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Opinion: Study Latin if you want to talk like a supervillain

If you can possibly get away with it, you should study Latin.

Okay, hear me out. Yes, any modern language offers more practical benefits than Latin. But Latin offers more fun. It has all the pleasures of a puzzle, a time capsule, and a secret code. You say dead language; I say ghost-hunting.

My favorite thing about Latin is that all of its native speakers are dead. You’ll never have to talk to them! This makes Latin the perfect subject for introverts. There’s no pressure to become conversationally fluent, and no Latin teacher will ever force you to turn to your classmate and have an awkward scripted conversation about your winter break.

In fact, Latin doesn’t even have the vocabulary for discussing your winter break — or anything else going on in your boring life. Unlike beginner Spanish or French — which teaches you to say, “I would like a salad” and “Where is the library?” — beginner Latin teaches you to talk like a supervillain. Wheelock’s Latin, the standard beginner textbook at the college level, teaches you how to say the following sentences:

“You are all to blame, and tomorrow you will pay the ultimate price.”

“Our army is great, and because of the number of our arrows, you shall not see the sky.”

“Human life is punishment.”

How can you not love a language that immerses you in this epic world of war and gods and gladiators, where every sentence is fraught with portent and someone is usually about to get murdered? My middle school Latin textbook had a passage about a barber — pretty tame, right? — a barber who accidentally cuts his customer’s throat. To this day, we all remember how to say multus sanguis fluit: “Much blood flows.”

That barber, by the way, was a real guy; he lived in Pompeii, as did all the characters in that textbook. Here are some other vocab words it taught us: volcano. To erupt. Ashes. To be in despair. Did I mention that all native Latin speakers are dead? Not only that, but many of them died horribly — buried alive in volcanic ash — which is why we know so much about them today. To study Latin is to engage with the dead.

True, you can’t talk to them directly — and thank the gods for that, because what would we talk about? Winter break?

But they have a way of getting into your head, with their beautiful useless words. No one speaks Latin anymore, no one needs Latin anymore…and yet here we are. Here I am, watching my favorite sitcom, mentally translating the dialogue — Noli, Deandra dulcis, meretrix ebria et pugnax esse! — and remembering that nothing is permanent. Not emperors. Not gods. Not even me.

So that’s how studying Latin will change your life. You might never get a chance to use what you’ve learned. But it will live in your memory forever. And in that sense — here’s the secret of Latin — it’s not really a dead language at all.

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