How the West was won - by that old Latin tongue

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Doc Holliday: In vino veritas

Ringo: Age quod agis

Doc: Credat judaeus Appella. Non ego.

Ringo: Eventus stultorum magister.

Doc: In pace requiescat

THE Wild West must have been a civilised place. In the middle of a smoke-filled gambling den, two gun-toting sworn enemies swap Latin aphorisms. It provides one of the funnier moments in Tombstone, George Cosmatos' just-released film of the life and times of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. But Latin's a little obscure for Hollywood, isn't it?

Far from being a dead language, Latin is back, alive and kicking and as frisky as a gunfight at the OK Corral. Just as today's cinema-goers are discovering the mythology of the American West, so plenty of people who never learnt Latin or Greek at school are delighting in classical tales of heroes, military triumphs and nobility.

The ancient world was dangerous too. Those that do take up the study of Latin discover many of its sayings are the equivalent of more familiar street talk. Doc and Ringo's banter can be translated as:

Doc: It's the booze talking.

Ringo: A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Doc: Tell that to the Marines]

Ringo: You're gonna get wise after the event.

Doc: You're dead.

Film-maker Derek Jarman explored the violent ancient world when he made Sebastiane. He gave Latin a cult status by putting the entire dialogue in a barrack-room version of the language. In Eastern Europe, Latin cultists tune in to a Latin translation of the news transmitted on a short-wave station.

Here, hundreds are taking up the classical language which played such a crucial part in forming our own tongue - a trend highlighted last week when playwright Willy Russell picked a Latin primer to take to a tropical paradise on Desert Island Discs. It was the second week running that a Latin primer was selected: composer Harrison Birtwistle also opted for a guide to declensions and conjugations. 'I love Latin writers,' he told Sue Lawley. 'But I never got a chance to learn Latin at school'.

Many are flocking to classes to catch up on the classical education they missed during their schooldays. According to a study carried out by Warwick University, more than 100 adult education Latin classes are held each week across Britain. The research showed that the authors this new breed of scholars most want to read are Virgil, Ovid, Caesar, Catullus, Cicero, Juvenal and Horace.

Frank Beetham, the former classics master of Blackpool Grammar School who compiled the report, said: 'People feel they missed out, because so many schools have stopped teaching classics. They want to read the great classical authors, but some people also need Latin for their work. Archivists, for instance, find a great gap in their work if they have no Latin.'

Universities also report an increase in students who have never studied Latin or Greek applying to read classics. Although many private schools still teach the subjects, few state school pupils have the chance to learn the meaning of Horace's carpe diem - seize the day - or Caesar's iacta alea est - the die is cast.

The University of Newcastle has responded by running parallel courses, one for those with A-levels in the ancient languages and the other for those without. Starting Latin and Greek from scratch and catching up with experienced students is tough, but according to Newcastle's classics lecturer, Dr Peter Jones, it does not deter comprehensive school pupils.

'There are more students studying Latin than ever before. The numbers wanting to begin the classics go up every year. The subjects are not well served by the state schools.'

Both Dr Jones and Adrian Spooner, champion of Latin and author of Lingo, a guide to language origin, believe that this lack of ancient language teaching in schools serves children ill. 'If you don't understand complicated Latin and Greek word origins by 11 or 13, you are debarred from much further learning,' said Spooner. 'You can't grasp concepts without the words.'

Yesterday, members of Friends of Classics met for their winter seminar at the Institute of Classical Studies in central London. Since it was first formed two-and-a-half years ago, more than 700 people have joined, to keep in touch with subjects they last studied years ago. To them, Latin is as vital as any modern language.

For many, the apotheosis of Latin is found in its use in the traditional form of the Roman Catholic mass. Although mass today is usually said in the vernacular, the Latin Tridentine mass is said every Monday at Corpus Christi Church, Covent Garden - a Graham Greene favourite - and attracts a devoted following.

Later this year, even more of us will be exposed to the delights of devotional Latin when EMI launches Masterpieces of Gregorian Chant, a CD which has swept Spain, selling 300,000 copies at pounds 16 each and grossing pounds 4.5 million. Research shows that the buyers are aged between 15 and 25. Mr Rafael Gill, head of EMI in Spain, believes the mix of chant and Latin has a timeless appeal which is particularly needed today. 'People find it soothing in these difficult times.'

The more literal translation of the Tombstone script is:

Doc: Wine loosens the tongue (Roman proverb)

Ringo: Do what you're doing (Roman proverb)

Doc: Let the Jew Appella believe that. I don't (Horace)

Ringo: The outcome is the schoolmaster of fools (Livy)

Doc: May you rest in peace (from the Latin mass).

(Photograph omitted)