by Brett Vaden
In a recent blog post, Simon Horobin (Magdalen College, Oxford) asserts that learning Latin in order to grasp English is a misguided idea.
Horobin gives an example from Wells Egelsham’s A Short Sketch of English Grammar (1780), where Egelsham attempts to decline the noun “lord” according to the Latin case system:
The problem with doing so, says Horobin, is that, “Where Latin nouns have different endings for these various cases, English makes no distinction between the nominative, accusative, dative, vocative, and ablative cases.” To apply the Latin case system to English without any distinction between the two languages is, at best, a flat-footed approach.
Horobin goes on to critique the claim of grammarians like H. W. Fowler, whose “linguistic prescriptions are soaked through with edicts from Latin grammar.” For example, whereas the construction “It is me” easily rolls off many an English speaker’s tongue, Fowler prescribes the Latinate form, “It is I.” Horobin jibes, “Fowler’s prescription continues to find loyal adherents today (if you are one —try saying it out loud).”
The virtue in Horobin’s treatment is his defense of English qua English: the beauties and features of English are not simply hand-me-downs from Latin. Horobin’s contention is that we do injustice to English by attempting to abstract it from its unique linguistic, or philological, attributes. There are spells woven in the words of English that, by their rhythm and sound, work an enchantment all their own.
J.R.R. Tolkien experienced this enchantment, being drawn away from his study of Classics to languages closer to home: Old Norse, Finnish, Gothic, and Old and Middle English. He confessed that, as a boy, he had studied Anglo-Saxon when he was “supposed to be learning Greek and Latin” (Letters, 381).
With Horobin (and Tolkien), we can affirm the value of studying English in its own right. Yet there remains a glaring flaw in Horobin’s logic that demands correction. His mistake is to infer that because English and Latin are different languages, understanding Latin would have no bearing on understanding English. On the contrary, one of the best ways for children to learn English grammar is to learn Latin grammar. Let me give three reasons (for a fuller treatment of each reason, go here).
First, studying grammar in a foreign language forces students to analyze words and discern how they fit together. In my own case, I didn’t really grasp grammar until high school, when I took my first foreign language class (which happened to be Latin).
Second, studying grammar in a foreign language that uses noun and verb endings (e.g., Latin, German, Greek) is particularly helpful, because, unlike English, the grammar of such inflected languages stares you in the face. In English, discerning a word’s function in a sentence is difficult, because there’s nothing about the word’s spelling that tells you whether it’s the subject, verb, direct object, or something else. In inflected languages, however, the function of the word is readily apparent because of its ending.
Third, studying grammar in Latin is especially convenient, because its rules are highly regular. While the principle stated in the first reason above holds for any language, not all languages are equal when it comes to their regularity and order. Latin is, in this way, similar to Geometry and Algebra: complex, yet systematic and logical.
Finally, let’s be clear that what we’re really talking about is something deeper and more important than either Latin or English. Learning grammar is about learning how to interpret what others say, or how to discern meaning in words, as well as how to successfully form and express one’s own mind to others. These are the most important reasons to know grammar and to follow its rules. No matter how we approach English, we can find grammar in any language. The question is, then, What’s the best way to learn grammar? Learn it in a way that will force you to grapple with it (in a foreign language), learn it in the most concrete language you can (an inflected language), and learn it in the most regular language you can (Latin).