“Why would you study Latin? Nobody actually speaks it anymore.” “Can’t you just read the Iliad in translation?” “Wait, is Coptic a language? I’ve never even heard of it!” By now, I’m used to these questions. A lot of people don’t see the point or the appeal of studying classics, but I love ancient languages and cultures. I started out studying Latin and ancient history and later added Ancient Greek. I’ve tried Akkadian (an ancient Mesopotamian language from present-day Iraq and Syria) and biblical Hebrew, and I’m taking an intensive Coptic course this summer (that’s a language from Christian Egypt that draws from both Greek and earlier Egyptian roots). When I try to explain how much fun it is to be able to read literature in the original or figure out grammatical puzzles, there’s still the standard objection: “Maybe it’s fun…but you have to admit it’s pretty useless.”
Is it? In my experience, classics can actually be extremely useful in the 21st century. The study of ancient languages, cultures, and history isn’t just fascinating, it also provides an excellent foundation in all kinds of areas, from literature to science to politics.
If you’ve ever taken the SAT, you probably know the feeling of looking at a vocabulary question and realizing that you’ve never even heard some of the words in the sentence. But because so much of English—and many other Western languages—is derived from classical roots, knowledge of Latin or Greek will get you a long way. What’s a psychosomatic condition? You don’t have to be a doctor to figure out that based on the Greek roots psyche (mind or soul) and soma (body), so the word refers to physical symptoms caused or aggravated by mental factors like stress or anxiety. While my classmates in biology sometimes struggle to memorize long vocabulary lists, I just make notes of classical roots in the margin to help me remember terms like pseudopodia or phagocytosis.
Classical ideas also form the basis for many aspects of our modern society. Democracy originated in ancient Athens. Doctors still swear the Hippocratic oath. And the modern creed of “YOLO” is just an echo of the classical “carpe diem.” In fact, classics influences almost every area of modern life. Our money bears Latin inscriptions; buildings like the White House and the British Museum are inspired by ancient architecture; and every time you visit a college campus or go to a gymnasium, you’re using a classical word.
The study of classics is clearly still important in the modern world. But why should you learn ancient languages? You don’t need to know Latin to understand Roman architecture. Still, even though they’re no longer spoken and might seem irrelevant today, studying classical languages teaches you to think logically and solve problems. Whereas in English, the order of words in a sentence is essential to the meaning, Greek and Latin work differently. The ending of each word changes to signal its role in a sentence. Learning to decipher a sentence that could have the words in almost any order, with several different categories of words that all decline or conjugate in a different way, while navigating confusing grammatical features like the ablative absolute or passive verbs, is an excellent exercise in logic and reasoning.
And, of course, studying classical languages also gives you access to a huge amount of wonderful literature that just isn’t the same in translation. Of course, you can read the Aeneid or the Iliad in English and appreciate and enjoy it, but you miss a lot of details of the poetic language that don’t translate. When you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the original Latin, you notice all kinds of stylistic effects that can’t be conveyed in English—changing the word order to reflect the meaning or using onomatopoeia to create a particular effect. It would be a shame to miss out on the literature of the ancient world just because you couldn’t read it. Reading ancient authors can also teach you a lot of skills that are still useful now. If you read the speeches of Roman orators, you might find that their rhetoric isn’t far from the style of a campaign speech you would hear today.
So why bother studying classics? Learning about the civilizations that our modern world came from allows you to better understand our own language and culture. The skills developed by studying ancient languages can be applied in all kinds of areas. And, of course, classics isn’t just hugely useful—it’s also one of the most fascinating and fun areas to study!