The allure of Latin, the glory of Greek

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Beautiful WSJ OpED (6/22/23) by Gerard Gayou, a seminarian of the archdiocese of Washington, who is studying theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome:

The Guiding Light of Latin Grammar

The language reminds us of what our words mean and of whom we’re called to be.


Nothing bored me more during the summer of 2008 than the prospect of studying Latin grammar. I needed a foreign language as part of my high-school curriculum, and I was loath to choose a dead one. I opted instead for Mandarin Chinese, an adolescent whim that shaped my young adult life. I continued to learn Mandarin in college before working in mainland China after graduation.

God, however, often works in mysterious ways. I was shocked when, a decade after escaping high-school Latin, I was memorizing verb paradigms in a Latin course at the Catholic University of America. I had just entered seminary to become a Catholic priest, for which Latin study is mandatory. I sympathized with the prophet Jonah, swallowed by a fish after fleeing God’s will for a faraway land. “Man proposes but God disposes,” as Thomas à Kempis writes in “The Imitation of Christ.” But four years later, my reluctant foray into ancient languages has been formative and even exhilarating.

I thought Latin would be easy after Mandarin, which is tonal and doesn’t have an alphabet. But Latin speakers, like those of modern Romance languages, conjugate their verbs, which is a stark change for students of Mandarin. Chinese verbs have no tenses. Whether I eat, you ate, or we will eat pork dumplings, the verb chi—to eat—remains the same. Only context and particles clarify the tense. A Latin verb’s concise expression of time and subject contributes to tight, crisp phrases.

From the start, the precision of Latin impressed me. The language has no articles, which makes for concise sentences, and its nouns decline. Different endings imply different syntactical function. Deus, for example, becomes Deum when it serves as a direct object. If you don’t know the difference, you may read St. John’s “No one has ever seen God” as “God has never seen anyone.” There is no good theology without good grammar.

Before studying Latin, I considered myself a diligent student. But Latin taught me what being diligent means. The English adjective derives from the Latin verb diligo, meaning “to love” or “to hold dear.” The diligent student, then, is the loving student, motivated by regard for the truth, for learning, or perhaps for the professor who instructs him. Latin reminds us not only of what our words mean but also of whom we are called to be. Diligence is a far higher—and happier—standard than good test scores or job prospects.

Last year I began studying Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. I am edified—or “built up,” from the Latin verb aedificare—by the Greek word aletheia, which means truth. Etymologically, the noun means “that which is not hidden.” A state of concealment is inimical to truth. Many people today worry that our society no longer accepts an objective truth about anything, but this Greek wisdom offers hope: If truth exists, it will be revealed in one way or another.

Greek’s sophisticated verb system is well-suited for revealed religion. There are several tenses that describe a past action in Greek, but only the perfect tense specifies a completed action that has effects up to the present moment. In his first letter to the Corinthians, for example, St. Paul uses the perfect tense to write that Jesus was “raised” from the dead. This grammar implies that Christ’s resurrection isn’t merely a completed past action but one whose effects are still relevant to modern readers.

I couldn’t understand why my high-school classmates fled the modern world to lose themselves in Latin, let alone Koine Greek. But in our day questions still burn about who we are and where we are called. These languages offer us fresh yet ancient answers. As the declensions of a crisp Latin sentence guide a reader to its end, the wisdom of the ancients orients us to ours.

My experience is exactly the opposite of Mr. Gayou's.  Even though I went to a small, rural high school, we were fortunate enough to have Latin, which I enrolled in with great delight because of my love for etymology since elementary school and my passion for history.  It was only two years after I graduated from college that I was persuaded by five old, white men to study Oriental languages.  If anyone is interested, I'll tell that story in a separate post.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 10:07 am

    I am puzzled by the invocation of St. John when distinguishing Deum from Deus. There is no reason to believe St. John knew any Latin at all. What St. John actually wrote was "Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε," which indeed makes the same point – via the inflected ending you can tell that the first word in the clause (marked as accusative singular) is the direct object of the verb. Being able to correctly parse the conventional Latin translation of this ("Deum nemo vidit umquam") is in the abstract neither a greater nor lesser accomplishment than being able to correctly parse a Mandarin translation of it or a translation into any of the many many other languages into which St. John's Gospel has been translated. (Obviously there is a quite substantial body of subsequent Christian writing in Latin that includes quotes from or allusions to that Gospel in Latin translation, which may be a relevant difference.)

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 10:44 am

    "If anyone is interested, I'll tell that story in a separate post" — this insignificant person is most definitely interested, Victor …

  3. Scott P. said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 11:07 am

    I am puzzled by the invocation of St. John when distinguishing Deum from Deus.

    I presume, as a Catholic, he is reading the Vulgate.

  4. Elizabeth Barber said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 11:17 am

    I loved my 4 years of Latin in high school. But when I started Greek in college, I never went back to Latin! On the other hand, any self-respecting verb in Ancient Greek had 490 forms. That was a pain… :))

  5. mg said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 11:45 am

    "It was only two years after I graduated from college that I was persuaded by five old, white men to study Oriental languages. If anyone is interested, I'll tell that story in a separate post."

    I'm interested!

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 12:41 pm

    @Taylor, Philip

    Thank you for your interest. I will tell the story sometime this weekend.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 1:04 pm

    @Scott P.: The Vatican put the kibosh on Vulgatolatry approximately a half-century before this young man was born. Obviously if you're learning Latin for specifically religious motivations, the Vulgate should be among the texts you read. But it's nice (if perhaps an endangered luxury good …) that they're making him learn to read Greek as well.

  8. Martin said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 3:44 pm

    It's a little odd to get excited, as (presumably) a native speaker of English, about a language that has a perfect tense in which you can describe completed actions in the past that are relevant to the present…

  9. Charles Mills said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 4:42 pm

    The Nova Vulgata Bibliorum Sanctorum promulgated by the Vatican in 1979 is much closer to Saint Jerome's Vulgate than the Translations of parts of the Bible into Latin made during the pontificate of Pius XII. Latin can legitimately be described as a "dead" language in the sense that the modern languages closest to it, Spanish and Italian, were separated from it shortly after the dawn of the Second Millennium. but it is also a living language in the sense that important documents of important doctrinal significance are frequently still in Latin, even well after Vatican II competitive exams for positions on the chapters of Spanish cathedrals could be taken in Latin, many diplomas are still in Latin, the Vatican dictionary of new Latin words is fairly recent, at least one student organization at Yale still requires one of its officers to deliver a speech in Latin annually, and there are still summer courses in conversational Latin. In my course in Latin Prose Composition in college one of my grammatical structures that i had used in my high school translations into Latin, was described by my professor as being significantly more modern than the golden age of Latin literature. Latin may die, but it will be a loss if it does.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 9:01 pm

    From Lucas Christopoulos:

    Thomas Jefferson and the Classics. Louis B. Wright. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery (Read by Dr. Frank Aydelotte, April 22, 1943)

    In the history of learning in America, Thomas Jefferson is a transitional figure. He marks the culmination of a great tradition of classical culture, a culture re-discovered in the Renaissance and transmitted with its Renaissance interpretations to fresh soil in colonial Virginia and New England. He also saw the beginning of a new era in which scientific and “practical” subjects would displace the classics and gain the ascendancy in the schools. Indeed, as everyone knows, Jefferson himself was a pioneer in this new era of education, though he would have sat in sack-cloth and ashes had he dreamed that one day, his beloved Latin and Greek would almost disappear, not only from the University that he created, but from the very consciousness of men through the land. Necessary as were the practical subjects which he advocated, he would have regarded the elimination of the classics as irreparable loss to a republic that depend for survival upon the intelligence of its electorate and the wisdom and integrity of its leaders. The fact that Jefferson, like the men of the Renaissance considered the study of Greek and Roman literature as eminently practical preparation for intelligent living. The classics provided, not merely ornament and delight, but useful guidance in the affairs of daily life. The accumulated wisdom of the ancients was particularly valuable in the training of the aristoi, the aristocracy of intelligence, to whom Jefferson looked for democratic leadership

  11. Chips Mackinolty said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 9:11 pm

    As a 12 year old from Australia, the comprehensive school I attended had Latin as a compulsory subject–back in those days you had to have the language as a prerequisite for Oxford and Cambridge. I unexpectedly enjoyed it: it was useful on our continental trips to Italy, Spain and France. In the 60-odd years since then I ave continued (mostly unconsciously) to hearken back to those two and a half terms of of compulsory Latin!!

  12. Jenny Chu said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 10:51 pm

    Another vote for the story of the five old white men who convinced you, Prof. Mair!

  13. John Swindle said,

    June 24, 2023 @ 6:53 am

    In junior high school in mid-America in the early 1960s Latin was optional. You could start at age 14 or, if you passed an Esperanto-based aptitude test, a year earlier at 13. Latin was to help you learn to think. Unlike modern languages, it was based on rules. Not knowing otherwise, I accepted that Latin was based on rules, rejected the part about learning to think (why in Latin, particularly?), and found that it was fun to learn languages.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 24, 2023 @ 10:24 am

    My personal language-learning sequence was the other way around: "Oriental" first and "classical" later, insofar as I had formal classroom instruction in Japanese starting in third grade but did not start Latin until eleventh grade, after having first started German in ninth grade, and then did not start ancient Greek until sophomore year of college.

    Admittedly, this sequence is probably less unusual for the small percentage of Americans of my generation who did part of their elementary school years at the American School in Japan. Indeed, as I understand it it was a condition of the school being permitted by the Japanese bureaucratic authorities to use English as its primary language of instruction that all students at least pro forma got one period a day of instruction in Japanese. But early exposure to a non-IE language with radically different syntax and phonotactics, not to mention multiple exotic writing systems, was a great boon.

  15. Tom Dawkes said,

    June 24, 2023 @ 3:15 pm

    As a student of Latin and Greek in the 1960s I have never regretted learning these languages, but I have always looked askance at the arguments that "Latin is more logical" or "Latin teaches you to think". Latin morphology is in many ways a nightmare: what inflection marks the dative case, for example, or the 1st person singular? And why are there so many variants in forming the past tense? Which, of course, conflates the simple past "I spoke" and the present perfect "I have spoken. And no classical IE language makes the eminently useful distinction between inclusive and exclusive 1st person plural made in Dravidian and Philippines languages, or the really valuable distinctive made in Algonquian languages with proximate and obviate 3rd persons. Let's have less Latinolatry – and I speak as someone who loves the Latin hymns, particularly Thomas Aquinas's, that I learnt as a teenager

  16. John Chew said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 8:27 pm

    When I finished my high school Greek curriculum ahead of my teacher's (the late, great Harry C. Maynard) plans, he asked me what I would like to read. He nixed my first suggestion (Euclid's Elements) as being too technical to maintain his interest; and I think when I then proposed the New Testament for its cultural significance, that was the only time I ever disappointed him. "Koine is boring – it's dumbed down for non-native speakers. Are you sure you don't want to read some Aeschylus?" I promised to keep reading the great dramatists in university (and did), and do not regret studying the New Testament with him, although I did end up agreeing with his assessment.

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