Why learn Latin? To better understand Harry Potter

September 18, 2009|By JEFF RIDGEWAY

Latin, as a spoken language, has been dead for hundreds of years, yet it is still taught in our high schools today. What makes a dead language important enough to still merit a place in secondary education?

As it turns out, Latin is not dead at all. It may be as old as Caesar, but it is also as young as Harry Potter.

Did you know that approximately 60 percent of English words are taken from either Latin or Greek? Take all 12 names of the months, for example. January, March, April, May and June are named after Roman gods and goddesses. February takes its name from the Latin "Feb- rua" -- the Roman festival of purification. July and August are named after the Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar. September, October, November and December come from Latin words meaning seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th respectively. (The Latin year began with March, which made September the seventh month of the year.)


But why should we learn Latin today? At its Web site (, the National Committee for Latin and Greek cites several reasons, including:

  • Latin helps teens score higher on the SAT.

  • Latin boosts a person's command of English grammar and vocabulary.

  • Americans share ancient Greek and Roman cultural roots with 57 nations on four continents.

    Beyond that, hey, Harry Potter uses Latin. "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling used Latin in many places in her novels. Take spells. Lumos (which means light or daylight) is a charm to make a tiny light appear to use as a flashlight. Expelliarmus ("Expel weapons!") is a disarming charm. Expecto patronum ("I await a patronus") is a charm to produce a silvery protector to fight off dementors.

    To put it simply, Latin is everywhere you look. There are even Latin translations of Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter, and Winnie the Pooh.

    How many of these common Latin phrases do you know?

    1) Ad hoc

    2) Ad infinitum

    3) E pluribus unum

    4) Magnum opus

    5) Requiem

    6) Sub poena

    7) Veni, vidi, vici

    8) Et cetera

    9) Ursa major

    10) Quid pro quo

    See answers on page B6.

    So the next time you get into a conversation that goes on ad nauseum, you can thank Julius Caesar. "Sacra bos!" (Holy cow!)

    Books about Latin or ancient Roman civilization in the library's collection include:

  • "Julius Caesar: A Retelling" by Adam McKeown (for grades 5 to 8)

    An illustrated retelling of William Shakespeare's tragedy in which Cassius, fearing Julius Caesar's ambition, forms a conspiracy among Roman republicans including Caesar's trusted friend Brutus to assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March.

  • "The Charioteer of Delphi" by Caroline Lawrence (for grades 5 to 8)

    Flavia and her friends go to Rome to celebrate the Festival of Jupiter at Senator Cornix's town house. There they befriend the young charioteer, Scopas, and quickly find themselves embroiled in a campaign to sabotage one of the rival racing factions.

  • "The Last Girls of Pompeii" by Kathryn Lasky (for grades 4 to 8)

    Twelve-year-old Julia knows that her physical deformity will keep her from a normal life in first-century Pompeii, but she counts on the continuing friendship of her life-long slave, Mitka. Then they learn that both of their futures are about to change for the worse.

  • "Atticus of Rome: 30 B.C." by Barry Denenberg (for grades 5 to 8)

    In ancient Rome, Atticus, a young slave purchased by a wealthy and powerful lawyer, finds that he is ignored by rich Romans. That is an advantage when he tries to gather information in order to help foil a plot against the Emperor.

  • "Cave Canem: A Miscellany of Latin Words and Phrases" by Lorna Robinson (for grade 7 to adult)

    A dictionary of Latin phrases divided into chapters including domestic life, public life in Rome, Roman arts, popular street Latin and phrases used in today's English-speaking world.

  • "Conquest!: Can You Build a Roman City?" by Julia Bruce (for grades 4 to 8)

    An illustrated exploration of how the Romans extended their empire and built cities, roads and aqueducts.

  • "The Ancient Romans" by Allison Lassieur (for grades 4 to 8)

    Presents an overview of the people of ancient Rome, including information on political organization, scholars, philosophers, writers, soldiers, women, priests, architects, the working-class and slaves.

  • "The Best Book of Ancient Rome" by Deborah Jane Murrell (for grades 3 to 8)

    Describes ancient Rome from its early beginnings to its fall, including daily life, and its legacy today.

    n "Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life" by Harry Mount (for grade 9 to adult)

    A light-hearted look at Latin, drawing anecdotes from sources as diverse as Winston Churchill and John Belushi.

  • "Latin for Beginners" by Angela Wilkes (for grade 5 to adult)

    Introduction to Latin words and phrases using humor and illustrations of everyday situations, such as your family and home, finding your way around and going shopping.

    Answers to quiz on page B5:

    1) For this; improvised

    2) To infinity

    3) Out of many one

    4) Great work

    5) Rest

    6) Under penalty

    7) I came, I saw, I conquered

    8) And the rest

    9) The bigger bear

    10) Something for something

    Jeff Ridgeway is the head of children's services at the Washington County Free Library.

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