Latin Alive!
by: Aldus Marius Peregrinus
There is something sneaky going on. The Latin language, after decades of neglect, has been creeping back into our collective consciousness and having itself a quiet little revival. Whether they're feeling classical or just curious, people are buying books with titles like Latin for All Occasions in enough quantity to keep the publishers looking for more. A few of us may want to take the plunge and actually learn the language. This doesn't have to be a daunting task; after all, English itself is almost sixty percent Latin-based, a hefty leg up by any standard. But there are significant differences between Latin and English, and a look at these should give us a better idea of what we're getting into.

The first and most pleasant surprise will be the delightful consistency of Latin spelling and pronunciation. Latin and English share the same set of letters; it's not called the Roman alphabet for nothing. The difference is that, while English throws us such curves as Dr. Seuss' "The tough coughs as he ploughs the dough", we can count on a given group of letters in Latin to always stand for the same sound. Every letter in a Latin word is pronounced; there are as many syllables as there are vowels; and once we've learned the sounds themselves and the rules for placing accent, we can speak or spell any word we know without having to worry about being ambushed by some silent letter. English should have it so good!

However, most people who are Latin-shy are not worried about spelling and pronunciation. No, they're remembering the horror stories about "declining" and "conjugating" and the two hundred possible endings for a Latin verb. Indeed, the system of word endings common to all of the Romance languages is so alien to anything we find in English that an otherwise sane individual can be driven to nightmares about misusing the subjunctive in public. How do we make heads or tails of it?

In English, a word's position in the sentence is our main clue to its function; where endings play any part at all they merely signify plurals (-s, -es), possession (-'s, -s'), and action past or in progress (-ed, -s, -ing). Latin word endings, however, work much harder for their salarium. Each noun, verb and adjective is composed of a stem (which stays the same no matter what) and any one of several endings which, once mastered tell us exactly what that word is doing in the sentence. The endings for nouns and adjectives come in five standard sets called declensions. These endings tell us if the noun is singular or plural and show its gender and case: whether the noun is serving as the subject, direct object or indirect object, as a possessive or in direct address. All the nouns in a given declension share the same set of endings. A verb likewise will belong to one of four conjugations, the endings of which shift to reflect person, number, tense, active or passive voice, and mood. But while a typical noun declension will have only twelve endings in it (six singular and six plural, two for each case), each verb conjugation contains (brace yourself!) over five hundred of the little monsters. Most of a Latin student's work will be in learning how to handle them. Perhaps we could just take six at a time and call a doctor in the morning...? >({(:-)

(By way of solace, since endings do so much of the work for us, we can be very relaxed about word order. "Caesar ordered a beer" works just as well in Latin whether we put Caesar first, the act of ordering, or the beer.)

Another aspect of the language that can be mildly unsettling is its specificity. Latin words are very particular about what they mean; there are separate terms for concepts which in English conversation are merely shades of meaning. This is actually one of the strengths of the language. Latin causes us to think a little harder about exactly what we're trying to say. The mental discipline of doing so can benefit us in either idiom.

So--what do we get for learning Latin? We gain access to a fascinating body of literature that ranges from Plautus' hilarious comedies to the yearnings of the poet Catullus; we experience a medium of unparalleled clarity of expression, capable in its heyday of making itself understood from Great Britain to Palestine. On the lighter side we can chalk classical graffiti on the sidewalk, or swear in traffic to our hearts' content and sound cultured doing it!

More than anything else, however, Latin words and the ideas they express give us insight into Roman law, tradition and culture, on which so much of our own is based. They tell the history of a struggling young republic which, much like ours, became a world power almost in spite of itself. And to the extent that we are the inheritors of Rome and the trustees of her legacy, they allow us to know ourselves.

  • Burris, Eli E., and Lionel Casson. Latin and Greek in Current Use: 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1949.

  • Humez, Alexander and Nicholas. A, B, C Et Cetera: The Life and Times of the Roman Alphabet. Boston: Godine, 1985.

  • Latin for People/Latina pro Populo. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1976.

  • Langenscheidt Universal Latin Dictionary. Berlin: Langenscheidt, 1966.

  • Pei, Mario. How to Learn Languages and What Languages to Learn. Enlarged ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

  • The Story of Language. Revised ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965.

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