’s the Use in the Real World?

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “This is all fine and well as an academic exercise, but how can philology help us outside the Latin and Greek classroom?”  For starters, those who wish to study God’s word more deeply and choose to attend seminary will find that proper interpretation of Scripture requires a proper interpretation of an author’s words – in their original language, ideally.  Features such as style and idiom – both of which must be accounted for in interpretation – cannot be captured fully in an English translation, so scholars of the Bible must be able to analyze and draw conclusions directly from the Greek or Hebrew text.  

But for those of us who aren’t called to be Bible scholars or professional classicists, how does scrutinizing Vergil’s grammar or Homer’s word choice help us?  Quite simply, it forces us to think – actually think – about what we say and how we say it.  Returning to our example from Livy above, we can start paying attention to when and how we ascribe agency in our communication, and in addition, the potential implications of this decision.  “The toast got burned” would feel far less like an accusation to my husband, Kyle, on a stressful morning than “Kyle burned the toast,” or even “the toast was burned by Kyle.”

Choosing Our Words

As Christians, we are called to guard our speech (e.g., James 3) because words matter.  We must say what we mean and mean what we say, considering not only the what but the how.  The subtleties of language, sadly neglected by society at large these days, require prudent stewardship from us just as much as do our finances, time, and other resources.  And so slogging (or should I say frolicking?) through complex Latin and Greek syntax in search of vestiges of authorial intent may not be a joyride for everyone, but trained in this fashion, we could all find ourselves more keenly aware of our own use of language, and thus more careful and intentional communicators.  Words matter, and so philology matters. Let us choose our words wisely.


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