Local News Archive
Print Issue: November 30, 1972
Rigor Mortis Is Settling In As Dead Language Declines
By Marie Mulvenna
Way back in the olden days there was scarcely a school child who did not face the inevitable struggle with Latin somewhere in his schooling career. Murmurings of Latin being a dead language were widespread among students but nonetheless the dead language appeared annually on the roster of required subjects. And the students annually plowed through reams of words, grammar and familiar phrases such as the famed Veni, vidi, vici.
Latin studies are still around, but are most definitely on the decline, as evidenced by recent surveys of Catholic schools throughout the country. Here in Atlanta, Latin still appears on the curriculum of both Marist High School and St. Pius, but has faded into the past of St. Josephs High School.
Father James Harnett, S.M., principal of Marist, replied with a laugh to the query: What is the status of Latin at Marist? His comment was: one foot on the banana peel and one in the grave.
A former Latin teacher himself, Father Hartnett explained that Marist still offers Latin to students as part of the two-year language requirement along with German, French and Spanish. Most of the students taking Latin, and they number about 35, are in their first and second year, Father Hartnett added, commenting that after the second year the Latin enrollment drops badly.
Kids just dont see it as practical because it isnt spoken, Father said, adding that students are quick to comment that there just arent any Romans walking around these days.
Father Hartnett personally feels the study of Latin is invaluable and serves as a basis for so many other languages, especially the romance languages. Its marvelous for training in precision thinking and you just cant beat the etymology for understanding of words.
Over at St. Pius, Sister Catherine said Latin is offered students, along with French and Spanish, to fulfill the two years of language required by the school. Sister explained that enrollment takes in over ten percent of the freshman class but drops to a grand total of only 17 students in junior and senior years.
Sister Catherine feels strongly that the study of Latin gives a good grasp of the English vocabulary and is invaluable in scientific terminology. Some parents agree, she adds, and have requested that it be continued as part of Pius scholastic program. Sister said she felt that part of the decline in the popularity of Latin studies might possibly be due to liturgical changes of recent years and the use of the vernacular in celebrating Mass.
For the first time in the history of St. Josephs High School, Latin is not being offered as part of the curriculum. Sister Elizabeth, dean of studies, explained that enrollment was poor last year four students and only one expressed a desire to choose it for a second year. It just wasnt feasible, economically, to have a teacher for only one student, Sister said. St. Josephs does offer French and Spanish, although no language studies are required of the students. We do encourage children who have intentions of going to college to take at least two years of a language, she added.
Sister stated that she felt students today prefer Romance languages over Latin, adding that a noteworthy point was the decline in colleges, requiring Latin for entrance. She personally feels it is an excellent basis for the study of English.
Whether Latin would ever be returned to St. Josephs program was uncertain, Sister commented.
The teaching of Latin seems to be at the lowest ebb ever in Catholic schools, said Brother Francis Markert, chairman of the Latin department at Cardinal Hayes High School in New York City. One of the main objections students present, Brother Markert said, is that it is not spoken, but he adds that students who take four years of modern languages cant hold everyday conversations in those languages either.
The value of Latin as an aid in studying English, a point mentioned by all the Atlanta school officials, was underlined by Paul Detro who teaches Latin at La Salle Academy in Providence, R.I. I cant imagine those who had Latin writing the sentences kids get away with today, said Dutro, who also is a teacher of English.
The status of Latin in Atlantas archdiocesan high schools is comparable to that of other Catholic high schools nationwide. Although many still require language studies for a prescribed period of years, many do not require that Latin per se be the object of their students attention. The result seems to be that fewer and fewer students are giving it much attention at all.
For generations of Catholic school students, fond memories of Latin conjugations will be lonely memories indeed, unshared by their offspring who can no longer recite the popular ditty of yesteryear:
Latin is a language
As dead as dead can be,
Its killed all those Romans,
And now its killing me.