Writer's tool kit

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Did you know that Harry Potter knows Latin? Think of his spells - gems like "Finite incantatem", "a charm to stop all other charms currently functioning", and a dozen or so more of like ilk. You can find them on the website of the USA's National Committee for Latin and Greek (www.promotelatin.orglatin.htm).

The same website presents an impressive array of reasons for studying Latin, not least the argument that it makes you good at writing English.

Here it is: Latin Develops a person's English. A person's reading, writing and speaking of his own language are improved. His vocabulary is enriched, his grammar is sharpened, and a sense of organisation is instilled in him.

So Latin is good for your vocabulary, your grammar and your sense of organisation. You may have heard this argument before. You may even have used it yourself. But how good is it? Suppose pupils came to their English lessons with a thorough knowledge of Latin vocabulary and grammar; the English teacher's job would be a great deal easier. This is surely beyond dispute. Let's look at the three arguments for Latin.

Latin is certainly good for learning the English vocabulary that key stage 3 pupils have to soak up by the bucket-full - words like "accommodation", "definition" and "conscience", all Latin (and all commonly misspelt).

Anyone who can spot the Latin commodus ("conforming to measure") in "accommodation" knows why there must be two c's; and the m's are obvious once you've seen "com" and "modus".

Equally a good understanding of Latin grammar is a great help with English.

If you can find the subject and object in a Latin sentence, English is a piece of cake.

The "sense of organisation" is a likely by-product of a traditional grounding in Latin. If you're looking for a well-organised subject, Latin is definitely for you.

So is compulsory Latin the answer to the English teacher's prayers? We don't think it is. In fact, we think the arguments are downright silly. Of course Latin is good for your English - once you know it. But it takes years to reach that level of mastery, and during those years you spend a great deal of time learning things that are no help at all to English - a lot of vocabulary, and most of the grammatical details.

By far the best way into English vocabulary and grammar is through English, not Latin. You want to understand "accommodation"? Think of other English words like "access", "commodity" and "foundation". You want to recognise subjects and objects? Pay attention to word order and remember the formula subject-verb-object (SVO).

And what good is a thorough grasp of English grammar? Well, for one thing it can help as you learn Latin (or French, or Spanish)!

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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