Despite The Economist's conviction that Latin is making a comeback, as described in their article from a couple of days ago, I beg to differ. In fact, I believe that the question is not, "Why is Latin making a comeback?" but rather, "Is Latin really making a comeback?"
I'm afraid the answer is, "Not really, no."
Although it would be brilliant if Latin really were making a comeback, The Economist's argument that Latin is becoming more popular can be refuted in two parts: by observing the ancient language's popularity in young people and by analysing just how popular the Latin-based services the newspaper refers to are. I'll also try to attempt to use ideas from behavioural economics to explain why Latin is not making a comeback any time soon.
Being a student of Latin myself, I do know that the popularity of the subject among young people in Britain is dwindling. For one thing, I wasn't able to take the subject at school because it was replaced by drama eight years ago - I am being taught by a private tutor. Although Latin is compulsory at GCSE level in some private schools, many other schools, including state grammar schools, have as recently as last year stopped teaching the subject because of lack of student interest.
It might seem that things will soon be changing. Among others The Telegraph reported last year that "all primary schools will be expected to teach foreign languages to pupils from 2014 as part of a major drive to boost education standards." It elaborated that "at least one subject from a seven-strong shortlist – French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin and ancient Greek – will be offered to seven- to 11-year-olds."
However, schools will find it very difficult to find enough teachers who are proficient in Latin, and thus many will simply opt to teach the modern European languages as it is far easier to find, say, French teachers than Latin teachers. (The same problem applies to ancient Greek, although that, of course, is not the language being discussed in this article.)
All of this suggests that in young people, at least, there has not been a surge in the popularity of Latin. Unfortunately, there is unlikely to be a rise its popularity among youngsters in the near future either. This is largely because if there will be problems finding teachers now, then there will undoubtedly be greater problems in the future as fewer students take Latin at higher levels.
There is clear evidence to support these thoughts. The BBC wrote in 2008 that "there is [...] a shortage of teachers - largely due to the falling number of postgraduate teacher training (PGCE) Latin courses around the country. Just two centres run PGCE Latin courses - Cambridge University and King's College London."
Are Latin-based services such as Latin Wikipedia actually popular?
To illustrate, if the article on Vicipaedia entitled 'Canis' is compared with the English equivalent 'Dog' , the difference in article length is immediately clear to the observer. But perhaps it would be better to compare how a topic more suited to the Latin language (i.e. related to Roman history) has been written about in both Vicipaedia and Wikipedia. For this reason, let's compare Vicipaedia's article on Gaius Iulius Caesar with Wikipedia's Julius Caesar . The Vicipaedia article discusses only 12 topics about Caesar compared to Wikipedia's 25, suggesting that Vicipaedia's contributors really aren't as active as Wikipedia's.
These comparisons are deliberately crude and basic. I realise that a better, more scientifically correct analysis would involve looking at a far greater sample of a variety of articles, comparing them and then drawing relevant conclusions. However, I don't feel that a more detailed analysis would significantly better illustrate my point and I also have a lot of reading to be getting on with!
Similarly, the other Latin-based services which The Economist's article discusses can be looked into to show that they're probably not nearly as popular as the newspaper tries to make out.
Why is Latin not making a 'comeback'?
Now my attempt to use economics to figure out why Latin isn't becoming significantly more popular. The problem that I face here, however, is one that The Economist's columnist clearly also faced: the lack of substantial data to support any claims. As one commenter pointed out, the newspaper's article doesn't really contain "any data to say that [Latin is] more popular now than at any point in the last hundred or so years. It has more papal twitter followers than Polish, but it seems something of a stretch to go from that to 'Latin is making a comeback.'"
So why is it unlikely that Latin will make a 'comeback' any time soon? I'll try my best to make an educated guess from what little knowledge of behavioural economics I have.
This issue involving the popularity of Latin can be related to what behavioural scientists call the 'bandwagon effect' and what the Economist Paul Ormerod labels 'the rational copying person' in this programme on what's wrong with economics.
The bandwagon effect (in the sense that I'll be using to argue my point) is often seen in consumer behaviour when something rapidly becomes increasingly popular because of its already great popularity. The Economist has written a great article about the implications of the phenomenon.
Latin is a type of product which will most probably never benefit from the 'bandwagon effect' due to the fact that you can't buy expertise in a language; you have to work long and hard to develop your skills. Therefore although particular books such as 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and certain songs such as 'Gangnam Style' can attribute a lot of their success to the bandwagon effect, a language can practically never experience the same level of sudden interest.
Historically, the reason why Latin was so popular was because it was the language that all of Europe communicated in, especially through documents of science, religion and philosophy. Due to this, Latin played a fundamental role in young men's education (sadly, until recently women were marginalised) until the middle of the 20th century, when the educational emphasis became focused on more 'practical' education involving reading, writing and arithmetic. Today, it is largely ignored by Europe's education systems.
The idea of the 'rational copying person' also plays a part. Students, when faced with the choice to learn a language, would rather learn whichever language seems to be the most rewarding or easiest as determined by the opinions of their peers or elders. Since many people genuinely (and, in my opinion, incorrectly) feel that Latin is a relatively useless language, others are likely to feel the same.
It would be great if what The Economist is suggesting about Latin's popularity were true. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be.