At last, it seems as if the cavalry is coming. For years, the subjunctive has been in hiding in the barren hills of What Once Was: unwanted, misunderstood and frequently passed over for the funkier, easier imperfect. But in just a few short months all that will change, because Latin may be coming back on to the school curriculum. And if anything can save the subjunctive, Latin can.
This is fantastically exciting news because Latin is a fabulous language. Sure, it’s a dead language and so you can’t (easily) use it to text your friends. But learning Latin is a bit like getting x-ray specs, because it shows you the infrastructure of so many things, not least the English language. It can also help you work out some of the answers on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, so it could win you a million quid.
I am always astounded by how little English-speaking people know of their own language. “It’s in the genitive, you know ’cause it denotes possession,” I explained to someone not so long ago. “The what?” they gasped.
The only reason I know anything at all about English is because I studied Latin, and French; and because English isn’t my first language, so I’ve always needed to approach it from the inside out. Because English grammar, even in the London-based convent school I attended, simply wasn’t taught to any great degree. Had I never studied Latin I would have left school never knowing that language is made up of wonderful stuff such as declensions, tenses, moods, cases. And I would never have driven boyfriends to the edge of homicide by saying smart-alec things such as “You didn’t ask if I could do so-and-so, you ordered me to; had you asked, you would have used the conditional instead of the imperative.”
Latin started becoming unfashionable in 1960, when it stopped being necessary to have a Latin O-level in order to get into the universities of Oxford or Cambridge. Just one year previously 60,000 children had sat their Latin O-level. But by the year 2000 there were fewer than 12,000 pupils taking Latin and only a third of those were at state schools.
The new way of teaching and learning Latin that the Department for Education and Skills is hoping will appeal to 11- to 14-year-olds, involves technology and DVDs which will support a good old-fashioned book: The Cambridge Latin Course. There will be a storytelling approach, with plots that are more contemporary than the tales of war and beasts with seven heads that we had to endure. There’s interaction and 360-degree virtual tours of Roman houses. So far, 25 schools have tried it and everybody loves it. Demand for Latin is at a canter; this new course has doubled the uptake of Latin in some of the schools that have tried it (although that may still only be in single figures). If it works out, Latin could soon be on every school curriculum.
It’s wonderful that pupils are warming to Latin, but it is a tough choice of subject, which is entirely as it should be. It doesn’t understand the 21st century, where everything has to be reduced to the lowest common denominator and be made easy-peasy, and I love it for this. It’s uncompromising and fierce. You can singalong to Rosa Rosa Rosam and make it sound jolly, but getting your head round the ablative absolute does hurt, no matter how much fun you try to make it.
But the real beauty of Latin is how you don’t even realise you’re learning anything of any relevance to everyday life until one glorious day when the world of language opens up to you (in this respect it’s like exercise: lots of slog, you think it’s not making any difference, then suddenly one day, wham, your trousers fit). It’s only when you’ve torn most of your hair out trying to get your head round the pluperfect that you suddenly realise the meaning of life is “had”.
I was just out of school when the “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” ad-line was launched. It jarred. Instead of the past subjunctive mood of the verb “to be”, ie: were, it used the imperfect: was. This misuse of the poor subjunctive has become so common as to be almost acceptable; I weep every time. So hurrah for Latin, at last, perhaps, we can all learn to speak English again.
Of all the articles I’ve ever written, this is one of my favourites. It shows that, despite being terrified of my Latin teacher, I did learn something. The subs were so terrified of interfering with this piece that it ran with an error, which I’ve left in. It’s easy to spot. I wrote it in two hours with my baby girl being rocked in her rocker chair at my feet. My wonderful mother was on standby in case her grand daughter woke. For me, this article embodies so much more than a mere collection of 800 odd words.