Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The University of Montreal’s Patrick Letendre says Latin is popular now because high schools no longer offer it.
The University of Montreal’s Patrick Letendre says Latin is popular now because high schools no longer offer it.

Postsecondary education

Cogito, ergo Latin Add to ...

For students of a dead language, the undergrads in Initiation to Latin are a remarkably lively bunch.

They chat animatedly at the start of class before grabbing pens and laptops and turning to the teacher's lesson on the ablative, nominative and genitive. These first-year University of Montreal students are a small but emerging breed that had been given up for extinct on Canadian campuses: Latin lovers.

The Latin language may be dead, but rigor mortis has yet to set in. The language of Julius Caesar is finding renewed life among members of the Twitter generation, who are helping shake off Latin's long association with tweedy scholars and soporific high-school classes.

As a result, Latin is enjoying a marked, if modest, revival.

Enrolment in college- and university-level Latin is up across the country, according to the Classical Association of Canada.

The University of Montreal's introductory Latin class was so popular last year that students had to be turned away, and this year, enrolment swelled to 60.

York University, which doubled its number of introductory Latin courses a few years ago, is starting a course next year to train high-school Latin teachers.

Educators say the ancient language is getting a boost from glamorous modern allies - Hollywood blockbusters such as Gladiator and Troy, and the popular HBO television series Rome. (That Angelina Jolie has a Latin tattoo below her navel doesn't hurt).

"Latin is a bit sexy now, after the movies and TV series," says Prof. Jonathan Edmondson, chairman of the history department at York University and president of the Classical Association of Canada. "It has shed its slightly fusty image. And there's an awareness now that there are different ways of presenting Latin that are more interesting than it used to be."

In fact, the students at the University of Montreal grew up without the memories of rote repetitions of amo, amas, amat. Latin has vanished from Quebec's high-school curriculum. Once a staple of the province's collèges classiques, the church-run schools that groomed the province's elite, Latin was jettisoned during educational reforms in the 1960s.

Today, it survives in a handful of schools, almost all of them private.

"Quebeckers have a love-hate relationship with Latin," said Prof. Patrick Baker, director of Laval University's Institute of Ancient Studies.

"Latin was associated with men walking around with Roman collars and black robes," Prof. Baker said. "It was the language of the church, and the people of Quebec turned their backs on the church." But by abandoning Latin, he said, "Quebeckers threw out the baby with the bathwater."

Educators say Latin offers not only a strong base for Romance languages like French, but also a key to Quebec's past. The first history of Canada, the Historia canadensis, was written in 1664 in Latin, as were seminal Jesuit texts.

"When we lost Latin, we lost a very powerful link with Quebec's roots," said Jean-François Cottier, a Latin professor at the University of Montreal who has received a federal research grant to study Quebec's Latin heritage. "It's a piece of Quebec's own memory. And if you forget your roots, it's very sad."

Ontario high schools have seen an increase in Latin enrolment, according to the classical association. Yet high schools in Quebec say parents are more interested in getting their children into Chinese or Spanish classes.

Patrick Letendre, who teaches the Initiation to Latin course at the University of Montreal, said some students tell him they enrolled because they never got to take the subject as teenagers. "They never had a chance to study it in high school, so they're catching up. They feel they missed out."

True, several of the students who filed into Mr. Letendre's class say their choice of Latin confounded their friends. But the students said Latin not only helps their language skills, it also helps them understand the foundations of Western civilization. And it adds a certain cachet to a résumé.

"Some people say it's useless," said Nicholas Goudreau, an anthropology and classical studies undergraduate. "But I find it fascinating. And I know it will help me."

So Latin may or may not be cool, per se, in the digital age. But as any smart Roman knew, it helps to have a good curriculum vitae.

******

NEW WORDS, OLD LANGUAGE

The Vatican publishes a Latin dictionary, the Lexicon recentis Latinitatis, that offers translations for words that weren't in circulation when Julius Caesar was around. Entries include:

Barman

tabernae potoriae minister

Blue jeans

bracae linteae caeruleae

Cigarette

fistula nicotiana

Computer

instrumentum computatorium

Gang

praedatoria manus

Gas

gasium

Karate

oppugnatio inermis Iaponica

Merlot

vinum rubrum Burdigalense

Miniskirt

tunicula minima

Pizza

placenta compressa

Skyscraper

caeliscalpium

Taxi

autocinetum meritorium

Terrorist

tromocrates

Source: Lexicon recentis Latinitatis (Dictionary of Recent Latin)

Follow on Twitter: @iperitz

 

Top stories

Most popular video »

Highlights

Most Popular Stories