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Latin, history and the beginnings of becoming a polyglot

September 9, 2014
Detail from the Lapis Niger from Forum Romanum...

Detail from the Lapis Niger from Forum Romanum. Oldest known example of writing in Latin language. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When in high school people would mention taking Latin, I flatly failed to see the attraction. If they tried to press me to take a course in the language, I would quip, “The Romans are dead; let them rest in peace,” meaning that I unquestioningly accepted the notion that studying languages was for communication. No one spoke Latin anymore except a few hobbyists, and they could not possibly speak it like a Roman would have. The notion of learning a language purely for reading purposes had not yet occurred to me, avid reader though I was and am. If my oversight is to be justified, I would point out that when asking what languages a person knows, people will commonly ask, “What languages do you speak?” not “What languages can you read?” Yet I would admit that if someone had a practical reason for studying Latin, I could see doing so. Taking the subject for one’s requirement of two years of a foreign language seemed both silly and impractical.

My attitude did not really change but I did develop a practical reason. When facing the end of high school and contemplating college, I asked myself what I wanted to do as a career for the rest of my life. The first part of my dawning self-awareness was that personality-wise, I was most suited to academic research. I could see myself passionately pursuing any number of subjects but the question was then which one to pick. After considerable thought, I concluded that my favorite subject was history, especially ancient history, and that the most appealing civilization was the Roman empire. I had an in-state scholarship and one of the state universities, Florida State University, was known for Classics; when I interviewed with the history department at the rival school, the University of Florida, the people I spoke to were upfront enough to recommend that I attend FSU instead. I remembered only well after the fact that they had told me I should apply to the Classics department and not the history department, but that mistake did not in the end lead to any problems. As time wore on through my last year of high school and the summer afterwards, I got increasingly more excited at the prospect of becoming a Roman historian. My parents were not thrilled at the idea, but they would not be paying for my college anyway.

Florida State University

Florida State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I entered FSU as a history major but that changed before orientation was over to a Classics major. Each student entering the university for the first time was required to come for a week-long orientation during which the student was shown the campus, took a battery of academic assessment exams and, after consulting a member of faculty assigned to the student as an adviser, signed up for classes. When I explained my intended career path, my adviser informed me that I should declare a Classics major instead of a history major, which I promptly did. So, I walked over to the Classics department and described to the departmental adviser (Mr. Dr. de Grummond, as opposed to his ex-wife Mrs. Dr. de Grummond whom I later had as an instructor– both impressive people) what my intended career path was; he listened and informed me that, while he was the department’s undergraduate adviser, the chief Roman historian was Dr. Tatum and so he should best advise me. While I would eventually change academic fields and my academic career has hit a few snags to say the least, the conversation that followed when I went down to Dr. Tatum’s office and introduced myself changed my life forever– in a good way.

To set the stage, one should bear in mind that I have always looked significantly younger than I actually am, and I was barely 18 at the time. Yet I matter-of-factly informed Dr. Tatum that I intended to pursue a career as a Roman historian, which I knew required earning a doctorate, before I had attended my first day of college. To his credit, like Mr. Dr. de Grummond before him, he did not laugh but described to me what I would need to do in order to follow that career path, emphasizing the difficulties. Yes, I would need to get a doctorate, but additionally I would need to know Latin and Classical Greek (for the primary sources) as well as German, French and Italian (for the scholarship since I was fortunate enough to be a native English speaker) just to function in graduate school. College needed to be about preparing me for graduate school, and so he recommended concentrating on the languages while at most minoring in history. For the modern languages, I would need to take classes for German (which should be easy after Greek) but after a grounding in Latin and Greek, I ought be able to pick up French and Italian (at least as research languages) readily on my own. Leaving his office, the notion of teaching myself a language sounded absurd but I was willing to accept that Dr. Tatum must know what he was talking about (as indeed he did); the task seemed daunting but feasible with sufficient hard work and so I was determined to do whatever I had to do. From that moment, I was (whether I knew it or not) on the road to becoming a polyglot.

Thus, I began taking Latin my first semester at college but as advised waited on Greek and German in order to stagger the languages; the idea was that I would be at a different stage of learning each in order to reduce confusion of languages. From the beginning, I approached Latin as one of the most important things I had ever studied because the life I wanted for myself demanded I know the language.

On the first day, two things happened of importance. The first was that we were set the task of learning the rules of Latin pronunciation according to the Classical rules. As the book (Wheelock’s Latin, third edition– a boring-looking but fabulous book with a plain red cover) explained this material in detail, the instructor promised to answer any questions the next day but he did not seem to expect any.From the beginning, I pronounced Latin as authentically as I could, essentially modifying my Spanish pronunciation to accord with the rules of the parent language. Consistently, I got complimented on my pronunciation. Of course, as a boy in Texas, the trilled r-sound had been the noise all of us boys would use for an engine when playing with toy cars. I played with toy cars a lot. Learning the Latin alphabet took me about ten minutes.

The second and more important thing which took up the entire class time was that I, along with the rest of the class, was introduced to the notion of a case system. In my experience, one of the greatest and most important differences between how modern and Classical languages are taught (when relevant) is the approach to a case system. At least in the United States, the conventional approach in modern languages is to try to minimize the amount of grammar students need to learn, to the detriment of the students’ learning. I saw in the German case I later took that the concept of a case system was never mentioned and the cases were not introduced together. So, students would not think in terms of a case system but would rather default to the nominative case except for the exceptions they had been taught. (Hence, they might reply to the question, “Wie geht’s?” with “Gut– und du?” instead of the correct “Gut– und dir?” In both Latin and Greek (not to mention Sanskrit) the student is told on the first day that a noun or pronoun and its modifiers change form according to their usage in the sentence. These forms are called cases, and when a person expresses him- or herself in Latin, a noun, pronoun, etc., must take the appropriate case to best fit the desired meaning. We then went over how each case was used. The instructor assured us that he did not expect us to master the material from the first day and that learning to think in terms of a case system would take time and practice; nevertheless if we were to learn Latin, we had to do it. (Notably a number of students did not return for the next class.)

In my dorm room, I would each day do whatever exercises I had to for class so that my homework was done, but then I would put all vocabulary, grammar and constructions on flashcards I made myself. I studied the language as if I were learning to speak it so that for example I would look at the meaning or description in English and try to give the corresponding Latin. Every time I made a mistake, I would start over going through the cards at the beginning until I could go through the cards twice without a mistake or hesitation. Then I would shuffle them and do it all again. Finally, after the second time doing this procedure, I would put aside the flashcards, go do something else and afterwards see if I could still go through the cards (having again shuffled them) twice without a mistake or hesitation. This procedure is the only way I have ever found to successfully memorize material. In class, I would hand in the assignments at the start of class but would have no notes in front of me. If I were called upon to translate something and to explain its grammar, as I would be in every class at least once, I made myself rely on my learning of vocabulary and grammar.

A notable point about the vocabulary though. Ultimately I wanted to be able to think in Latin, even if I never had a conversation in it with anyone else (although I would talk to myself in it when no one else was about). When looking at the English on my flashcards, I did my best to mentally associate the Latin word on the other side not with the English word itself but with whatever I mentally associated with that word. Thus, I tried to associate the word vinum with my mental picture of wine, not with the four-letter word on a page, and so forth. The idea was to attempt from the beginning to skip the step of translating in my head but rather to mentally operate in the language itself (in this instance, in Latin). While doing so makes the learning initially more difficult, it greatly facilitates getting over the mental barrier involved in thinking in a target language. That reasoning explained also why I did not refer to notes in class even after my instructors alloyed students to do so. (My first instructor in Latin, a graduate student and excellent teacher, set a policy from the beginning of banning notes in class, which introduced me to the idea, but I was quickly convinced of the idea’s merits.)

In my first two semesters at college, we finished the lessons in Wheelock, and I stayed for the summer term. (As I did each summer term there.) The third semester was a transition from grammar to reading genuine Latin literature. The text was an adapted version of the Cupid and Psyche episode from the Metamorphoses by Apuleius. (The nickname for it in the department was Cupid and Stupid.) It is a version of the beauty and the beast fable more or less. The instructor was Mrs. Dr. de Grummond. Whenever she thought the class was going to sleep, she would have us all stand by our desks and sing together a medieval Latin drinking song from Germany:

Gaudeamus igitur

iuvenes dum sumus. (repeat)

Post iucundum iuventutem,

post molestam senectutem,

nos habebit humus. (Repeat last line.)

The sentiment expressed accords with the saying, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die!” I absolutely loved the class, which was taught at the beginning of my second full year at college. (At began Greek the same term and German the next term.) By this time, I was driving a number of class-mates crazy because I would mostly prepare for class by memorizing unfamiliar vocabulary and reading through the text. Yet even if I did fully translate it beforehand, I used no notes in class.

The first text of unmodified Latin by an ancient author I studied was the speech Pro Archia by Cicero. I would diligently translate each assigned passage in my dorm room each day on a computer that did little more than word processing. Still, I used no notes in class, although I took plenty of notes for later use in the dorm room. At this point though, I had begun to realize that as much as I loved Classics, I loved Physics more. So because I wanted to finish my Classics degree requirements to concentrate on my new major, I made a mistake from a language learning point of view. Beyond the introductory courses, Latin courses consisted of two levels. The first concentrated on translation. The second was supposed to get the student to the point of reading Latin as readily as English. After one semester of Latin literature, I was not fully ready for that second level perhaps. Yet even if I was, I signed up for a class which was co-taught with a graduate course (the latter assuming students already could read Latin as well as English) and so the instructor blithely informed us all that she assumed everyone in the class could already read Latin like English. Frankly, I should have dropped the class that first day, but foolishly and stubbornly I did not. Although I managed to pass the class, I did not do well. At that point I no longer cared so much, but I did not get out of the class what I should have. Over the years, I have found that I can read Latin comfortably, but not as easily as I would like. I think at some level, I let the bad experience leave a bad mental association.

So, it has been a longstanding goal of mine to return to a focus on Latin that intense in order to improve my Latin. Of course, my Latin is not bad for reading by any means, but it is not as good as it could be and I use it less often than I should. I bought Latin translations of Winnie the Pooh and of the first two Harry Potter books for the purpose and have used them. Still, I think I ought read them again with greater focus and follow them up with genuine Latin texts read for fun.

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