The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education



Part I: Dorothy Sayers speaks about her experience learning Latin

I was born at Oxford, in the fourth year before Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  My father was at that time Headmaster of the Cathedral Choir School, where it was part of his duty to instruct small demons with angel-voices in the elements of the ancient Roman tongue.

I was rising seven when he appeared one morning in the nursery, holding in his hand a shabby black book, which had already seen some service, and addressed to me the following memorable words: “I think, my dear, that you are now old enough to begin to learn Latin.” … In those dark ages, half a century ago, before modern educational improvements had set in, that was the age at which one did begin to learn Latin.  My father, seeing his offspring approach that age, reacted automatically to the situation.  In the absence of little boys, he seized upon such infant material as was at hand, and went to work with the customary tool, which was, in fact, Dr. William Smith’s Principia.

I was by no means unwilling, because it seemed to me that it would be a very fine thing to learn Latin, and would place me in a position of superiority to my mother, my aunt, and my nurse-though not to my paternal grandmother, who was an old lady of parts, and had at least a nodding acquaintance with the language. My father sat down in the big chair, put his arm round me to restrain me from wriggling and, opening the book, confronted me with the mysterious formula:

mensa:  a table
mensa:  O table!
mensam: a table
mensae: of a table
mensae: to or for a table
mensa:  by, with, or from a table

Presumably at this point he explained that the ancient Romans had had the un-English habit of altering the endings of their nouns according as the case was altered.  I have no recollection of finding anything particularly odd about this: I was far too young.  Life was full of odd things which one accepted without protest, as simple facts.  A dog had four legs, a beetle six, a spider eight: why not?  I do remember wondering why anybody should ever want to say “O table”; and I also remember finding it, at some later point, entertaining that a sailor, a poet, or a husbandman should have feminine endings. However, the first three sentences of Exercise I raised none of those social problems, consisting as they did of the simple statements, Filia currit, Filiae currunt, Puellae rosas habent.

The book has now vanished into Limbo along with many other familiar objects of my childhood; but I think that in the course of that first morning’s work we arrived at a slightly more complicated and romantic situation, in which Poeta puellae rosas dat

When we had rendered Exercise I, Part 2, into Latin, my father rose up and went away, leaving the book with me, and recommending that I should commit the declension of mensa to memory. This I immediately did, being at that time of life when the committing to memory of meaningless syllables and inconsequent lists of things is as easy as “Hey-diddle-diddle”. I chanted the rigmarole aloud until I was familiar with it, and hastened away to show off my prowess in the kitchen.

From that time on, the Latin lesson became a daily event.  I will not pretend that the first fine careless rapture of achievement endured for ever. Dominus, I seem to remember, was well-received, though slightly complicated by neuters; and a new and highly satisfactory chant was soon added to the repertory, which went with a noble swing:

bonus, bona, bonum
bonum, bonam, bonum
boni, bonae, boni

and so forth, reaching a fine galumphing crescendo in

bonorum, bonarum, bonorum

before declining into a softly reiterated burden of

bonis, bonis, bonis.

With the Third Declension, the high and austere order of Imperial Rome seemed to lose grip a little.  Irregularities set in: there were nouns like rex, and mus, Defect-Christ-Church-Imageand caput, whose nominatives seemed to have lost their roots, and there was a tiresome difference of opinion between noun and adjective about the correct termination of the ablative singular.  On the whole, however, the lack of symmetry was atoned for by a certain whimsicality and coloratura.  The Fourth and Fifth Declensions remained rather exotic: one never got sufficient opportunities for using those fascinating terminations in -uum, -ubus, and -erum; on the other hand, there was always the perilous but exciting adventure of the double-barrelled declensions of respublica and, later on, of jusjurandum, where, alas! pride in the two-handed engine nearly always betrayed one into saying juremjurandum, and being scolded for not thinking.

And here, in passing, let us pay tribute to the memory of A. D. Godley, Public Orator in Oxford University, when I was an undergraduate, and to that noble poem which begins:

What is it that roareth thus?
Can it be a motor-bus?
Yes! the reek and hideous hum
Indicant motorem bum.

But the motor-bus was still in the future when I was trudging my way through the conjugations: the active voice, always friendly, except for a tendency to confusion between the future indicative and present subjunctive of the third and fourth conjugations (the rot always seemed to set in at the Third Anything); the passive voice always lumbering and hostile; the deponents lurking meanly about, hoping to delude one into construing them as passives; verbs like fero, so triumphantly irregular as to be permanently unforgettable; verbs with reduplicated perfects of a giggling absurdity-peperi was always good for a hearty Victorian pun-and defectives, which were simply a mess.  It is a nostalgic memory that I could at one time recite the whole table of irregulars without more than an occasional side-slip; and I still remember that utor, fruor, vescor, fungor are followed by the ablative, when many more generally useful fragments of knowledge have slipped into Lethe and vanished.

By this time, of course, the girls, the poets and the roses had slipped into the background.  We marched with Caesar, built walls with Balbo, and admired the conduct of Cornelia, who brought up her children diligently in order that they might be good citizens.  The mighty forest of syntax opened up its glades to exploration, adorned with its three monumental trees-the sturdy accusative and infinitive, the graceful ablative absolute, and the banyan-like and proliferating ut and the subjunctive.  Beneath their roots lurked a horrid scrubby tangle of words beginning with u, q and n, and a nasty rabbit-warren of prepositions.  There was also a horrid region, beset with pitfalls and mantraps, called Oratio Obliqua, into which one never entered without a shudder, and where, starting off from a simple accusative and infinitive, one tripped over sprawling dependent clauses and bogged one’s self down in the consecution of tenses, till one fell over a steep precipice into a Pluperfect Subjunctive, and was seen no more.


I do not know why the recollection of all this is pleasant to me.  Why, for example, did I in those days greatly prefer Latin to the French, of which I later became a master?  I do not think my father was a particularly inspired teacher; his methods would now be called unimaginative and old-fashioned to the last degree.  One reason may, I fancy, have been that the pronunciation, being flat-footedly English, gave me no trouble; another, that the complications of the morphology and syntax released in me some kind of low cunning which today finds expression in the solving of crossword puzzles.

By the time I was thirteen, the French had hauled up hand over fist upon the Latin, and overtaken it. I had a French governess with whom I conversed, and I read Moliëre and The Three Musketeers. I was not trained to converse in Latin, and the Augustan age produced no Dumas. This was, I think, a pity.

I was, indeed, introduced to the Latin authors. The day arrived on which, toiling very slowly with a vocabulary, I began to work my way line by line through the episode of Pyramus and Thisbe from the Metamorphoses.  After which we embarked, at the same snail’s pace, upon the second book of the Aeneid.

My father’s way with the involutions of the classic hexameter was calculated to lighten the labour of the student, though I am not sure whether it was the best approach to the literary beauties of Virgil.  Having explained the construction of the verse and brought me to the point of at least grasping the rhythm of the concluding dactyl and spondee, he would then kindly take my brief daily portion, tear it word from word, and rearrange the disjecta membra in the order in which Virgil would have written them had he been writing simply English prose for use in lower forms.  The consequence is that to this day I find it very difficult to assemble the clauses in any classic verse, or to decide which adjective belongs to which noun, or to see what principle, other than the brute necessity of getting the quantities in the right place, governs the order of the words in a line.  In the end, of course, these props and crutches were taken away from me, and I was left to grope my way about the verse for myself; but it never seemed more than a kind of jig-saw.

I cannot recollect what prose passages I read, if any, with my father.  Memory throws up the name of Cornelius Nepos, but with nothing attached to it.  The great trouble, I am sure, was the appalling slowness with which I proceeded.  The shape of the thing as a story or a poem was lost in the slow grubbing over the ground.  I could not then, much less since, ever read any passage of classical Latin swiftly, or by the eye; although in my early teens I could read and write French almost as quickly and correctly as English; and was not far behind in German.

As soon as I took up residence in Oxford, I was sent to a warrior called Mr. Herbert May, with instructions that I was to be crammed through Smalls.  Mr. May lived in a narrow, semi-detached house in the gloomier purlieus of Oxford, in a perpetual atmosphere of snuff.  With this he refreshed himself all through his coachings; and I would not grudge him a single pinch of it, for his life must have been a hard one.  So far as I know, he spent all his time with people like me.  He was the indefatigable seagull, forever winging his way through the clashing rocks of Latin Prose and Greek Unseens with a fleet of dismal and inexperienced Argonauts thrashing the seas at his tail.  A kindlier and more imperturbable man I never met.  In two terms he accomplished what my school-teachers had not ventured to undertake in four years.

We pounded our way through the Hecuba and the Alcestis; we coped with the Aorist; we mowed down under our feet that weedy growth of repulsive particles with which the Greek language is infested.  Oddly enough, I cannot recall what the Latin set books were, if any; but from the fact that I still remember a few lines of the Sixth Aeneid, I am inclined to think that we may have had to tackle it.  My only distinct recollection is of making my way through a series of Latin Proses, and of Mr. May, choking with laughter and snuff over some more than usually proposterous howler, recovering himself to say encouragingly: “Well, Miss Sayers, you do make the most elementary errors, but I will say for you that what you write is Latin.”  By which I took him to mean that I did instinctively frame the sentence after the high Roman fashion, collecting everything into a vast articulated complex of clauses and sub-clauses before proceeding to adorn the structure with passive deponents and the non-existent parts of defective verbs.  And I conclude from this that it was not my linguistic sense that was at fault, but that with more imaginative teaching I might have made as good a job of Latin as of German or French.

I got through Responsions, and that was the end of that.  The Degree course allowed me to do my Mods. in Modern Languages.  The Latin I no longer required began to slip away through the sieve of preoccupation.  The Greek lingered only long enough to steer me through a couple of Testaments for the now obsolete Divinity Mods., and then followed the Latin down the drain.  Two contacts only remained.  I was reading French, and the Old French required for the Language Papers demanded a minimum acquaintance with the Latin roots, morphology and syntax.  And as a member of the Bach Choir I learned to sing the Latin Mass and a number of mediaeval hymns and carols.

This added yet another pronunciation to my collection-the ecclesiastical.  I had been brought up to say “Pleeni sunt ceeli”; school had commanded me to say “Playnee soont koilee”; I now sang “Playnee soont chaylee”.  I had never, and I have never, been able to dissociate the written word from the spoken sound; if I cannot pronounce I cannot read. With the fragmentation of the sounds the disintegration of control followed so fast that at this stage in my career I could scarcely have read ten consecutive Latin words aloud in a consistent pronunciation and without false quantities, or construed ten consecutive lines.

Yet I believe that it was about this time that a dim glamour which had haunted me all my childhood, and haunts me to this day, began to shine into my mind like the sun rising through a mist-the shimmering, spell-binding magic of the medieval Latin.

Everybody is, I suppose, either Classic or Gothic by nature.  Either you feel in your bones that buildings should be rectangular boxes with lids to them, or you are moved to the marrow by walls that climb and branch, and break into a [sic] inflorescence of pinnacles. And however successfully you educate yourself to a just appreciation of the other kind, it will never have the same power to capture you soul and body in your unguarded moments.

In the same way, you either have the austere taste which delights in the delicate interplay of stress and quantity in the hexameter-only you must remember that nobody had ever once thought of showing me how that worked-or you have the more (if you like) twopence-coloured taste that reacts powerfully to:

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum
Coget omnes ante tronum.

Augustine was moved to tears by the sorrows and death of Dido, and with good reason:

illa, graves oculos conata attollere, rursus
deficit, infixum stridet sub pectore volnus.
ter sese attollens cubitoque adnixa levavit:
ter revoluta toro est, oculisque errantibus alto
quaesivit caelo lucem, ingemuitque reperta

A more plangent and piercing cry goes up from the foot of the Cross:

Pro peccatis suae gentis
vidit Jesum in tormentis
et flagellis subditum;
vidit suum dulcem natum
moriendo desolatum
dum emisit spiritum.

But I want to come back to this later.  For the moment I will only leave on record that my Latin education ended upon this note.  It ended, I say, there, leaving me, after close on twenty years’ teaching, unable to read a single Latin author with ease or fluency, unable to write a line of Latin without gross error, unfamiliar with the style and scope of any Latin author, except as I had taken refuge in English translations, and stammering of speech because by this time all three pronunciations were equally alien and uncertain. And this was a thing that never ought to have happened to me, because I was born with the gift of tongues.



Part II: Latin grammar: the most practical subject

I call this a very lamentable history. Yet there are two things I feel bound to say with all the emphasis I can command.  First: if you set aside classical specialists and the products of those public schools which still cling to the great tradition, I, mute and inglorious as I am, and having forgotten nearly all I ever learned, still know more Latin than most young people with whom I come in contact.  Secondly: that if I were asked what, of all the things I was ever taught, has been of the greatest practical use to me, I should have to answer: the Latin Grammar.

An early grounding in the Latin Grammar has these advantages:

1. It is the quickest and easiest way to gain mastery over one’s own language, because it supplies the structure upon which all language is built.  I never had any formal instruction in English grammar, nor have I ever felt the need of it, though I find I write more grammatically than most of my juniors.  It seems to me that the study of English grammar in isolation from the inflected origins of language must be quite bewildering. English is a highly sophisticated, highly analytical language, whose forms, syntax and construction can be grasped and handled correctly only by a good deal of hard reasoning, for the inflections are not there to enable one to distinguish automatically one case or one construction from another.  To embark on any complex English construction without the Latin Grammar is like trying to find one’s way across country without map or signposts.  That is why so few people nowadays can put together an English paragraph without being betrayed into a false concord, a hanging or wrongly attached participle, or a wrong consecution; and why many of them fall back upon writing in a series of short sentences, like a series of gasps, punctuated only by full stops.

2. Latin is the key to fifty per cent. of our vocabulary-either directly, or through French and other Romance languages. Without some acquaintance with the Latin roots, the meaning of each word has to be learnt and memorised separately-including, of course, that of the new formations with which the sciences are continually presenting us. Incidentally, the vocabulary of the common man is becoming more and more restricted, and this is not surprising.

3. Latin is the key to all the Romance languages directly, and indirectly to all inflected languages.  The sort of argument which continually crops up in correspondence upon the teaching of Latin is: “Why should children waste time learning a dead language when Spanish or what-have-you would be much more useful to him in business?”  The proper answer, which is practically never given, is the counter-question: “Why should a child waste time learning half a dozen languages from scratch, when Latin would enable him to learn them all in a fraction of the time?”  When I wanted to work on Dante, I taught myself to read the mediaeval Italian in a very few weeks’ time, with the aid of Latin, an Italian Grammar, and the initial assistance of a crib.  To learn to speak and write the modern tongue correctly would demand tuition and more time-but not much and not long.  Old as I am, I would back myself to learn Spanish, Portuguese or Provencal with equal ease.  But knowing French would not have helped me very much to read Italian, and I doubt whether, without the Latin substructure, Italian would help me very far with Portuguese; although, of course, the more languages one knows, the easier it is to learn more.  It is difficult to be sure, because it is impossible for me to empty my mind of the Latin, even in imagination.  But I know how very different a task it would be to start upon a language like Czech or Chinese, which would not open to the Latin key.

And I remember, too, in my own school-teaching days, being confronted by a class of girls of fifteen or sixteen, who had to have some German pumped into them for an exam.  They had done French in the ordinary way, but now had to offer a second language.  I remember saying-stupidly and without thinking, for I was still young-“No, you can’t say, ‘Ich bin gegeben ein Buch’,  ‘I have been given’ isn’t a true Passive”.  I remember their bewildered faces. And I remember realizing that we had come to the Wood where Things have no Names, and that everything would have to be laboriously thought out and explained from the very beginning.  And that they hadn’t got much time.

4. The literature of our own country and of Europe is so studded and punctuated with Latin phrases and classical allusions that without some knowledge of Latin it must be very difficult to make anything of it.  Here we are getting away from the uses of grammar to the benefits of background and culture.  I will therefore not say very much about it at this point, except to point out that the student of English history or English literature or English law is always encountering the odd tag, the Latin title, the isolated phrase, and that it must be quite maddening to have to stop and look them up every time in a reference book.

5. There is also the matter of derivation, as distinct from vocabulary. I cannot help feeling that it is wholesome, for example, to know that “civility” has some connection with the civitas; that “justice” is more closely akin to righteousness than to equality; and that there was once some dim and forgotten connection between reality and thought.


Part III: Suggestions for teaching Latin; Beginning age and pronunciation

… In the time that remains to me, I will rather sort over my own experience and see what it offers in the way of  constructive suggestions for the teaching of Latin.  I must repeat that I do not know what you are actually doing about this.  It will be for you to say whether your practice agrees anywhere with my theory, and, where it does not, whether and why you consider my suggestions impracticable or undesirable.

To begin, then, at the beginning: I am convinced that the age at which I began was the right one.  An acquaintance of mine whose boy is just starting life at a grammar school tells me that the boys there do not begin Latin till they are eleven.  I am sure that this is  too late.  In acquiring the Accidence, everything depends upon getting declensions and conjugations firmly fixed in the memory during the years when the mere learning of anything by rote is a delight rather than a burden.  The jingle of “mensa, mensa, mensam’ or “amo, amas, amat” belongs properly to the same mental age as “eeny, meeny, miney, mo”, or “This is the house that Jack built”.  By the time that the reasoning and arguing faculty is awake, the capacity for assembling sounds by aural memory is weakening, and by the age of puberty it is practically lost.  One can, of course, learn by heart at all ages if one earnestly puts one’s mind to it-in the sense that one can memorize a thing ad hoc, as an actor memorizes a part.  But the thing learnt at a later age does not abide graven upon the very foundations of memory like the thing learnt in childhood.  And the more rational one becomes, the more tedious and difficult it is to learn strings of sounds which are not logically associated.

Abstract nouns in -io call
Feminina one and all;
Masculine will only be
Things that you can touch or see,
As curculio, vespertilio,
Pugio, scipio, and papilio,
With the nouns that number show
Such as ternio, senio.

The first four lines of that mnemonic make sense, and so do the last two; if I had not known them from the cradle, I could learn them tomorrow.  But the fifth and sixth lines are different.  If I had to learn them fresh today, I should have forgotten them by tomorrow, because they make no connected sense.  But I remember them now, although I have not the faintest recollection of what any one of the words means, except papilio.  I could not possibly forget them, any more than I could forget hic, haec, hoc.  And it is all nonsense to pretend that small children hate and are bored by learning things by heart.  They like it.  They have a passion for it.  If they are given no outlet for this passion in school, they will devote themselves to memorizing number-plates or cricket averages.  The love of memorizing for memorizing’s sake is the hallmark of the sub-rational intellect, and it is simply silly not to take advantage of it while the going’s good.

What is, I am sure, a strain and vexation to the young mind is to be compelled to reason before the time; just as it is a strain and vexation to have to memorize after the best time for that kind of thing is past.  It is (as Wordsworth rightly pointed out) extremely unwise to keep bothering a young child with “Why, Edward, tell me why?” Wait till Edward asks “Why?” before burdening his mind with reasons.  And meanwhile let him chant “mensa, mensa, mensam” at the top of his voice.  His grown-ups will get tired of it before he does.  But do not on any account waste those precious years when declension and conjugation can be learned without difficulty and without boredom.

Now, as to the vexed question of pronunciation.  I will say here and now that I have never discovered, nor can I see, any reasonable use or excuse for the “waynee, weedee, weekee” convention.  It is not merely that I have a profound sympathy with one of my friends who says he just cannot believe that Caesar was the kind of man to talk in that kind of way.  Caesar may, indeed, have done so, but what then?  We do not, except experimentally at the Mermaid Theatre, or in a Third Programme broadcast by Neville Coghill, insist on pronouncing the English of Shakespeare and Chaucer as Shakespeare and Chaucer pronounced it.

Antiquarian research is useful and enlightening; but for the general use and enjoyment of literature we adopt other standards.  And if we have succeeded (which is not certain) in discovering the pronunciation used in the Augustan age, it is probably that that pronunciation did not endure very long-no pronunciation does.  It had certainly gone by the time that the Romance languages began to issue out of the Latin matrix.  And the “New”, or Antiquarian pronunciation, has serious disadvantages.  It is the remotest of all from the modern English pronunciation, whether of common words or of proper nouns, and therefore to us the least helpful for derivations and for feeling the continuity of linguistic development.  You cannot sing it.  And it does not link us with our fellow Latinists on the Continent, who all tend to assimilate the Latin to the vernacular in the traditional way.  Indeed, I think the only person I have heard casually using the Antiquarian Latin was a young American whom I once encountered at lunch; and even he, if I had replied with the ecclesiastical pronunciation, would probably have understood me.

The really important thing, however, is that there should be, at any rate during the period of schooling, a uniform usage.  If one rejects the Antiquarian school of thought, there remain two other possibilities for English students.  There is the “Old” or “Protestant” usage.  This probably began to be used in this country during the fifteenth century, perhaps partly as an anti-Papist and anti-foreign measure; but chiefly in order to keep the pronunciation of Latin in line with that of the vernacular, which was also changing rapidly at about that period.  This harnessing of the Latin to the vernacular is traditional in every country, and has very much to be said for it. It enables the child to learn Latin with rapidity and ease, just because it does not require him to load his tongue and memory with a new set of vowel-and-consonant associations.  It assists him greatly to discover for himself the derivations and history of his own native words.  It makes no confusing discrepancies between the pronunciation of proper names and their derivations-between, for instance, Keekero and Ciceronian, Kysar and Caesarism; and it makes for a decent uniformity in the pronunciation of Latin names that have been anglicized.

… The “Old” pronunciation had, however, two very grave drawbacks.  It did not pay attention to the intrinsic quantity of vowels.  One was brought up to decline bos, bovis, which made it peculiarly hard to remember that the “o” of bos is in fact long, and the “o” of bovis short when it came to actually scanning them.  This also greatly increased the difficulty of appreciating the music and pattern of quantitative verse, let alone, I should imagine, of writing it.  If the English people had nobody but themselves to consider, I should feel strongly inclined to advocate a return to the “Old” pronunciation, but with a readjustment of the conventional vowel-sounds to coincide with their quantitative values, pronouncing mater, but pater, locus, manus, mihi (instead of mihi) and so on, with all consonant and vowel sounds as in English (e.g. the soft “c” and “g” before “i” and “e”, and the “j” and “v” as “j” and “v”).  The only awkwardness that I can see would arise with first and second declension dative and ablative plurals: mensis would give a false quantity-mensees would introduce a foreign vowel sound, and mensice might need some getting used to.  I am quite sure that for the average child, for whom it is important not to spend too much time and trouble (not to mention tears) upon the rudiments, this would be by far the quickest, easiest, and most generally helpful pronunciation to adopt.

Unfortunately, there would still remain the other very serious drawback, arising out of the fact that the modern English values of a, e, i and u have developed in a direction which isolates them completely from the values given to those vowels on the continent.  The more closely we follow the tradition of assimilating the Latin to the vernacular, the less possible does it become to restore the use of Latin as a lingua franca.  If it appeared in any way possible so to restore it, then I think it might be better to plump from the start for the ecclesiastical pronunciation, which can be understood in every country where Latin Mass is sung, even by those who do not attend Mass.  The ecclesiastical Latin is beautiful, singable, and cosmopolitan; neither does it demand from English Catholics a divided allegiance. Moreover, although equally with the “Antiquarian” usage, it disguises the connection between the modern English speech and its Latin roots, yet it links us up with our own history; for it is to all intents and purposes the Latin spoken by our own countrymen up to the time of the great vowel-shift.


Part IV: The case for Christian Latin

But, putting the question of pronunciation aside, and supposing that my own experience in this matter had been less unfortunate, where did my Latin education, starting so well as it did, go wrong?  Looking back upon it, I feel sure that the trouble was simply that the whole process was far too slow.  Why did the French, which I began by hating, haul up so fast upon the Latin, which I began by loving?  For two reasons: I was encouraged-not to say compelled-to speak it every day and for a great part of the day.  And, more important still, as soon as I had got a hold of the grammar, it presented me with works of literature which were not only in themselves such as to hold a child’s attention, but which were easy enough to be read fluently and quickly, by pages instead of paragraphs at a time, and were written in the same language which I was learning to speak.

All this was, of course, made easy for me by the fact that I was brought up at home with a French governess.  The problem of learning any language conversationally in school, with little time and large classes, is a baffling one.  You cannot possibly hope to get the same results as by individual teaching.  You can give French lessons in French to the more avanced forms; and you can encourage the acting of French plays.  You can, no doubt, do as much for Latin, if the number of periods in the week allotted to this study allows it, and if everybody’s energies are not taken up by preparing set books for examinations.  You cannot, unhappily, send pupils abroad to Latin-speaking countries to brush up their spoken Latin in the holidays.  I do not know whether there is much hope of ever establishing conversational Latin even on the same scale as conversational French.  I suspect that much depends on the type of school and on the sex and social background of the scholars.  So I will not dwell on this aspect of the matter, except to say that I think it would have helped me very much if I had ever been got into the habit of speaking Latin, if only to say “Please” and “Thank you” and “Pass the mustard”.  Even without conversation, reading might have stimulated the enthusiasm which leads to ease and fluency.  But here was the trouble-I could not get on fast enough.  And it is my belief that the classical texts of the Augustan Age are simply far too difficult.

They were difficult even in their own day, in the sense that they were elaborate, literary, and highly artificial.  The language of Cicero was not spoken in the streets, nor even, I fancy, in the drawing-rooms, of ancient Rome.  The legions did not tramp their way to victory chanting the Hellenic, quantitative measures which delighted the ears of the  cognoscenti assembled at poetry-readings or exchanging culture in the baths.  The ordinary educated Roman could appreciate Virgil and Horace or Cicero because he came to them through his own daily speech, as we come through our own modern speech to the elaborations of Joyce and Eliot.  And as time went on and the language changed, they could still go back through their own speech to the writings of the Golden Age, as we, through our speech, go back to the Metaphysicals and to Euphues-if we ever do go back to Euphues, which is perhaps a little doubtful.  But teachers do not, as a rule, ask foreign children to plunge immediately into the study of English by way of Donne and Euphues without any help at all from the current English, whose syntax and vocabulary are so much nearer to their own.  Doubtless, when the time comes, they are put on to Shakespeare; but they are not, from the start, confined exclusively to the highly compressed and elliptical language of the later Shakespeare, on the grounds that this represents the Golden Age of English from which every later development is a debasement and a degeneration of the language.  Yet this is the way in which, for the last four hundred years or so, we have started English boys on the learning of Latin.  It can, of course, be done.  It was done-in a more leisured age, and for one sex only of a privileged professional class, and in schools which concentrated on the teaching of classical languages and on uncommonly little else.  But I doubt if it is the right way of going about it today.  And it is not the way in which it was done for the first fifteen centuries of our era.

It is being borne in upon me with more and more force and with every year I live that the greatest single defect of my own Latin education, and that (I expect) of many other people, is the almost total neglect of those fifteen Christian centuries.  The great reproach cast up against Latin by those who would drive it altogether from the schools is that it is a dead language.  But if it is dead today, it is because the Classical Scholars killed it by smothering it with too much love.  Up to the time of the Revival of Learning, it was a living language, growing and developing like a living language alongside of its children and grandchildren and, like many a hearty and lively grandparent today, picking up much of their speech and slang as it went along.  It is fascinating to watch it from the first century onwards, assimilating syntax and vocabulary from the vernacular Greek, weaving in the Hebrew through the Vulgate-after the same manner, though perhaps not to the same extent, as Anglo-Saxon assimilated the Norman-French; to see it renewing itself by contact with its own Romance languages as English renews itself by contact with American, becoming more analytic as they become more analytic, and developing a new vocabulary to express current ideas.  Contamination and barbarism are one set of names for this sort of thing: another name is vitality.  Everything which is alive tends to break out into vulgarity at times.  Only the dead and embalmed can preserve for ever their changeless marmoreal dignity.

The extent to which the legend of a sculpturesque classicism has fastened upon the popular English mind is curious and interesting.  I find, for example, that the thing in my own plays which excites most outrage and contempt-not from scholars, who know better, but from the average semi-educated reviewer-is that I make the Roman common soldier talk British Army slang.  It would, I imagine, be vain to point out that what Roman soldiers in fact talked was Roman Army slang.  It is rooted in the popular mind that not merely the native Praetorians but also the mixed ranks of fourth-century foreign mercenaries conversed about the camp-fire in the periods of Cicero, or at the very least in those of Caesar-for which the correct equivalent is supposed to be Victorian Wardour Street. It was when I was digging down at Oxford for the roots of the French language that the origin of the word tête was first revealed to me: testa, a potsherd.  In that disreputable period when the spoken word was passing into Romance, the Latin man-in-the-street was unregenerately referring to his pal’s face as his “mug”.  That, I think, was the day on which I first saw the light.

Tempora mutantur, but certain tendencies seem to be ingrained in the human race, and are preserved in philology as flies are preserved in amber.  Yet chief long remained current side-by-side with tête, as the once-vulgar “donkey” still holds its place beside the reverent and biblical “ass”.  Perhaps time will eventually ennoble “mug” and “moke” also.

There is another and profounder sense in which the Augustan Latin is felt to be dead.  Our civilization, such as it is, remains in its living bones a Christian civilization-and the Augustan Latin was never Christian. Even those who most roundly assert that Christianity is dead bring it to the bar of their inherited Christian values, and by the concentrated rage which they bring to its obsequies proclaim that it is in many ways disconcertingly alive.  Nobody is either annoyed or delighted over the assertion that Great Pan is dead and the Olympians only myths.  And the language in which Augustine of Hippo fought the Manichees and-later, but without breach of continuity-Aquinas defended Aristotle, and Galileo fought Rome for the movement of the earth, is, if dead, dead with a different deadness from that of a language which officially recognizes only the Olympians.  To set up a great gap in learning and literature between the days of Augustus and the Renaissance is not true to life or history.

And-to go back to my former point-the Medieval Latin is much easier than the classical.  Not all of it; some of it is very crabbed, and there were always, in every age, men who tried to conform their living Latin to the Latin of the Augustans.  But the true mediaeval Latin is akin to us, with its simplified construction and modern analytical syntax.  The proof of that is that I, who cannot read a page of Virgil or Cicero or Horace without the pains of the damned, can read Aquinas without more difficulty than is involved in understanding what he is talking about.  When I read Benvenuto da Imola on Dante, I can pass from Italian text to Latin commentary and scarcely notice the change-over.  In short, my training in the Latin grammar, while it left me still unfitted to cope with the Augustans, did fit me to cope with the Medievals, whom I could have read easily and fluently, had anybody directed my attention to them in time.

And lest you should think I know too little to know what I am talking about, I will quote from the preface of a book which I met with only the other day after I had decided what I was going to say to you.  I wish I had known of its existence earlier: it would have solved half my problems for me.  That is H. P. V. Nunn’s Introduction to the Study of Ecclesiastical Latin. He says:

Much of Classical Latin is highly artificial, not to say unnatural, in its modes of expression.  The authors whose works are most generally read wrote for a fastidious and highly cultivated society of littérateurs . . . and especially under the early Empire, they wrote with a view to reading their works to admiring circles of friends, whose applause they hoped to arouse by some novel or far-fetched term of expression.

And, having said that those who intend to use his book “should possess at least a knowledge of the conjugations of Latin verbs and the declensions of Latin nouns such as may be got from any primer”-and that was what I had, before I was in my teens-he goes on:
The author feels confident from experience that those who begin with the Latin Bible and the easier Ecclesiastical authors, will be able to go on to the study of the classics, if they desire to do so, with far more intelligence and profit than if they had tried to approach them without some previous preparation.

Well, I had begun to think that, but should have been afraid to say it, because I had never tried it, nor known anybody else who had.  But his experience, it seems, confirms my instinct.  And, after all, that is the natural way of learning any language-to begin with the more modern and go back to the more ancient, even if the ancient is the more noble and curial. It is true that many people, if started upon the Mediaevals, would, in this hurried century, never have time to go further.  Even so, would half a loaf not be better than no bread?  Their training in the Vulgate would not enable them to write like Cicero; but it would be something to be able to write Vulgate Latin.  After all, few of us actually ever succeed in writing like Milton or Dr. Johnson; but to write like Conan Doyle or Eleanor Farjeon is better than never learning to write at all: a plain, homely prose and a tripping verse have their uses.  And the Mediaeval Latin at its worst is seldom ignoble; at its best, it is noble indeed.


Part V: Summary

At twenty years of age, the old-fashioned schooling turned me out helpless, ignorant and dissatisfied.  Forty years later I encounter the product of the new schooling-still more helpless, still more ignorant, and possibly not even dissatisfied.

But ignorance has seldom prevented anybody from laying down the law about how other people ought to run their jobs, and proposing impracticable solutions.  So I will proceed to offer a few “constructive suggestions”, as they say, for getting boys and girls reasonably well Latinized with the least possible waste of time and energy.

1. Catch ’em young and get the Accidence into them along with the multiplication table (if they still learn that). Eleven years old is too late-they are beginning to think.

2. Throw that dreary man Cicero out of the window, and request the divine Virgil (with the utmost love and respect) to take a seat along with his fellow Augustans and the First Consul, until your pupils are ready to be ushered into the [sic] presence.

3. Choose a pronunciation and stick to it.

4. Start your youngsters off upon the mediaeval syntax and the easiest and simplest mediaeval texts. (Books? No, I know there are no books. I will come to that later.)  Let the readings go as fast as possible, getting on to long, sustained extracts as soon as may be, and using a crib if necessary (except, of course, for Unseens).

5. If possible, let them speak Latin in class.  Let them write simple proses-not about Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but about their cats and dogs and what they do at home.  Don’t bother too much about style, so long as they get something down; and if they ask what is the Latin for “Skye Terrier” or “motor-scooter”, bear in mind that a trifle of that kind would not have flummoxed Abelard or Roger Bacon.  The singing of Latin hymns and carols would help too. And they might write and act their own Latin Nativity Play.

6. Let them get up their classical myths and general background in English.  It would do no harm to introduce them to Ovid and Virgil in a good translation, if you can find one.  Caesar, if you like (though the girls won’t care much about him).  How about the letters of the Younger Pliny, which cover the link-up with Christianity?  The most important thing is to display the people who spoke Latin as real people, living right on from Caesar’s time into the Middle Ages.

7. When the time comes-that is, when they can read with ease and have a decent vocabulary-let them go on to the Augustans in the original, pointing out that these are works of literature and intended to be enjoyed as such.  Pick the really exciting, moving and memorable bits, and let them express themselves freely about the sportsmanship displayed at the Funeral Games in honour of Anchises!  This is your moment for wrestling with the quantitative metres, and with the difference between Mediaeval and Classical syntax.  It should at worst offer little more difficulty than the difference between modern English and the English of Chaucer.

Now as to books. The trouble is, as you rightly say, that even if you could bear to teach the Mediaeval Latin, there are no annotated texts.  Mr. Nunn’s book, which I have mentioned, contains a useful guide to syntax, and a number of short extracts from Christian authors covering the period I have in mind, i.e. from the Vulgate to the Renaissance. (Post-Renaissance texts should be avoided at first, being quite as hard as the Classical and more derivative.  And, indeed, all the writers who at any period were being consciously Augustan should be avoided in the early stages.)  Being primarily intended for the use of theological students, Mr. Nunn’s extracts are rather too exclusively ecclesiastical for our purpose, and need supplementing by some secular texts.

Being myself very ignorant, I asked C. S. Lewis about this, and here are his suggestions: For an intelligible narrative poem, what about a chunk out of Waltharius, by Ekehard, of St. Gall (tenth century).  See a delightful account of it in W. P. Ker’s Dark Ages.  For Prose: Saxo Grammaticus (give them the Hamlet story); Jordanes (vel Jornandes) De Rebus Geticis (lots about Attila); Gregorius Turonensis Historia Francorum; the anonymous Gesta Francorum (on the First Crusade); Geoffrey of Monmouth (some Arthurian bit); and-if you want to include something of the Renaissance-Kepler’s Somnium, which is the first real instance of “scientifiction”.

To this list one could add immediately a number of the Mediaeval Latin Lyrics, of which Helen Waddell has given us a selection (though her translations are rather loose and over-romanticized), and one or two odd things which have an interest of their own, such as Dante’s “Letter to a Friend in Florence”; and there should be some fun in the mediaeval Bestiaries.  Other things should turn up-few people have explored mediaeval texts with this purpose in mind. But keep things simple-don’t wrestle with the complications of the cursus!  If you can get your colleagues in the History and English schools to lend a hand with the game by linking these various authors up with their background, so much the better.

What you would need, in addition to Mr. Nunn’s book is: (a) A book of exercises, to go with the grammar.  (b) A more extended selection of “Late and Medieval Latin Unseens for the use of Middle and Upper Forms”, with vocabulary and annotations.  (c) A series of annotated texts, for reading in extenso.  These things do not exist; but they could be written.  Nobody, by the way, need be afraid of setting pupils passages from the Vulgate, on the grounds that it would be over-familiar.  In my experience, the Bible is unknown country to most young people nowadays.

Let me end with the famous heart-cry from Augustine-him who wept for Dido: Cur ergo Graecam etiam grammaticam oderam talia cantantem? Nam et Homerus peritus texere tales fabulas, et dulcissime vanus est, et mihi tamen amarus erat puero. Credo etiam Graecis pueris Virgilius ita sit, cum eum sic discere coguntur, ut ego illum. Videlicet difficultas, difficultas omnino ediscendae peregrinae linguae, quasi felle aspergebat omnes suavitates Graecas fabulosarum narrationum. Nulla enim verba illa noveram, et saevis terroribus ac poenis ut nossem instabatur mihi vehementer.  (We have abolished the cruel threats and punishments, but boredom is quite as frustrating.) Nam et Latina aliquando infans nulla noveram; et tamen advertendo didici sine ullo metu et cruciatu, inter etiam blandimenta nutricum et joca arridentium et laetitias alludentium. Didici vero illa sine poenali onere urgentium cum me urgeret cor meum ad parienda concepta sua, quae non possem, nisi aliqua verba didicissem, non a docentibus sed a loquentibus, in quorum et ego auribus parturiebam quidquid sentiebam. Hinc satis elucet majorem habere vim ad discenda ista liberam curiositatem, quam meticulosam necessitatem.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2010 edition.

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