By Ruth Ogechi Udeh, Summer Times Staff Writer

“Latin was originally spoken in Italy,” said William Steere, who teaches it at Exeter Summer. “Greek was also spoken nearby. What is really cool about studying both Latin and Greek together is if you look at the things that the Romans wrote after they conquered the Greek world. They interacted with the Eastern Mediterranean where Greek was spoken. In the ancient Mediterranean, anyone that was sophisticated used Greek. And so, if we look at the things that Romans who spoke Latin wrote, if we look at the writings that have come down to us like letters, we see letters sprinkled in Greek and referring to things that weren’t Greek. So Greek is also really important and exciting because if you want to understand what the Romans wrote, you have to understand the Greek letters that they were swimming in because that was like their international language. People who spoke Latin would have read a lot of Greek literature and used it in their writing compositions.”

Latin and Greek have been on the rise at Exeter Summer. After over 15 years, this year, Exeter Summer has recorded the highest number of students taking the Classics – 25 students in Access Exeter, 7 in Upper school and even more teachers. Both have been called “dead” languages, but Latin is still used at the Vatican and Greek is still spoken, of course, in Greece.  

“I have been teaching Latin/Greek for 10 years at Exeter summer, both Access and Upper School, said Laurence Aimee Birnbaum. “I have been teaching in Access for the past 3 years ever since we started the Classics cluster. This year, this is the most students we have had taking Classics in the summer school in probably 15 years or more than that. At about mid-30s. That is a lot for ‘dead’ languages and it is really exciting. This year, we have 5 classicists teaching at Exeter Summer this year. That is probably the highest number Exeter has recorded during the summer school.”

The teachers are particularly excited this year as this year seems to be a breakthrough in the Classics. Both Ms. Birnbaum and Mr. Steere were eager to share their experiences.

“Classics is a broad term that refers to the languages, culture and history of ancient Greece and Rome.” said Ms. Birnbaum. “The cultures are really interesting. I have always loved Greek and Roman mythologies and histories and their literature are full of fascinating stories. Language is a very good insight into culture. Their words and expressions give you a really special insight into their world. The way you go about studying the language has to be very different. Instead of picking up things just by getting used to how they sound and the patterns of speaking them, we have to look really carefully at how the language is structured analytically. So, we do a lot of English grammar and a lot of looking at English as a way of understanding Greek and Latin.” she added.

Mr. Steere approaches this even more personally. 

“When I was little, I wanted to be a scientist so I thought Latin and Greek would help me to learn scientific terms better,” he said. “So that was why I was so excited to started taking Latin in middle school. The teachers that I had here made learning Latin at introductory level really fun and interactive. And like a puzzle, it sort of stole me from my desire to be a scientist to go do something a little bit useful in a different way. I am really interested in the way that we tell stories as a culture and about the way that different stories that we tell about ourselves, about the world and about the gods, have changed over time. I learned that learning Latin and Greek gives you direct access to the watershed. To see those stories long before or from a long time ago. I am really excited to share Latin and Greek with kids who are really young, like middle schoolers, so that they will be able to read and interact with these stories.” 

Why did they think the students have started taking sudden interest in the Classics? This is what Mr. Steere had to say:

“Clearly, this shows that the program has been successful in the past and that people have wanted to come back to it. I find with the age group that I am working with, the middle schoolers, they are really passionate about mythology they have read. As a kid they might have seen the Percy Jackson books or they might have read Harry Potter and seen the Latin in it and so they are really excited and they are coming with these stories. Because the stories that we told back then are still really interesting to kids these days. That is why I think Percy Jackson appeals to them. That is why I like to study the language. This shows that people want to get a real better understanding of the stories that captivated them in their native language.  They want to see the exciting original versions of those.”

Ms. Birnbaum also had something to add:

“Classics used to be part of education in many parts of the world. It sort of dropped away for a number of reasons. But it has had a resurgence as people realize that it has additional values. It has value if you are going to study of the romance languages because Latin is what all the romance languages are derived from. If you learn Latin, you have a head start in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian. It makes you more aware of English grammar. More than 70% of English vocabulary comes from Greek and Latin. If you know those two languages, it greatly expands your English vocabulary and your general understanding of English grammar, so it ends up being very useful on things like standardized tests when you can look at a word you have never seen before and figure out what it means because you know the roots. A lot of the vocabulary in the medical field comes from Greek especially and a lot of legal terms come from Latin. If students study these fields in college, the acceptance rate in medical and law schools is higher for students who have studied classics than for students who have not. Though in terms of preparation for other careers, Biology, Chemistry, Sciences and math use a lot of classical terms or even symbols. A lot of our students recognize Greek letters because they have seen them in their math classes or in their Chemistry classes.”

If people are so interested in this course, then there must be great benefits in store for them, right? 

“The most immediate benefit is the literature.” said Mr. Steere. “I am paraphrasing something of a cliché that I’ve heard from Classics teachers before me, and that I now pass on to my students today: “Translation is a pale imitation of the original.”  In the other class, they read Ovid for their mythology class and the Latin is able to capture so much more subtlety and also different figures of speech that really brings the story alive that they missed in translation.”

I thought it would only be fair to meet some of the students who take this course and hear their side of the story. Meilan Antonucci, a Classics student at Access Exeter, who is so much in love with this subject and considers it a unique opportunity to start learning the so-called dead languages at a very young age also found sharing his side of the story with the people of Exeter Summer a privilege.

“I studied Latin for two years before now,” he said. “I chose Classics because it was really the only one that interested me. I read about the mythology and the architecture behind it. As I come to learn the language, I realize that it helps you with other languages too. The mythology and the idea of the ancient roots. I find that pretty cool because there are so many questions that you have and just have to figure out and just very few people do it. I think that benefitting from this is that you can learn languages so much easier because Latin is the base for Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and a few other languages – all the romance languages and this really stands out. Not to mention that I am getting to start at such a young age. “Mi casa tu casa” is Spanish for my house is your house. Casa is a Latin word which also means house. In that sense, I could almost take my knowledge of Latin and get a semi-understanding of other languages. I think that Latin is one of those things that a lot of people think that because it is a dead language, you can’t do anything with it. It is a hobby more than it is an actual language. It is one of those things where Latin is so unique. I know this is going to sound clichéd but it really is the base for lots of languages. It is the building block. I think some people think that it is a waste of time that will be better spent taking language where I can go to a place and speak it. I think that overall, it is going to help me in the long run.”

Calista Oetama, another enthusiastic student taking the Classics at Access Exeter, was more than excited to share her learning experience.

“I have been interested in taking Latin since when I was maybe 12,” said Calista. “I have been hearing about a lot of Greek myths since when I was little so I thought it would be cool to learn the language. It is something interesting to like learning dead languages because they are supposed to be dead but people are still learning about them. I like how you have to find patterns in the language. It is different than English because there are certain endings to verbs and nouns that are not like in English. It will help me understand cultural history more. I heard that if you learn either Greek or Latin, it is slightly easier to learn other languages based on that. Like Spanish, Italian. Since I am studying Spanish now, I think it is going to help me.”

If we are all wondering whether it is worth learning the Classics, this should be able to help provide a suitable answer to this bothering question.

“It makes you think in a whole different way,” said Ms. Birnbaum. “It makes you look at words and language and its stories in a whole new way because these languages are set off very differently from the languages that most of us speak. You get the advantage of recognizing words because our vocabulary comes from there. The way the language is structured, the syntax, is totally different.”

If you plan to take The Classics, always remember that “The only way to learn Latin is that you have to be really interested in it,” said Calista. “You can’t learn anything without really being interested in it.”

 Long live (so-called) dead languages!!!