Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Et tu, tutor?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, languages, latin

Vos specto hoc candide.
Latin mortuus lingua est.
Is primo caedo Romanorum.
Hic me caudes est.

Latin's a dead language,
It's plain enough to see:
First it killed the Romans
And now it's killing me!

I am one of those nerdy guys who actually liked Latin, though I had only one year's instruction in ninth grade. Thereafter I learned French, one of Latin's direct descendants. I think Latin class was the first time I saw someone in love with a subject. The teacher was one of the older women on the faculty, one much feared by us all. Yet when she was speaking Latin to us, particularly quoting a classical author, she was animated, joyful, and seemed half her age.

(Two years later I briefly dated her daughter, and found her a most hospitable homemaker. She'd had the daughter rather late in life, so I sympathize quite much with her, now being over sixty with a teenage son!)

Her instruction took fairly well. My grandmother visited just after the school year ended, and when she found I'd had a year of Latin, gave me a quick drill of a couple of verb conjugations...and pronounced me "satisfactory." She'd taught young Okies the classics in a one-room schoolhouse prior to 1915. She said, wistfully, "I had to teach those farm boys a little Greek, also. I wonder if it did any of them any good."

So I could not pass up Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life by Harry Mount, journalist and former Latin tutor. Harry Mount is not the stereotypical dry, string-bean, eccentric tutor—oh, he's eccentric all right, but seems a congenial pub comrade nonetheless! He makes no bones that the book is a bit of a Latin text, but he's doing his best to un-dessicate (from de sicco, "nearly dried out") the subject; so he alternates pedagogical chapters with cultural notes, both ancient (Cato's Carthago delenda est: "Carthage must be destroyed") and modern (A toga-clad John Belushi), and a lovely chapter extolling his Latin instructors and tutors. And in no other Latin text do we have this to illustrate the Latin diminutive (using the -ulus ending):
Hunc homunculum mirabilem habemus, qui quotidie venit ut uxoris caput terat.

We've got this marvelous little man who comes in daily to massage my wife's head.
One side statement he makes vindicated a thought I'd had: The Latin language rules seemed so rigid and often arbitrary. Surely the people in the street didn't speak the way Horace or Tacitus wrote...did they? No, they did not. Part of the reason Latin is so "deadly dead" is that nearly nobody who could write every wrote any "street Latin." So the closest we can come to hearing Latin spoken colloquially is by listening to Italian, which has changed the least...say a lover's quarrel, or a shopper haggling with a grocer, or a taxi driver's monologue.

Because the mass of written Classical Latin was poetic, the "poet's license" produced a plethora (a direct Latin word from a root meaning "fullness") of expressions you'd never hear in spoken prose. So Latin has become something more like Fortran: inflexible and with a nearly endless grammar (though nothing like the French language, which has something like 48 tense/mood combinations in a full conjugation, each with six parts).

The closing chapter is a bit of an elegy to the impending death of Latin instruction. The language seems likely to die out completely. Nearly nobody, not even in England, the former bastion of classical studies, is taught even a smattering of Latin, and classical Greek is effectively vanished.

I confess I did nearly none of the exercises found throughout the book. I've got just enough Latin to lightly edit an InterTran translation of the little ditty above, and to puzzle my way through parts of my old copy of Winnie ille pu. It has been forty-plus years, after all. But it does increase my enjoyment of language to know a bit of where my words come from.

English is full of little Latinate expressions (quid pro quo; tempus fugit; habeas corpus) and about a third of our modern English vocabulary derives directly from either Latin or Norman French, which was closer to Latin that to modern French. Another third derives from Greek (or from Latin words that started as Greek words), and the rest is from Germanic languages such as Anglo-Saxon (I say "the rest" but there is almost a "fourth third" of English that comes from dozens or hundreds of the world's languages...we are great borrowers).

Robin Williams taught us all Carpe Diem! Gathering up another classical allusion or two is the least a fellow can do.

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