Greek and Latin students are full of life studying dead languages

In a herculean effort, six Brigham Young University undergrads recently placed in the top 20 in the nation in the National College Greek Exam. Two of those students tied for second overall.

It was a performance that would make even the Greek gods proud.

“BYU students have a particularly solid record for mastery of ancient languages,” said BYU Greek professor Stephen Bay. “However, this year's crop of students has been especially remarkable. These students are making BYU's already-impressive reputation even better.”

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The National College Greek Exam is a 50-minute exam with 40 questions — 30 questions about Greek grammar and 10 questions about a Greek passage that needed to be translated. BYU students David Delbar and Courtney Hansen tied for second in the competition, Shannon Adams, Sean Driscoll, Janelle Freeman and Nathaniel Pribil also placed in the top 20.

Claiming 1/3 of the top 20 spots makes BYU's program look like the Mt. Olympus of college-level Greek studies.

These students, within BYU’s Department of Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature, spent countless hours preparing for the questions they’d face. But it’s a question not on any exam that they’re asked most: “so, why are you studying this?” They give a myriad of answers. For Delbar, it’s about connecting to a civilization of the past.

“Each language has certain words and structures that are untranslatable because their concept does not exist in other cultures,” Delbar said. “Studying another language, especially one as complex and exotic as Greek, helps expand our world view. It’s a lot of work to be able to appreciate it, but well worth it.”

The other students have different motivations to study what are referred to as “dead languages.” Some want to enhance their learning of a separate language. Some want to be better qualified for a grad program. Some simply want to have the experience of reading the New Testament in an original language. Most began majoring in something totally different before finding a passion for the classics.

But the consensus is that it’s not merely about language or culture, rather about developing some important skills: careful analyzing, dissecting and comparing.

“Latin texts hang together much like mathematical problems,” said BYU Latin professor Roger Macfarlane, “where variables must be considered before a solution can be reached. Students who dig into translation of Latin engage a mental process that is much like what we see students in mathematics do.”

BYU’s College of Humanities has recently tried to put a focus on the inherent value of studying Greek, Latin and the many other humanities-related subjects taught in the college. is a BYU-project aimed at providing ideas and resources for bridging the traditional humanities major to the professional world.

In a separate statewide Latin exam, the Yengich Prize Competition, BYU students took first and second place overall.

The Yengich Latin Competition is a 50-minute exam where students translate an unseen passage of Latin. The University of Utah is the primary sponsor of the annual competition and invites all college level Latin students to participate. BYU’s Nozomu Okuda and Clara Carnahan placed first and second respectively in the advanced Latin category. Aileen Christensen and Jared Miller also represented BYU and placed second and third respectively in the elementary Latin category.