Latin has acquired a reputation for being a useless and lethal pursuit, a bitter medicine cruelly administered by strict schoolmarms old enough to be native speakers themselves. Perhaps you've heard this little schoolboy chant: “Latin is a dead language, that is plain to see. First it killed the Romans, and now it's killing me.” In truth, Latin is more akin to the luscious grape cluster hanging just out of the fox's reach in Aesop's fable. Rather than apply any effort to obtain the prize, he skulked off muttering how sour they probably were. If only he had tried hard enough to taste even a single grape!
As off the mark as that little ditty is, it does bring up some important points. First, what does “dead” mean when applied to a language? Language is a living thing. It grows and changes day by day, imperceptibly, just as an infant grows to adulthood. There was never any calendar date marked when the folks in Rome stopped speaking Latin and started speaking Italian! The confusion may lie in the names we give languages. Ure Faeder the eart in heofenum is the beginning of the Lord's Prayer in English as English was spoken fifteen hundred years ago. English isn't a dead language, but it isn't spoken like that anymore, so we call that kind of English Old English. Likewise, the language of Caesar could be called Old Italian. (Or Italian Modern Latin!) Studying Latin, then, is studying the snapshot of a whiz kid who is now grown-up.
The story of ancient Rome represents about 25 percent of all recorded history. If ancient Rome and her language are dead, tenacious ghosts remain. Nearly a billion people today speak Modern Latin (i.e. [id est — that is], French, Spanish, Portuguese, et al. [et alia — and the others]). If you look out your window and see bricks, concrete, or a paved road; if you turn on the news or pick up a newspaper and see any reference to law or government; you're looking at Rome's ghost. In fact, if you speak English, you're perpetuating Rome's linguistic legacy. Thanks to the forced importation of Norman French into England in 1066, over 60 percent of English vocabulary is derived from Latin, not to mention the fact that centuries ago the Latin language was considered so perfect that many fussy grammar rules (e.g. [exemplī gratiā — for the sake of example], not ending sentences with a preposition, avoiding double negatives, not splitting infinitives, etc. [et cetera — and the others]) were imposed on English.
The second point that that ridiculous schoolboy rhyme evokes involves Latin's deadly effect on students. All too often people approach foreign languages as if they were simple questions of word substitution. This tack only leads to frustration, disaster, and sour grapes. Language may seem to be nothing more than words, just so many beads on a string, but it has a crucial component called syntax. Syntax is how words show their relationship to one another. How can you tell what or who is performing the action of the verb? How do you know whether the action of the verb is over, in progress, or hasn't happened yet? If Tim makes a reference to “Melanie's cat,” how can you tell whether Melanie owns the cat, the cat owns Melanie, or Melanie is just the name of the cat? The key is syntax, and the syntax of Latin is the adventure of this book. It's a very different critter from the system English uses, so set aside your notion of how language works and prepare to see the world through new eyes — Roman eyes!