Posted by: N.S. Palmer | April 22, 2011

Latin Is Easy, But Not That Easy

Earlier this evening, I was reading Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell.

It’s one of my favorite popular books about the history of mathematics. It discusses both the lives of great mathematicians* and their major discoveries. Some of the discoveries are pretty abstract, but the book does a good job of explaining them in simple terms. And Bell isn’t shy about saying when he thinks that someone acted like an ass or an idiot. With a little effort, almost anyone can understand and enjoy the book.

However, in his chapter about Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), Bell wrote:

Instead of the easy Latin which sufficed for Euler and Gauss, and which any student can master in a few weeks, scientific workers must now acquire a reading knowledge of two or three languages in addition to their own.

As a boy, I had two years of Latin study. I enjoyed them immensely, both because Latin is fun and because I had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Shaugnessy. He tricked us into thinking that we were goofing around when we were actually learning Latin. Sneaky devil. Because it was a boys’ school, he could (and did) spice up exams with dirty jokes in Latin that we were supposed to translate. Sadly, he was also a chain smoker. Lung cancer. All his students remember him and benefited from having him as a teacher.

My Latin textbook

The textbook we used in Mr. Shaugnessy’s class. Yes, I’ve still got it.

I never really understood English until I took Latin. It showed me how all European languages work, since all European languages are either derived from or influenced by Latin. It even gave me a conceptual framework to understand non-European languages such as Russian, Hebrew, and Hindi.

Hindi, by the way, is one of the official languages of India and has surprising similarities to English. Both English and Hindi are Indo-European languages derived from the same ancient language group. In spite of the geographic distance between New York and Mumbai, their official languages are related.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of Latin. But Latin that “any student can master in a few weeks?” That strikes me as one of the most optimistic characterizations of Latin that I’ve ever heard.

Yes, Latin is logical. Yes, almost any student can learn the noun declensions, verb conjugations, and a working vocabulary in a few weeks. But that’s just to read a little Latin, not to write in it. And it’s hardly “mastering” Latin. Euler, Gauss, Newton, and their contemporaries wrote in Latin, which is much more difficult than simply reading it.

Either Bell has a very liberal concept of what constitutes mastery, or he’s referring to a subset of Latin that people of Gauss’s time used for their scientific writing. I suspect that it’s the latter.

I also suspect that Bell was a trifle optimistic about how many languages the average scientific worker can read. Most U.S. doctoral programs require their students to pass a reading proficiency exam in one foreign language relevant to their field. A few years later, very few American graduates can still read the foreign language in which they took the exam, let alone any other foreign language. The percentages are higher in Europe, of course, where many people at all educational levels are multi-lingual. And around the world, English has replaced Latin and French as the lingua franca of science and commerce: lots of people know English as their second language.

Nevertheless, Latin remains a wonderful foundation for understanding all other languages. It’s also a gateway to reading a lot of classical literature. One of the best texts, for study on your own or in a class, is Wheelock’s Latin, now in its sixth edition. Other resources for learning about Latin are:

Have fun, and don’t expect to master Latin in a few weeks. You can get a good working knowledge of Latin in that short a time, however.

  • Women mathematicians, too, in spite of the book’s title. I received an indignant email about the sexist title from my niece, who graduates from college next month and is quite good at mathematics.

Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.



  1. I took a year of Latin in high school. It was fun.

    I also used to have a copy of Bell. It didn’t survive my divorce, but for a long time it was a favorite possession.

    • The great thing about Latin is that it’s so clear and logical. Because it’s a “dead” language, it hasn’t accumulated as many irregularities and exceptions as our modern languages. Also, of course, our modern European languages are based on Latin. If we understand Latin, we understand better how our own languages are structured.

      And that’s not even considering the cultural and historical significance of Latin. Caesar. Thomas Aquinas. Most scientific works before about the 18th century. I can’t just pick up a book in Latin and read it, but if I see a quote in Latin, I can usually work it out.

  2. I took a year of Latin in high school and had a blast. We used the Cambridge Latin Course and to this day I still think of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus as a friend. 🙂 Last year I actually tracked down a hardcover copy of the first unit and I’m so happy to have it again (same illustrations and all).

    We moved half way through high school and my new school didn’t offer Latin. I was surprised to find out how rare that was, and I felt grateful that I’d had at least a year. I tried studying Latin in first year university but somehow it just wasn’t the same. It was just a drag, and I admit, I dropped it. Maturity issues, I think… today I’d have totally stuck it out.

    Ah, well. Vita puta est, exinde peris.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: