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Archive for Sunday, December 29, 2002

seeing revival

December 29, 2002

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Latin isn't dead. It's not even on life support.

"We're doing everything we can to make it living," said Tara Welch, assistant professor of classical languages at Kansas University. "It's very vibrant."

Though Latin took a dive in popularity among university students nationwide in the late 1970s, it made a comeback beginning in the early 1990s.

Numbers at KU mirror the trend. Welch said about 80 students typically took beginning Latin each fall, with an additional 20 to 30 taking upper-level courses.

She said students had many reasons for choosing Latin to fulfill their foreign language requirement. Some are pre-medical or pre-law students who want to learn about the terminology in their respective fields. Some are vocal music students who want to have a better understanding of the languages they're singing.

And some, like Paul Haverstock, are simply fascinated with the language. Haverstock, a freshman from Eden Prairie, Minn., took three years of Latin in high school.

"I always had this picture of Latin as a weird monk language," he said. "I pictured a monk with a candle writing out the language."

But he said he fell in love with Latin because it helped him understand English. Welch said students usually report a greater vocabulary and spelling ability after taking Latin.

Haverstock is majoring in classical languages, which includes instruction in both Latin and Greek. He's not sure what he'll do with the degree -- he may teach, or combine the Latin knowledge with historic research.

"I'm definitely not learning Latin and Greek for their practicality," he said. "But I don't believe education is meant to be only pragmatic instruction."

Welch said Latin was difficult for many students to learn because it included different endings for verbs and nouns, while English included different endings only for verbs. Latin instruction focuses mainly on written language because there aren't many opportunities for speaking the language outside class.

Students read classics such as the writings of the Roman author Virgil.

"Ancient texts aren't dead or remote," Welch said. "They thought about the things we think about."

Students also have current texts translated into Latin, including some children's books. And the campus itself makes for a textbook, with Latin words on the KU seal, doors through the Campanile and artifacts in Spencer Research Library.

Reading ancient texts in their original language drew John Mackey to learn Latin. He's a junior from Bonner Springs and is majoring in classical languages.

After taking Spanish in high school, he intended to take Spanish to fulfill his foreign language requirement.

"Intermediate Spanish was terribly hard," he said. "I couldn't understand head or tails what was going on."

That's when he decided to try classical languages, partly because of a love of Greek mythology.

"For me, it's about wanting to read books about cultures in their original languages," he said. "Translations lose something. You have to read it in the original languages if you want to get all the nuances.

Mackey would like to work on his master's degree in classical languages when he graduates, but he doesn't know what he'll do with the knowledge once he's out of school. He may simply teach it to another generation of Latin enthusiasts.

"That's always a big question I get from my family and friends," he said. "They want to know what I can do with it other than perpetuating the teaching of the language."

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