SHAME, shame, shame. Two state legislators, in an Opinion...


March 20, 1993

SHAME, shame, shame. Two state legislators, in an Opinion * Commentary article a week ago on the lack of a Maryland state motto, wreaked havoc on the Latin language and misquoted the Oklahoma state motto.

Oklahoma's motto is Labor Omnia Vincit, or "Labor Conquers All Things." It's a short, easily understandable epigram for any sophomore Latin student. Caesar's classic (and classical) line -- Veni, Vidi, Vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered") -- provides a memorable basis for conjugation of the verb vincere.

It's a sad commentary on the decline of Latin instruction. Few public secondary schools offer the "dead" language today, although it survives in the classrooms sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church. And decisions to offer the course are seemingly haphazard. A Baltimore City middle school finds an instructor to teach the language of Virgil and Ovid and Horace, Harford

County drops the subject in the 1970s when its only Latin teacher retires. Still, more than half the 24 Maryland school systems offer Latin somewhere.

But the demand for more usable, modern languages has squeezed out classes in the tongue of Cicero and Caesar. Russian has become a more common offering, German has enjoyed a resurgence, and Japanese is now being taught in various Maryland high schools. The Romance languages of French and Spanish continue to enjoy popularity.

While there may be justification for the shift in foreign language preferences by newer generations, it would seem that Latin should always maintain a small niche in the high school curriculum.

It is a strong foundation for understanding English. It is the chosen language of lawyers. Those secondary students with an eye on the bar should be eager to be initiated into the vocabulary of duces tecum, habeas corpus and certiorari.

Lawyers mangle all manner of Latin. The affront has been abetted by jurists and jurisprudence instructors who abbreviate and mumble over venerable phrases. The study of Latin has apparently little to do with modern lawyering; it's quoted for effect rather than understanding.

The two legislators who wrote the cited article are a lawyer and a school teacher, which tends to confirm the state of Latin instruction among those occupations. Lest Gallimaufry appear too critical, however, we remind readers and ourselves that Errare Humanum Est.

* * *

THIS JUST IN: Cable TV kahuna Ted Turner and his missus, Jane Fonda, plan to give a talk on the health benefits of eating buffalo meat at the International Bison Conference in La Crosse, Wis., this July. By the by, Ted and Jane just happen to own bison ranches in Montana and New Mexico. Coincidence, right? Still, we'd bet that if these two master hucksters owned, say, an armadillo ranch instead, they'd be trying to sell people on the health benefits of eating that.

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