Amo, Amas, Amat . . . and All That

The above being the title of a book by Harry Mount. I borrowed it from work (one of the privileges of being a Chapters employee), and it is due tomorrow. The subtitle: How to be a Latin Lover.

It’s a good book. It’s got some foundational, basic paradigms and grammar to help get a person jump-started in the Latin language as well as fun facts about Roman history, Roman architecture, Roman contact with Britain, and so on and so forth. It also makes a good case for the learning of Latin, something all of you should do. Now. Go and learn Latin!

Some good quotes:

Quoting William Hazlitt, The Round Table (1817), “The study of the Classics teaches us to believe that there is something really great and excellent in the world, surviving all the shocks of accident and fluctuations of opinion, and raises us above that low and servile fear which bows only to present power and upstart authority.”

“Knowing a bit of Latin is an invitation to the biggest room in the building, with a view down the corridor to all the succeeding ages. And you can get your hands on that invitation at any age. Alfred the Great, who knew how crucial it was to learn Latin to become a civilised man, took it up in his 30s.” (p. 16)

“English . . . is a bloody big jump from Latin. They are such different languages that a literal translation from one to the other sounds and looks very awkward, like putting a big foot in a small sock.” (p. 25)

“The really useful thing about Latin is not so much that it will help you understand English as that it will help you understand Latin, in which some of the most stirring prose and poetry ever was written. Know Latin, and you will know world literature from the third century BC, when writers got going in Rome, through the so-called Golden Age of Latin — Lucretius, Catullus, Sallust, Cicero and Caesar — the Augustan Age — Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Livy — down to the end of the Silver Age in 120 AD — Martial, Juvenal, Lucan, Seneca, Pliny and Tacitus.” (p. 27)

“The only reason you will know English better as a result of reading Latin is because it is so different from Latin, not because of any similarities. It is in computing the changes from one language to another that you are forced to think about the structure of each of them.” (p. 28)

“. . . it’s a good idea to try to avoid Latinate words when translating Latin. This isn’t just because Latin words don’t always translate into similar-sounding Latinate English words. It’s also that, for all the beauty of Latin, Latinate words in English are often clumsy and pompous . . .” (p. 37)

Quoting Kingsley Amis, The King’s English — A Guide to Modern usage (1997):

Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pendantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Mount continues, “You come across very few Berks in the modern Latin-reading world, and a lot of Wankers.

“Wankers have a proprietorial attachment to archaisms, mostly used by those who want to send out the strong signal — ‘I-know-this-clever-thing-and-you-don’t.’ Wankers will insist on a correct use of Latin in English when it actually ends up sounding ridiculous. For e.g.,

‘Do you think that people like me who know Latin tend to be genii who should be heard more often in auditoria?’

‘No, I think most geniuses would think you were a bit of a Wanker and would not want to bloody go near any auditoriums where there was any danger of you turning up.’

‘Not “to bloody go”. You’ve split an infinitive there. “To go near any bloody auditoria” is better.'” (40-41)

“English pedants date their dislike of a split infinitive from Latin. Since you can’t split a Latin infinitive, because it’s a single word, you shouldn’t do it in English, or so the pedants say.

“That seems bloody stupid to me — Latin and English are two different languages.

“‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’ . . . actually sounds better than ‘Boldly to go . . .’ or ‘To go boldly . . .'” (125)

It’s worth a read. Trust me.

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