Tag Archives: latin

10 books, no. 2: Ubi Fera Sunt

I was twice challenged on Facebook to post a book cover per day for a period of days. I forget if it was 7 books in 7 days or 10 in 10. I chose 10. I think they were supposed to be influential and not just favourites, so I sought books that have influenced me. Allow me to write some musings on them, one by one…

Book No. 2: Ubi Fera Sunt by Maurice Sendak, translated by Richard A. Lafleur

When I posted the image of The Tale of Peter Rabbit on Facebook, someone commented, “Not the Latin version?” I only own three children’s books translated into Latin — Ubi Fera SuntWinnie-ille-Pu, and Hobbitus Ille. I had been planning on posting Where the Wild Things Are at some point, anyway, so I took the opportunity and posted its Latin translation as book no. 2.

First, Ubi Fera Sunt: This is a fun, enjoyable read. The Latin has a nice rhythm to it. I commend Lafleur for his work here, although I don’t know why “wild rumpus” was not translated as “rumpus ferox” or “ferox rumpus” or somesuch. My eldest son has enjoyed listening to it in the past, although last time he got frustrated when he asked me to take it down from the bookcase, and it turned out not to be in English!

So then he got the English version.

So, Where the Wild Things Are. I have fond memories of liking this book as a child, although I have no memory of having read it until I was an undergrad. My childhood memories, in fact, are largely associated with my eldest brother, for some reason. Perhaps he was the owner of the book.

As I have written on this blog before, I like this book because it is absolute story, much as a Bach toccata is absolute music. There is no moral to the story. This is not a story about issues. It is, pure and simple, a story about a boy imagining things, except that they are presented as the prime events as the story and not really as imaginings.

Max’s imagination is not an escape from anything other than any child’s life. We do not need divorce or sadness of any kind for this story to work. We need little boys and girls and what they do when left alone in their rooms without supper. That is all.

Whether in English or Latin, I love this book. It is splendid, and it is a joy to share it with my sons.

Latin: Story of a World Language by Jurgen Leonhardt

If you are looking for a single volume history of Latin, I recommend this volume by Jürgen Leonhardt. Leonhardt does not spend energy on Indo-European linguistics, and he does not linger on the fragments of old Latin — the story of Latin is far too long for that. The most sizeable portion of the book is the chapter entitled ‘Europe’s Latin Millennium’ — tracing the centuries 800-1800.

Nonetheless, ancient Latin has its place. Indeed, we cannot have Latin as a world language without Latin as the Romans’ language. Leonhardt gives a readable discussion of the ‘classical’ period of Latin literature, the era of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Ovid, et al. This era of Late Republican and Early Imperial Latin literature is important for the story of Latin literature because of two major developments. First, this is the era when Latin authors sought not to imitate but to rival Greek authors. Horace does not wish simply to be a Latin lyric poet in the tradition of the Greeks; he seeks to outstrip them. Second, this is the era of linguistic history when the Latin language ceases to change. The Latin of Cicero is syntactically and grammatically the same Latin as Augustine.

This fixing of Latin at this historical moment, a moment when so much enduring literature was written (the two mutually reinforce each other) meant that Latin was able to truly become a world language. The story of Latin when it is no longer connected to the ancient Roman world is the story of the bulk of this book.

Leonhardt’s book is full of interesting facts and important arguments, for which there is not a lot of time in this review. What is most significant, I think, is the argument that Latin in the Middle Ages created the space for vernacular literatures, and there was not originally competition between Latin and the vernacular. A piece of evidence for this mutual coinherence of literary space is the fact that our earliest vernacular literatures — Old English and Old Irish — emerge precisely in places where Latin literacy was maintained. Similarly, in periods when Latin goes through a slump — the 900s, for example — so do vernacular literatures.

The vernacular literatures only start to compete with Latin as the Early Modern period progresses. Even then, the competition is slow. In Italy, for a very long time, they considered Latin the grammatical form of the language for literature and Italian as simply the volgare. Moreover, even if places like England and France were using the vernacular for their court, this has little to do with poets, philosophers, and theologians who want an international audience. While our association of the rise of vernacular literature with the Early Modern world is not entirely off the mark, it is also worth noting that so many famous authors of the time wrote in Latin for a wider distribution, even if a lot of them also wrote in the vernacular: Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Lancelot Andrewes, John Calvin, and many Germans.

In fact, Latin remained the supraregional language within Germany for a very long time due to the fact that many German dialects are mutually incomprehensible. The book includes a very interesting discussion of Bach being hired by the Thomasschule in Leipzig, mostly about the state of Latin teaching and humanism at the time. One simple point, however, is that, although Bach was not considered qualified to teach Latin, he was still able to converse in Latin and answer catechetical questions in his job interview. A very different era from today.

Alongside a consideration of Latin literature and its variety through the ages, this book looks at Latin pedagogy in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and 1800s, and Leonhardt argues that one of the things that helped make Latin less alive in the 1800s is the lack of instruction in spoken, daily Latin but simply the style we all know from our own Latin classes, of memorising paradigms and vocabulary and nothing but the Classics for our reading.

In the book’s close come many challenges for those of us invested in Latin today. It is not enough to say with Harry Mount’s book Amo, Amas, Amat and All That that the best reason to learn Latin today is to be able to read the Latin classics, simply because too few people are interested in the effort required when they can, instead, read A D Melville’s Ovid, Robert Fagles’ Aeneid, David Ferry’s Horace, John Yardley’s Livy. However, given that over 90% of the Latin ever written remains unread and unedited, there is much potential for growth in the field. While Cicero and the turn of the era should remain an essential ingredient of Latin instruction, Leonhardt argues for promoting the riches of medieval and modern Latin as cause for students to become interested.

He also argues that we need to make Latin instruction live again — bring in more conversation, perhaps. Investigate methods from modern languages. Help students do composition exercises related to things other than politics and war. He doesn’t say it in quite these words, but that’s the feel I got.

This book is well worth the read for anyone interested in Latin, even if it’s just nostalgia from having studied it in school in the 1960s.

Loving Horace

Horace’s Odes by William Morris

I recently finished teaching Horace, Epistles, Book 1, to my fourth-year Latin poetry class. One of the things I like about my current position is that I get to teach texts that have no direct bearing on my research. I research late antique Latin prose letters written by bishops of Rome. The fact that they are letters in Latin is the strongest link these texts have to Horace.

I get to teach literature that I simply like with no wider vision in mind. I even got to choose — Horace’s Epistles, Ovid’s Letters from Pontus, one of Ovid’s Heroides, and some of Ausonius’ verse letters (I couldn’t keep Late Antiquity out!).

Not all of my students enjoy Horace. For some, it’s simply that, compared with Ovid, Heroides 1, Horace’s Epistles are more difficult, both in terms of Latin grammar and vocabulary and in terms of grasping what he means. Horace is harder to interpret, at least here. Some dislike the moralist attitude he often adopts in the Epistles, others aren’t enamoured with his love of the countryside.

I, on the other hand, really enjoy Horace’s Epistles. In fact, I like Horace at large, even with ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s fatherland) and ‘odi profanum uulgus et arceo’ (I hate and shun the profane mob). I also have to admit that I don’t always agree with Horace’s philosophy.

The basic principles of Horace’s philosophy as spelled out in the Epistles seem okay to me — live a contented life whatever the circumstances; each man is the measure of his own freedom; indebtedness to others is no true freedom; live in accordance with your own nature, even if that means you differ from other wise men; Homer offers more wisdom than the philosophers.

Nevertheless, his own self gets in the way. Sure — live a contented life wherever you are. But wouldn’t you rather live in the country like me? Isn’t it better to avoid the City (Rome) in August and September? I can see how some people, reading always with suspicion — especially with suspicion of wealthy aristocrats — would dislike Horace for this, let alone his two famous phrases above.

Nonetheless, I did see students coming around. One student loved how beautiful his verse is. This is a statement that cannot be borne out by an English blog post. Read it yourself. It is beautiful. Horace is a consummate poet. We could also balance out some of his hard edges with his fables that always surprise the reader used to different modes of poetic voice — suddenly, as if out of nowhere, he tells the story of the horse and the stag doing battle …

But for an individual reader, balancing the positive and negative will not always work. Can we love Horace without having to like him?

Well, we can theoretically love our neighbours and enemies without always liking them.

Perhaps we begin with the balance — the fables, the beauty, the philosophy, the syntax, the morals. Uneven. Unequal. Human. Rather than trying to allow the good to outweigh the bad, simply acknowledge this situation.

Maybe then seek empathy. His inconsistencies in philosophy, for example, merely make him human, not a bad poet. Consider why he loves the country. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of his philosophical and moral statements. Then read the Latin aloud for its sonorous beauty. Parse a sentence and see his art, grammar, syntax, all at work at once.

Read Horace as high art, beautiful poetry, created by a flawed human, as weak and feeble as all of us.

Maybe then the resistant reader can come to love him.

Finally — loving Horace is different from loving Ovid, and different again from loving Virgil, let alone from loving Shakespeare or T S Eliot. And that’s okay.

But I think you could try this with any author.

Full disclosure: The inspiration for this post was Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.

The rediscovery of Greek and the ‘death’ of Latin

I can hardly believe this exists!

One of the defining periods in the history of the Latin language is the beginning of the Central Middle Ages — at this time, the Romance languages started to emerge more and more as distinct, local vernaculars separate from Latin. However, Latin continued to be used and learned in the same way second languages are today — it was used from Ireland and Britain through the Romance nations across into such far-flung lands as Denmark, Bohemia, Hungary. Latin would not truly ‘die’ as a living (albeit learned) language until the 1800s, as recently argued in Latin: Story of a World Language by Jürgen Leonhardt (Harvard, 2013).

I haven’t read all of Leonhardt’s book (full disclosure!), so I am not sure if today’s musings align with his evidence and arguments.

Nevertheless, I shall venture the following thoughts arising from reading Hugh Houghton’s brand-new The Latin New Testament: A Guide to Its Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts (Oxford, 2016). Part I of Houghton’s book is a chronological history of the Latin New Testament, the final chapter of which is ‘The Tenth Century Onwards.’ In the final section of this chapter (pp. 108-110), the ‘rediscovery of Greek’ is discussed.

In the twelfth century, knowledge of Greek was returning to Latin Europe; our first bilingual Greek-Latin New Testament after some ninth-century Irish examples is from that century. I have always appreciated the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for their renewal of Greek knowledge — by the time of Thomas Aquinas, all of Aristotle had been translated out of Greek, so the greatest philosopher-theologian of the Middle Ages was able to use that translation rather than the earlier translations from Arabic (that are all that people like to mention, as though Spain were the only place of cross-cultural interaction in the Mediterranean). Houghton notes that we have twelve surviving Greek-Latin bilingual New Testament manuscripts from between the late thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Now, part of what makes the history of the Latin Bible interesting is its ongoing relationship with the original texts from which it was translated. Jerome revised the Gospels and the Old Testament (I’m not sure how much of the OT, though), and around the same time, other portions were also revised — these revised versions eventually come to be ‘standard’, Vulgate. There were in existence a few varieties of ‘Old Latin’ or Vetus Latina translations of the Bible, and they continued in use for centuries in various circumstances and locations. Many biblical manuscripts show a mixed Vulgate-Vetus Latina text.

Jerome was not the only one revising and checking the translations over time; hence the ninth-century bilingual Greek-Latin Irish manuscripts mentioned above. In the twelfth century, for example, Stephen Harding, abbot of Citeaux (the mother house of the Cistercians), undertook a revision of the Latin Bible that still survives. He tells the story of how he consulted the local Jewish community about certain places in one manuscript that had passages not in others; they confirmed for him that these passages were not in the Hebrew originals, so he did not include them in his revised Bible. (This story is translated in The Cistercian World by P. M. Matarasso; Penguin, 1993.) The Latin point of reference in all of these translations and revisions was the language as spoken. The language as living and lived.

While Latin was primarily a living language — whether the mother tongue as for Jerome, or a learned language as for Stephen Harding — the primary focus of Greek-Latin biblical scholarship was ensuring the accuracy of the Latin text. Indeed, Jerome explicitly states that he left the style alone unless it affected the meaning because of how beloved the Latin text was in many church communities. Many Bibles provide alternate renderings of the Latin in interlinear or marginal glosses.

By the day of Erasmus, we see that Latin is in ill health. Its chief ailment is not from some sort of parasitical disease from the vernacular languages; Latin’s place in western European literature and scholarship was assured for a few centuries yet, for an Englishman could read a German’s Latin, but not his Hochdeutsch, and a German could read a Spaniard’s Latin but not his Spanish.

The evidence of Latin’s ill health is found in what sorts of changes Erasmus made to his text of the Latin Bible. Erasmus did not simply correct corruptions or inaccuracies in the text. Nor did he simply make the Latin align with his Greek Textus Receptus, the way Kurt and Barbara Aland would in the twentieth-century Nova Vulgata. Instead, he changed the Latin text on the basis of its style and Latinity — a thing not even Jerome did (Jerome, a man who claimed to have been told by Christ in a dream that he was a Ciceronian, not a Christian!).

Until then, the Latin Bible had been one of the instrumental and pivotal texts of the Latin world. It was something that represented the ongoing life of the Latin language beyond Cicero. However, as the humanists came to laud and magnify the Ciceronian style, this living Latin began to fall into disfavour. Erasmus’ new Latin Bible is clear evidence of this.

Furthermore, the rediscovery of Greek, and then Erasmus’ printed Latin Bible, combined with the Protestant Reformation, led to a reduction in the new of the old Vulgate versions. Scholars and theologians would have access to Erasmus’ Greek edition. Clergy would have access to vernacular translations — Luther’s, Tyndale’s — based on the new Greek editions. The Vulgate would be required for Roman liturgical purposes and as the official text when used in other Roman Catholic contexts. But that is all.

Latin’s days were limited, even if the ‘final decease’ of the language would not come for a. few centuries more. Greek, the humanists, and print had begun the slow process that a change in Latin tutelage would ultimately complete.

Mind you (I feel compelled to say), Latin is not yet actually ‘dead’, it is merely obsolescent, but still of enormous use, power, and influence.

Jesuits in space: ‘The Sparrow’ by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jesuits in space! That alone would be enough for me to want to read this (how is it that this is the second/third SF novel I’ve read this academic year that features Jesuits?). The Sparrow is the tale of what happens when SETI finally pays off, and a Jesuit with his non-Jes friends birth this idea, which is funded by the Society of Jesus, to go and make first contact with an alien species whose radio broadcasts from Alpha Centauri they had encountered.

Their goal is not evangelism like the Jesuits of old. Indeed, amongst the crew of this interstellar expedition are in-the-open agnostics besides a quietly agnostic Jesuit. However, like the Jesuits of old, their purpose is to engage on this expedition ad maiorem gloriam Dei — that very reason for which the Jesuits exist to this day. They are explorers — a linguist, an engineer, an astrophysicist, a botanist, a musician, a doctor, and so forth. To the greater glory of God, they set out to find what wonders his creation holds in store for them on a planet they learn to call Rakhat.

This is not, then, what some fear — a novel that’s out to convert the reader to Catholicism or something.

Russell tells the story from both ends, which I think pays off very well, sort of like the obsessive foreshadowing of Homeric poems and mediaeval romances.

This is certainly a novel about faith. And psychological horror. About doubt. And the destruction of faith. And about wonder and glory and love (human and divine) and pain and sorrow. It is about finding faith and then being put through the wringer.

I read the ePUB version, and there some problems with the Latin, with ablatives coming out where there should have been nominatives. Not sure if the fault was the software, the publisher, or Russell, but the first two seem more likely, given the people the author thanks in the acknowledgements at the end.

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The long-awaited review of Discourse Particles in Latin

Discourse particles in Latin : a study of nam, enim, autem, vero, and atDiscourse particles in Latin : a study of nam, enim, autem, vero, and at by Caroline Kroon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brief discourse on this particularly useful book:

Kroon begins her discussion of nam, enim, autem, vero, and at with a discussion of discourse pragmatics and linguistiics, taking as her starting point for analysis not the clause but the acts and moves within linguistic discourse. Chapters 1-3 set out the discussion of discourse pragmatics and particles, evaluating different theories of approach; these I found to be very dense, and took a brief glance through a linguistics textbook to prep my brain to work through it. Nevertheless, it got easier to read the more I progressed.

Chapters 4 and 5 build on the first three chapters to produce Kroon’s methodology for analysing Latin particles — hers is a bottom-up approach that seeks to locate each particle within a simple meaning and minimal number of uses based upon both semantics and pragmatics.

Finally, chapters 6-12 discuss the various particles under discussion with extensive reference to discourse pragmatics and copious examples from Latin prose literature (and comedy — is that prose or poetry?) from Plautus to Tacitus. Her approach helpfully reduces the number of meanings for some of these particles while at the same time demonstrating how alleged synonyms often differ greatly in their actual function in the text. She progresses through the particles from least challengeable discuss to most — that is, her discussion of enim presents a greater challenge to traditional grammars than that of nam, and the final three progress from autem to vero to at.

This book is extraordinarily useful. While working through it, each of the particles under discussion began popping out at me in my own reading of Late Latin epistolography, and I was able to see the discourse function of these particles in the way Kroon describes them. My thinking about language has become more precise at large, and in my approach to Latin especially.

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‘Dupplicatio’ and other things that catch my eye in manuscripts

At this moment, I’m lurking in a hotel room in Oxford. I’m here to visit Oriel College MS 42 again (remember him from before?); I expect that Wednesday will be the last time I see the fellow. Whilst working today, I found, on Folio 136v, col 2, a not uncommon mediaeval spelling that always makes me smile:


It reminded me of some notes I jotted down whilst waiting for microfilms in Paris this summer, notes I’d hoped to turn into a blog post. What follows is based on those, beginning with another doubling of a letter:


What makes dupplicatio so fun is the fact that, well, it’s doing what it means. The ‘p’ is doubled.  How is that not fun? Another duplication I found this summer was not of a single letter but of a whole syllable:

crimiminis instead of criminis

Once I found the entire word eorum repeated — at the end of one line and the beginning of the next!

Sometimes, letters get swapped around, so you can find:

sopita for posita

Spelling in most of the world before things like Johnson’s Dictionary was somewhat variable (and, in fact, long after the Dictionary), based largely on what the word sounds like. This results in scribes writing words differently from how we’re taught they ‘should’ be in Latin class. Commonly, ‘c’ turns into ‘t’ and vice versa. So:

  • prouintia for prouincia
  • justicia for justitia
  • juditium for judicium
  • sollicicia for sollicitia

Other non-standard spellings I found in Paris included scribtura for scriptura, aeclessiastica for ecclesiastica, and praesbyterali for presbyterali. The shifting between ‘ae’ and ‘e’ is also a fairly common trait. The ‘b’ for ‘p’ is less common, and I’m sure those more versed in these things can tell us how such a variant can help determine a manuscript’s place and time of origin.

Every, single manuscript in existence is perfectly unique — not just for the artistic value and craftsmanship, but for details like the above that would not matter whether it was written in Caroline minuscule or Insular script, on papyrus, calf-skin, or goat, with or without illumination. Manuscripts are a barrel of fun!

The Letters of Seneca

As part of the grandeur of my PhD, I’m reading a vast swath of Latin letters, as this post and this other post on Cicero’s letters attest, not to mention this brief discussion of a passage from Pliny’s letters. My adventures have taken me as late as St Boniface (d. 754), as far from Rome as Severus of Antioch (who wrote in Greek, not Latin, and is only preserved in Syriac, mind you), and as Carthaginian as St Cyprian. Today, I polished off Selected Letters by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, selected and translated with introduction and notes by the intrepid Elaine Fantham.

My fondness for Professor Fantham stretches back five years when she, in discussing U of T’s Classics department’s new locale, told my MA Latin Poetry class that one could observe the stained glass of bare-breasted women ‘with an Edwardian sensibility.’ Also, one day while discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she sagely said, ‘There is nothing better than reading the ancient texts themselves.’ This was my first encounter with her scholarship outside the classroom, and I am impressed.

Fantham’s selection is lucidly and intelligibly translated in a modern yet philosophical idiom. This, combined with the fact that here we have the largest selection of Seneca’s letters yet translated into English, is reason alone to purchase this particular volume. Nevertheless, Prof. Fantham gives the reader a brief introduction to each letter, usually a couple of sentences or a small paragraph that outlines the contents, making the structure clear and thus the text easier to follow. When helpful, these introductions to individual letters give references to secondary literature for those interested in pursuing a matter further, whether a question of philosophy or philology.

Mind you, I was already very pleased with the scholarship by reading the main introduction to the volume. Some scholarly introductions are boring. Others, while helpful and interesting, can be excessively long, such as Dorothy L Sayers’ 67-page introduction to Dante’s Inferno. And sometimes introductions to popular-level translations are not scholarly at all and leave the reader wanting more. Fantham’s is a good length, covers all the necessary bases of history, philosophy, and philology, and is readable. If you are looking for a brief introduction to Seneca and his world, look no further. Elaine Fantham proves herself well-versed in early imperial Roman history, the Latin literature of that period, and the ins and outs of Stoic philosophy and its milieu.

If you were planning on reading Seneca’s letters anyway, this is the translation I would recommend.

But why read Seneca’s letters?

I have to admit that sometimes L Annaeus Seneca talks about death too much. There is really only so much on the subject of the Stoic despisal (is that a word?) of death that a person can stand to read. Nonetheless, this repetition of the theme is part of the collection as a whole. The letters to Lucilius have chosen moral philosophy and personal growth in virtue as their theme. I, personally, believe they represent one end of a real correspondence; yet even if they represent a fictive correspondence in which Lucilius was never a real participant, the form and genre of the letter collection is present.

What this means is that the reader takes the place of Lucilius in receiving Seneca’s epistles, epistles that were (alleged to have been) sent over a period of years, as Lucilius grew in his strength of virtue and knowledge of the Stoic way of life. It is, at a certain level, a programme of training in moral philosophy. And repetition is a key element in the instilling of ideas in the mind, for it helps forge pathways in the brain. This is the background behind the Greek philosophical concept of the maxim, wherein one simply repeats a short, memorable phrase often and in certain situations and that transforms one’s thinking in the direction one wishes.

So Seneca talks about death a lot. This is because the noble death is an important aspect of Stoicism — this is a philosophy that approves of suicide when necessary. Yet it is selfless enough that Stoics will put off their own deaths when they see that dying would put undue strain upon their loved ones. However, when the time comes, Seneca is willing to die at the command of Nero.

But death is not the only Stoic subject at hand. Seneca discusses the liberal arts and literary style, he discusses contentment and luxury and food and sport and exercise and fear and endurance and duty and leisure (otium) and friendship and so forth. Part of what the epistolary form allows Seneca to do is provide shorter discourses on these subjects that a larger treatise does not — although Seneca’s moral essays tend also to be short.

What the letter also allows Seneca to do is shift between subjects at will. Any thought or occasion is opportunity to go off on a philosophical tangent. The tight structure of the essay or logical framing of the dialogue does not as easily allow for this, although Plato’s Symposium makes the different interlocutors opportunities for different subjects — but even they stay on theme to an extent. Seneca can discuss morality and style in the same breath.

Finally, the epistolary genre allows Seneca to begin conversationally and easily weave into the discourse incidental matters and anecdotes. ‘Just the other day I was visiting my old villa …’ and then he goes on to give a philosophical discussion of old age.

Today’s era may not be overfond of moralising, but Seneca does it well. Sometimes the text can be heavy reading, but I did not find myself kicking back against the Stoic too hard for the moralising, although I had a constant, lively engagement with him in my mind. This ‘moralising’ is better termed exhortation, and so I shall close this post with Professor Fantham’s words from the close of her introduction:

We have lost the art of exhortation and, worse, the willingness to learn from exhortation. But at least these letters represent encouragement to good behaviour without the bribe of either human or divine approval; if their power consists in denying the reader easy comfort, they are also fascinating in the variety of their topics and illustrations, and often brilliant in their compelling and immediate personal voice. (p. xxxiv)

PS: This post here is also about Seneca’s letters.

Latin is all around us

Alternate Title: Latin Actually

When I assert that Latin is all around us, I can’t really take my desk as an example, what with it having Leo in Latin in various forms as well as Lewis & Short’s A Latin Dictionary, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, and Conte’s Latin Literature: A History on the main level, let alone the assortment of Loebs, Oxford Classical Texts, Roman history books, Latin grammars, and translations of the ancients you’ll find in the vicinity of this space.

Nevertheless, I contend that this statement is true not only for me but for you as well.  I first coined this phrase, unconsciously snatched from a popular film, whilst talking with a Hare Krishna, of all times and of all places. He asked me where I was going, and I said that I was off to mark some Latin assignments. He was a bit stunned.

‘Where do people study Latin?’ he queried.

‘At the University of Edinburgh.’

‘Oh, cool. I didn’t think anybody studied that anymore. Why?’

I explained to the Hare Krishna that if he knew Sanskrit, he could come that much closer to the texts he was giving away on the street for donations. So also with Latin — a knowledge of Latin brings the reader closer to the great works of poetry and philosophy composed in this language from Virgil and Ovid even to early modern philosophers.

‘Not only this,’ I said, ‘Latin is very useful, because it’s all around us. I like living in places like Britain and Canada, because I can show you very easily.’

Then, using a trick shown by Richard Burgess in Introduction to Roman Civilization in my first year of undergrad, I pulled out a coin. On any piece of British or Canadian money, you will find on the reverse around the image of HM Elizabeth ‘D G REGINA,’ and on larger British coins, ‘D G F D REGINA.’ This is coin-speak for ‘Dei gratia Regina,’ and, ‘Dei gratia fidei defensor Regina‘ — ‘Queen by the grace of God,’ and ‘Queen and Defender of the Faith by the grace of God.’

Coins are not the only Latin lurking around the corner, however. At the University of Ottawa, we were also directed to the podium with the university arms on it. The motto, ‘Deus Scientiarum Dominus Est’ — God is the Lord of Knowledge(s). Here in Edinburgh, many mottoes abound on the stone buildings. Admittedly, many of them — such as the Central Lending Library’s ‘Let There Be Light’ — are English (or perhaps ‘Inglis'[?] as the old St Cuthbert’s Co-operative building on Fountainbridge: Hae God hae all.). But many others are Latin.

Latin mottoes and inscriptions are scattered, for example, throughout Edinburgh Castle. As well, there is a motto in the old building that now houses Hank’s Sandwich Shop on Fountainbridge St. On Dalry Rd, a building built in the year 2000 has a coat of arms with the motto: Discimus. The Usher Hall’s ceiling has the City of Edinburgh arms, complete with the motto: Nisi Dominus Frustra; a paraphrase from ‘Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build it,’ (Psalm 127:1).

Latin is to be found in many abbreviations: i.e. = id est; e.g. = exempli gratia; am = ante-meridiem; pm = post-meridiem; AD = Anno Domini; RIP = requiescat in pace.

Whole, intact Latin words have made their way into English speech as well. Some words are almost wholly naturalised, such as mores. Others, such as status quo or et cetera are more clearly Latin. While they cannot be cited ad infinitum, I won’t go on ad nauseum to make my case almost ad absurdum.

Then we have the many words that infiltrated English from Latin early on or via French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and have been completely transformed. These are often scientific or judicial terms (like scientific and judicial). Homicide is from Latin. Cardiovascular is likewise Latin-based. However, many normal words are also Latin-based, such as … well … normal. And move, dictionary, empire, month, annual, chapter, universe, pork, and so on and on and on.

These Latin words, however, do not make English a Romance tongue. You who know the roots of words can agree that the last sentence shows it. Our basic syntax, grammar, and vocabulary are Germanic, even if the words syntax, grammar, and vocabulary are not.*

In sum, Latin is all around us. This, as well as access to some of the world’s greatest literature, philosophy, and theology should alone make you want to learn it. 😉

*A French Canadian (engineer!) tried maintaining once that English is a Romance language. Also, an Iraqi and Egyptian I met in Paris think that Coptic is related to Greek because of the alphabet and loan words. Coptic is Afro-Asiatic like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic!