Latin Fans: Wankers vs. Geeks

December 21st, 2007

Emily Wilson, an assistant professor of classical studies at Penn, has written an article at Slate reflecting on why Americans might be interested in learning Latin. It’s an interesting question, and one I hadn’t realized might be a timely issue—are there other recent examples of a surge of Latin-speaking geekery? I must admit, though, to some confusion about what the article implies about the origins of this phenomenon.

In the UK, such learning is strongly associated with the upper class:

British upper-class philistinism involves feeling embarrassed about knowing anything, especially any esoteric knowledge or knowledge that may have taken some effort to acquire. (At the Oxford college I attended as an undergraduate, the motto was “effortless superiority”: You should never seem too hard-working or too interested in your studies, unless you want to seem like a “swot,” a “wanker,” or a “girl.”)

But “In America,” she writes, “the cultural place of Latin is very different.” You can learn Latin at inexpensive or free schools, so there is no need to feel ashamed about your knowledge. Thus,

[M]any choose to learn Latin because they are genuinely interested in learning how the Romans imagined the world. To describe American Latin students, we need to substitute the much more attractive category of “geeks” for Amis’ “wankers.”

The then article explores why one might want to learn about ancient culture in America today, as exemplified by the popularity of film and television such as Troy, Rome, and 300: “we are interested in stories about the growth and collapse of a great and greedy empire, or about a clash between Western and Eastern civilizations.” That leads directly into the suggestion that “culture is never independent of language,” and learning about ancient Roman civilization beyond 300 necessitates that one learn Latin.

The individual pieces of this line of reasoning seem sound enough, but I’m having some trouble stitching them together. First, it’s only very recently that “geek” has meant anything positive, and it’s still used negatively before adulthood. “Effortless superiority” is still the attitude affected by the popular crowd in high school—as it’s hard work, not good grades, that mark one as a geek—though I am fascinated to read that this apparently lasts, or lasted, into the college years at Oxford. And second, while the popularity of Troy and 300 might reflect the kind of broad cultural interest implied in this article, such a broad interest may not map directly onto the interest of an unusual subgroup. That is, I have a feeling that anyone who would consider him or herself a “Latin geek” would be likely to have gotten into it through 300.

Am I not seeing the forest for the trees, though? (Or not seeing some trees due to excessive focus on other trees?) I wonder if my concept of “geek” is simply different from what was meant by this article, and now I’m very curious now whether American students have escaped mockery despite a strong interest in Latin.


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7 Responses to “Latin Fans: Wankers vs. Geeks”

  1. Church Says:

    I haven’t seen 300, and while I know it’s not completely historical, I’d be surprised if there were any Romans in it. (This is Spartacus?)

    Latin is one of those things that’s always there if you stop to look for it. It informed a large portion of English (mostly via French) and has benefits for a variety of professions from law to pharmacology.

    It does have its fans, and it’s probably safe to say a fandom. Especially when they start to translate Elvis songs (http://www.drammondt.com/english/index.php?page=story) or Harry Potter books (http://www.amazon.com/Harrius-Potter-Philosophi-Lapis-Philosophers/dp/1582348251).

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    Yeah, obviously 300 is about Greece; I’m guessing the original argument that this might spur interest in Latin was just that Roman culture (as one of the commenters on the article points out, in service to another argument) was heavily influenced by Greek culture and history. So presumably an interest in ancient Greece leads to an interest in ancient Rome … I guess. Maybe that’s sort of like suggesting that watching Star Wars might get somebody into Firefly eventually.

    (Fancy party trick: Tell people what the Greek god name equivalents are for a few of the planets in our solar system. Somehow I recently learned that this is geeky enough that some people are actually surprised by it, but sufficiently of general interest that people seem genuinely interested.)

  3. Chris Says:

    I’ve got a couple of thoughts of what geeks might be looking to learn and why:

    Harry Potter Geeks–The Latin-like language used to name the spells ?

    Lord of the Rings Geeks–The Elfish language also has some latin roots? (I’m not sure of that, but I think it might be)

    Roman Catholic Revision Geeks? There’s a fair number of conservative Catholics and several groups dedicated to brining back the Latin mass.

    I think that interest in the Bible might have sparked it as well. (ie, as more people begin to be interested in studying the Bible, they’ll evenutally end trying to learn more about Latin.) ?

    i dunno…I think its a patchwork of geek groups? I would guess.

    Chris

  4. Megan Says:

    When I began TA’ing for a medieval lit class, the professor warned me to expect that the students would be of the “post-DaVinci Code moment.” After leading a few discussions on the role of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, I can confirm that this is very much the case.

    For every person who takes up Latin in college because they’re actually interested in classical antiquity, I’d expect to find at least one person who’s interested in Latin in part because of the way that it’s been marked through things like the DaVinci Code and the Harry Potter books as a kind of arcane and specialized knowledge which provides initiation into an elite class of the truly informed. And that desire for and/or veneration of specific and detailed knowledge seems to me to have a lot to do with our present notion of “geek”, whether we’re talking conspiracy theories, video game cheats, or just an encyclopedic knowledge of Battlestar Galactica.

  5. Jason Tocci Says:

    I stand corrected! That’s very interesting. I wonder if it does help people remember Harry Potter spells, too.

  6. Genevieve Says:

    Well it will certainly help you pronounce the spells correctly.

    I think it is interesting to note that it seems like there has been latin offered at more public high schools and at least when I was in school we were heavily pressured to take it. It was an extra academic course we could fill in a slot with instead of coursed like art, ceramics, chorus or shop. It would boost our GPA because it was worth more and it was supposed to make us look better to colleges.

    As someone who has retaken latin in the past 2 years I will say that I use it very regularly. Not like the classics/philosophy PhD students who go speak latin at Bertucci’s once a week but in my comprehension of how words are put together, remembering and learning romance languages, and of course because I’m in the field on Botany where I actually have to read latin at least once a week. (Which of course means I am a geek.)

  7. Dawn Says:

    I know this is a very old post but it’s also an interesting one (the whole blog is – reading has consumed many hours since I discovered it.).

    Latin is also big in certain segments of the homeschooling population. In the more formal, “Classical” homeschooling families it’s considered almost mandatory. Often it’s ecclesiastical Latin as many of those families are Christian (Catholic but mostly literal American Protestants). Ancient Greek (often Koine) is also big.

    We aren’t classical homeschoolers in my house. We’re more Ecclectics, meaning we’ll take from different hsing sub-cultures what works for us. My 12 yr old daughter is currently learning Latin, French and a bit of Ancient Greek. She loves mythology, Homer and Ovid so her interest comes more from wanting to approach the classics in their own language (although Harry Potter has had a bit of influence). This also means we’re studying classical Latin and Attic Greek as opposed to the other forms.

    We’ve also found that Latin is it’s own motivator. Study a bit and English seems to open up. Not simply in terms of word meanings but grammar as well. It gets a bit addicting.

    I don’t think homeschoolers learning Latin has any wider effect. Except perhaps that there’s now a fair amount of excellent resources and curriculum available for children thanks to publishers trying to serve our market.