Unlike my parents and grandparents, I never had the option of studying Latin while in high school.
Mind you, the decidedly uninspired worth ethic I demonstrated in my teens perhaps ensured that I wouldn’t have taken Latin had it been offered, but the fact that California’s public school system was well in the crapper by the time I was enrolled in high school in 1980 made it a non issue.
Indeed, the Language of the Caesars was considered passé by the lightweights who had taken control of the Golden State’s education system beginning in the 1960s.
Instead, I squeaked my way through a couple of years of French – which in no way prepared me for the two years of college French that was required for me to graduate.
Years later I regret not having studied at least a smattering of Latin at some point in my schooling.
To be able to read Cicero, Cato or Tacitus in the original would have given me the chance to view their world through a wholly different lens, rather than one distorted, even unintentionally, by translation.
Fortunately, after a decline of several decades the study of Latin is increasing in popularity once again. Perhaps, common sense is returning to a segment of the education community, and the greatness of literary giants of past millennia are again being recognized on a wider basis.
Latin may not be for everybody but as Cicero once stated, “Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”
(Above: Cartoon from The New Yorker and likely the only time the words “mani” or “pedi” will ever appear in this blog.)
Imagine your native language has but a few fluent speakers. An even dozen, to be exact, and none under the age of 70.
That’s the situation sisters Glenna Slater and Octa Keen of Macy, Neb., find themselves in.
The pair is among the few certified to teach the language of the Omaha Indian tribe, called Umónhon. They keep a tally of people who still speak their language.
That list is now on a single leaf of notebook paper, complete with names that have been crossed out, representing speakers who have died, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
“The sisters fear a day may come when the last name is scratched out,” according to the publication.
“It just tears part of your heart out,” Keen said, “because you know it’s never coming back.”
Umónhon is among approximately 2,000 languages around the globe that are classified as “severely endangered,” according to the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages.
The French language has long been held sacred in France, which has led hard feelings among groups within the country whose first tongue is something other than the lingua franca.
France is home to more than 2 million individuals who speak regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton and Corsican, but the French government has refused to change its constitution, which states that “the language of the Republic is French.”
So while France actually signed the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages – adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe – the French government has never ratified it.
As a result, the nation’s regional languages have failed to receive support required by the charter.
In fact, the policies of the Paris government have had the deliberate effect of greatly weakening the prevalence of native languages in France that are not “French.”
The second-class status afford languages other than French has not set well in regions where regional tongues are still prevalent, such as Brittany, the Basque country and Corsica.
It’s estimated that half the world’s 6,000-plus languages are in danger of disappearing.
Many have become victims of progress and development that has aligned speakers of endangered tongues with a more dominant culture that relies on a handful of principal languages, such as English, Russian or Mandarin.
A vast number of the world’s endangered languages haven’t even been set down in written form, which further hinders efforts to keep them alive as older speakers die off.
Yet, a glimmer of hope for those who see the inherent value in the diversity of spoken languages can be found in the revival of the Cornish language in the United Kingdom.
Cornish, considered extinct for decades, has undergone a rebirth in years, with a small but steady increase in speakers as cultural awareness of the distinctive nature of the Cornwall region has been recognized and celebrated.
Today, London is home to a vibrant group of Cornish speakers and it’s estimated there are today in Britain hundreds of fluent Cornish speakers and thousands with at least some ability, according to The Independent.
In addition, a small number of children in Cornwall have been brought up to be bilingual native speakers, and, in a development unheard even of a century ago, the language is taught in many schools.
Amid the ruins of a Middle Eastern palace dating back nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, archaeologists believe they have discovered a previously unknown ancient language.
Working in southeast Turkey, a team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan recently unearthed a 2,800-year-old clay writing tablet.
Cambridge University archaeologist John MacGinnis discovered the unknown language – which was likely spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – while deciphering the tablet, according to The Independent.
“The discovery is important because it may help reveal the ethnic and cultural origins of some of history’s first ‘barbarians’ – mountain tribes which had, in previous millennia, preyed on the world’s first great civilizations, the cultures of early Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq,” according to the British newspaper.
The clay tablet revealed the names of 60 women – probably prisoners of war or victims of an Assyrian forced-population transfer program.
But when MacGinnis began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45, or three of every four, bore no resemblance to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars.
The Sami are the only official indigenous people of Scandinavia, but they’re looking south, far south, for help preserving their fading native language.
The Sami, with roots as reindeer herders in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and Russia, are turning to Israel for assistance in keeping their languages alive.
A Sami delegation from Norway spent five days in Israel earlier this year, hoping the Jewish state’s experience reviving the once-dormant ancient Hebrew language can provide a blueprint for them, according to the Associated Press.
“Over the past century, Israel has transformed Hebrew, once reserved almost exclusively for prayer and religious study, into a vibrant, modern language,” according to the wire service. “Through its “ulpan” language immersion program, it has taught a common tongue to immigrants from all over the world, helping the young state absorb generations of newcomers.”
Sami is a general name for a group of Uralic languages. Sami is frequently and incorrectly believed to be a single language. There are nine different extant of Sami, ranging from Northern Sami, with more than 20,000 speakers, to Ter Sami, with two speakers.
The Sami, formerly known outside their community as Lapps, a term now abandoned because the Sami regard it as derogatory, have tried different methods for the past generation to boost the number of fluent Sami speakers, without success, said Odd Willenfeldt, principal of Sami School for Mid-Norway and a member of the delegation.
Six decades after Yiddish appeared destined for the history books, a handful of North American colleges are offering the language as part of their curricula, enabling the grandchildren of aging native speakers a chance to learn the tongue of their ancestors.
“If we want to preserve this, we need to do so actively and consciously,” said Miriam Udel, a Yiddish professor at Atlanta’s Emory University who uses song to teach the language. “The generation that passively knows Yiddish is dying out. There are treasures that need to be preserved because we’ll lose access to them if we let Yiddish die.”
Emory is one of about 20 colleges and universities in the US and Canada that offer courses in the Germanic-based language of Eastern European Jews, though just a few of them have degrees in the language.
Yiddish developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages, and is written in the Hebrew alphabet. It dates back in its earliest form at least a millennium.
By the late 1930s, there were between 11 million and 13 million Yiddish speakers worldwide.
The Holocaust, however, led to a dramatic, sudden decline in the use of Yiddish, as the extensive Jewish communities, both secular and religious, that used Yiddish in their day-to-day life were largely destroyed.
Around 85 percent of the Jews that died in the Holocaust – 5 million people – were speakers of Yiddish. And while several million Yiddish speakers survived, assimilation in countries such as the US and the Soviet Union, along with the rejection of Yiddish as a national language in Israel, led to a sharp decline in the use of the language.