Latin roots revisited – Seven Hills School brings classic language back to life
It’s been called a dead language, yet linguists keep finding ways to keep it alive by adding more words to the dictionary every year.
When spoken, it is often reserved for archaic phrases stamped to the backs of dollar bills, musty Shakespeare anthologies and the halls of our nation’s Capitol.
Anybody ever tell you what “e pluribus unum” actually means?
By the end of the year, Seven Hills Middle School eighth-grader Joanna Miller probably can tell you it means “from many, one,” a phrase used on the U.S. seal.
“(Latin) is a dead language,” she said. “We’re going to make it alive again.”
Not quite two generations ago, Latin was very much alive in classrooms. Stern chalk-stained schoolmarms were often required to teach the intricacies of the language – which provides many of our English words.
Today, Latin is stowed in the cobwebs of most teachers’ collective consciousness, next to the slide rules and typewriters.
Seven Hills Middle School is the only mainstream school in western Nevada County to offer any kind of Latin instruction, said Jane Edwards, the school librarian who teaches the class elective during the last period of the day.
This is not, Edwards points out, your grandmother’s Latin class.
Each of the 11 students in the class chooses a Latin name, and Edwards has updated the curriculum in a way that the students don’t spend the entire period translating the botanical names of every flower on campus.
Recently, the students held a Latin festival where they lounged on chairs eating grapes and extolling the virtues of the Roman lifestyle, much like Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s Latin-tinged play.
Last week, they recited a skit entirely in Latin and practiced a guessing game where they learned the Latin terms for the first 10 numbers.
Learning Latin helps students better understand their own language, said Edwards, an Englishwoman who studied the language of the gods from the seventh grade through her first two years of college.
The reasons for learning the language seem obvious to Edwards, whose Latin is affected with an English lilt.
“I think we’ve forgotten a lot of the building blocks of words that have a lot of value,” she said. To Edwards, Latin was logical and practical for her way of thinking.
“They didn’t jazz it up for us at all,” said Edwards, who taught Latin in a private school in Santa Monica before bringing her love of Latin to Seven Hills this year.
Latin is important, Edwards and her students are quick to point out. Nearly 60 percent of all English words are derived from Latin, and 90 percent of all English words with more than two syllables have Latin roots.
The students are like sponges, Edwards said, eager to pick up as much of the language as one hour a day will allow.
“I just wanted to learn something new,” said Katie Reis, 13, whose Latin name is Rea.
Learning Latin is proving to be easier than a different version of the language taught in joke books.
“I don’t even know how to do pig Latin in the first place,” Reis said.
Edwards is preparing the students for the National Latin Exam in the spring, a sort of advanced-placement exam for the archaic language.
These are all options, Edwards acknowledges. The students could be taking choir, band, or a bike-repair class during the last period of the day. Instead, they’re here, In a converted science classroom, where learning the genesis of words constitutes power.
“This isn’t spinach,” Edwards said. “I really want these kids to have something to show for all their hard work. To have access to a higher level of vocabulary is priceless.”
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