Monday, September 07, 2009

I Just Can't Stay Away from Latin

"I have always been in favor of boys learning English, I'd let the cleverer ones learn Latin as an honor and Greek as a treat..."
-Winston Churchill

I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Latin: I love Latin and it hates me. I took two years of Latin in university with the hope of maybe studying Medieval or Classical history in grad school. At the end of two years, I asked my Latin teacher if she thought it would be a good idea for me to study Latin in grad school. She did not.
In all honesty, she was right. I was not a good Latinist. In fact, I was actually pretty bad. I am good with Spanish and French, and can seemingly function in English after thirty-four years. Latin never quite clicked though. I was always memorizing forms without knowing what the hell they were for.

You see, Latin is a lot tougher than French, Spanish, or English because it's more inflected. There's only one word for "table" in English; in Latin, "Mensa" has six declensions: the nominative, the genitive, the dative, the accusative, the ablative, and the vocative- although, god knows why anyone would be directly addressing the table! There are corresponding plural forms, so there are really twelve forms to memorize, and then you have to know which declension we're talking about: Mensa, mensae is the first declension of five. This is a lot of memorizing and my brain never really absorbed the differences between the different cases.

But because you can decline nouns in Latin, word order is irrelevant. In English, you can write something like "The boy put the rose on the table." In Latin, you can write the same sentence, with the individual words in any order you want, because the declension shows you how the words are being used in a sentence. I found this both cool and totally bizarre.

Then you have all the different verb forms. This was a lot easier for me because I understand this in English, French, and Spanish. Verbs made sense in Latin. Nouns never made sense to me. I spent two years reading Wheelock's Latin and some Latin stories; in the end, reading Latin was still like doing a crossword puzzle, but not like reading. I was a bad Latinist.

To be fair, most of my classmates took High School Latin instead of coming at it cold in their Sophomore year of college. Also, I went to a university that is known for being a bit psychotic in their academic requirements; they definitely separated the wheat from the chaff. And Wheelock's Latin, god bless its soul, sort of teaches you to read Latin like a crossword puzzle. So, after two years of hard work, I was scorned by Lady Latin. I slunk off to learn French, my tail between my legs.

The problem is that I still secretly love the language. When I listen to Tafelmusik playing old church music, generally sung in Latin, (something Claire and I do every winter) I get chills, because I remember how damned beautiful Latin is, and how architecturally perfect it is too, with sentences designed like Gothic snowflakes, if that makes any sense at all. It makes perfect sense to me that the Church would preserve the word of God in Latin; it's the written equivalent of a cathedral.

So, I'm starting again- one half-hour every day for the next couple years. Instead of doing the exercises in Wheelock's, I'm going to print out poetry by Virgil and some of Livy's history, and just work my way through it. This method works better for me than taking courses; I learned French by reading Chateaubriand with a dictionary handy.

It's a tough slog. Last night, I worked for half an hour on one sentence from Virgil's Eclogues. When I got done, and checked my translation with a good English version, I was elated- I had understood something that was written in Latin a long time ago! Clearly though, I will never be a great classicist. But, what can I say? It's pleasurable nonetheless.

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