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.
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:
- Why Study Latin? An About.com page with links about the benefits of Latin study.
- Getting Started on Classical Latin: The Open University’s online course in basic Latin, with 10 hours of instruction.
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 (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.