I was but sixteen when I stepped into a virtual classroom headed by a tutor with more enthusiasm and vigor than my primarily-introverted self thought possible. I had been given a book in a language I knew not and a language which, had I paused to consider, would not have been my first choice to learn. Why study Latin anyway? I had heard all the usual reasons. Oddly enough, the ancientness did not bother me: I would have picked up Ancient Greek at any time. I was fond of ancient things already and a true lover of history. Though perhaps not my first choice, I was excited at this new prospect and my heart thumped inside me with suppressed and quivering expectation.
I was not disappointed. The book in my hands taught me far more than the language of the Romans. It taught me their lifestyle. To learn a language is to learn a culture. A word is not just a word, it expresses an idea. To learn the words of a culture is to learn the ideas of a culture.
Throughout that year my head swam with wonder. In studying Latin, I was learning more about my own language than I knew ever existed. Our words came from somewhere: convivial, egregious, refuge—they all had a history that formed their definitions. Suddenly English was no longer only my native tongue, but a world of expression so great that my mind could only gaze in admiration.
I was in awe. If this was only Latin, what did other languages hold? I plunged into Anglo-Saxon and further into Latin. During the following two years I waded in Italian and German, always listening to the different tones and colours of each language. I became enamoured, too, with the poetry of my own language, particularly Hopkins and Tennyson, revelling in the rise and fall and flavour of the words employed.
The most important lesson I learned in studying Latin was that ‘No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.’1 The birth of my perpetual obsession with language began when, through Latin, my eyes were opened to the beauty of thoughts expressed with the tongue and pen. What I began in disinterested curiosity I continued in joy. I studied Latin ‘for love, for itself.’ This has influenced the manner in which I study all other languages. And I cannot think of a time when, in mulling over an Anglo-Saxon or Latin word, I did not uncover something of vast historical or philological significance—born from pure and simple delight in the language itself.
1Various sources claim this quote was written by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay ‘English and Welsh’. However, as I have never been able to get my hands on a copy of the essay, I unfortunately cannot speak more definitely.