Only, not everyone agrees. Number 11 on the Amazon bestseller list yesterday was a book about how to learn Latin. The success of Amo, Amas, Amat . . . and All That: How to be a Latin Lover, by Harry Mount, appears to show that Latin is back in.
Mount's book has the verb tables and grammar points, but it also has colourful descriptions of Mount's own teachers. The combination is winning, with the book clocking up huge sales. Surprising? Not to Professor Roger Green of Glasgow University classics department, who has seen the popularity of Latin and Greek grow.
"It's been picking up. Our first-year class is probably the biggest it's been in a generation," he says. Most are new to Latin: "People are taking it up rather than brushing it up."
Green believes this apparent revival has to do partly with growing interest in Roman history and culture, prompted by TV shows such as Rome. "There
is a perception that Latin is a gateway to Roman civilisation and Latin literature."
And Amo, Amas, Amat is not Latin's only publishing success. "There's a book for children called Minimus that's going great guns," says Green. "This book could be the adult equivalent, in terms of tapping into that area of interest."
It's quite a turnaround. Latin was in decline in schools through much of the twentieth century. Universities continued for some time to demand Latin as an entrance qualification for language and literature students; when that was removed, Latin's decline was complete. Many scholars couldn't see the point, especially in comparison with modern languages.
True, you won't find Latin road signs in any EU member state. But, classicists would argue, that doesn't mean it's not useful. One former classics teacher from Aberdeen recently proved the point by communicating in Latin on holiday in Italy. She spoke to baristas and bus drivers in Latin; they understood and responded in Italian, a language similar enough to Latin for her to understand.
Even without a desire to read Cicero or test the similarities between Latin and Italian, Latin has relevance. Public understanding of grammar has declined since Latin teaching declined, for one thing. Then there's the fact that English owes Latin so much. Even Sarj Phil Hunter on The Bill can't get through a sentence without it: "Naah, boss, the MO's wrong. He has a bona fide alibi." MO, modus operandi; bona fide; alibi: all common Latin terms used without hesitation in everyday English.
So, Latin still matters. And if you want a copy of that book before Christmas, hurry up – tempus fugit, you know.
I want this book.