Latin is not dead. Or at least it didn't appear to be Friday as several hundred Howard County high school students poured into the auditorium at Columbia's Interfaith Center.

Friday was the county's annual certamen, an academic bowl for Latin scholars that has grown tremendously since it was established in Howard eight years ago.

The 1983 event, the first, included one county high school, one from the District and one from Frederick County. Only about 100 students total participated, according to Mary Ann Staley, who teaches Latin at Hammond and Glenelg high schools.

This year, 225 Howard Latin students from the eight high schools were in the half-day academic face-off.

"We get to prove everything that we've learned in the last three years," Mary Chedester, a senior at Centennial High School, said as she waited for the final advanced-level round against Howard County High School.

A certamen "makes {Latin} a living language," said Baltimore teacher Robert Rifkin, who was the guest moderator. Also, he said, "the kids learn gobs of material we would never assign in class."

According to several county Latin teachers, the increasing enthusiasm for the contests coincides with a growing interest in learning Latin.

In addition to studying the language, students learn about ancient Roman history and culture. Latin also helps students master English grammar and language.

"This is where kids learn how to write," said Paul Churchill, the Latin teacher at Centennial High School. Enrollment in his Latin classes has tripled since 1980.

But "the main reason that everybody" enrolls in Latin, said Jonathon Lazar, a junior at Oakland Mills, "is to improve your SAT {Scholastic Aptitude Test} scores." Lazar, who will enter Loyola College in Baltimore next fall under early admission, was making lightning responses in the second-year competition.

Jesse Selnick, a junior at Centennial and a first-year Latin student, said he gained 100 points on the verbal section of the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test because of Latin.

At Friday's certamen, students appeared motivated as much by competition as academics. Fists of victory sprung from the audience when teammates racked up points for their high school.

Selnick and Josh Baer, also a junior and first-year Latin student at Centennial, bounded from their seats and slapped a high-five when a teammate answered "duo decim" -- 12 -- to a tie-breaking culture question on the number of muses plus fates in Roman mythology.

"We're going to take everyone in this competition . . . . I can't stand losing," said Baer, who also runs track. Selnick added, "I've been playing {computer} Jeopardy to practice ringing the buzzer."

In the competition, students divided into 37 teams. Two to three teams competed in each round, which included 10 to 12 questions plus bonus questions. The subjects ranged from fine points of Latin grammar and obscure dates in Roman history to Roman culture and mythology trivia.

Students could not punch their buzzers fast enough to a few translation questions relevant to today's world, such as what rock band would have been called "mortui grati." The answer: the Grateful Dead.

The most difficult questions were naturally reserved for the advanced-level students. Said Oakland Mills student Lazar: "That's the terrordome."

In the end, Centennial seized the advanced-level honors, defeating Howard 130 to 20. Mount Hebron captured the first-year competition, beating Howard by 70 points and Wilde Lake by 115 points, and the second-year competition, surpassing Oakland Mills by 10 points and Wilde Lake by 35 points.