Monday, December 03, 2007

Latin: An ancient language suited to contemporary life?

Our culture is filled, of course, with crosscutting pressures and biases. I recently noted the WSJ's report on Basque as "an ancient language little suited to contemporary life." Today, we have the other end of that spectrum: Harry Mount, author of the recent Carpe Diem: Put a little Latin in your life, has an op-ed piece in the NYT arguing that knowledge of Latin is important, especially, apparently to "America's leaders". (He runs through a long list of presidents with credentials in it and even George W. Bush had some in prep school.)

Latin is a wonderful language — I don't know it well but was actually reading a couple of lines of it this morning, by the sheerest of coincidence. And much of Mount's argument is that people (or 'leaders') understand the past better through knowing Latin. Hard to disagree in general with the view that people should know languages and history.

Still, Mount brushes up against danger here, at the outset:
it is no coincidence that the professionalization of politics — which encourages budding politicians to think of education as mere career preparation — has occurred during an age of weak rhetoric, shifting moral values, clumsy grammar and a terror of historical references and eternal values that the Romans could teach us a thing or two about.
Or, the key phrases in the on-line Latin version:
cum rhetorica exigua, moribus infirmis, grammatica inepta et rationis historicae metu congruissse fors non est
Does Latin save us from "clumsy grammar"? He returns to the point later:
But also, learning to translate Latin into English and vice versa is a tremendous way to train the mind. I think of translating concise, precise Latin into more expansive, discursive English as like opening up a concertina; you are allowed to inject all sorts of original thought and interpretation.

As much as opening the concertina enlarges your imagination, squeezing it shut — translating English into Latin — sharpens your prose. Because Latin is a dead language, not in a constant state of flux as living languages are, there’s no wriggle room in translating. If you haven’t understood exactly what a particular word means or how a grammatical rule works, you are likely to be, not off, but just plain wrong. There’s nothing like this challenge to teach you how to navigate the reefs and whirlpools of English prose.
Don't have time to pursue it right now, but these are pretty shaky arguments. I'm not convinced that dead languages are really better here — try logic or formal semantics or even programming if you want to squeeze out the wriggle room (OK, doesn't work so well with poetry, but ...). I guess I'd prefer a world where everybody had good command of a couple of other languages, cultures, histories — Arabic, Chinese, Cherokee, and so on.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Um, excuse me, what? As a translator, let me say that "you are allowed to inject all sorts of original thought and interpretation" is NOT EVEN WRONG when it comes to translation. If you are injecting "all sorts of original" stuff into it, it's not a translation. Adding original stuff to a translation isn't translating, it's, well, writing original stuff.

Anonymous said...

"pretty shaky"? C'mon, Mr. V., let's see those claws! Those article snippets are just plain ridiculous and you know it! Just because Latin's a dead language doesn't mean its grammar or words don't have any depth. I had to study dense, prescriptive Latin grammars because of people like this, instead of spending my time in a more enlightened way, like learning a few things about Japanese or Swahili.

btw, I always thought it was "wiggle room"...never heard "wriggle" here before...

Mr. Verb said...

First off, it's definitely 'wiggle room' for me, but I followed the column on that.

Second, you're right ... Mount's piece is bad, worse on every read.

M. said...

If you want to build up your vocabulary and you are a visual learner, then there is an ever growing resource of visual learning aids on Schola.

You need to sign in, and visit the photographiae section.

Here you will find over 2 800 photographs of objects, with the latin word for the object written on it.

Some also have basic phrases, introducing related verbs. Everyday objects are included as well, such as furniture, crockery and cutlery, transport, boats, etc.

There are also images related to learning greetings and salutations.

This resource is constantly expanding, and anyone serious about learning Latin will find it useful

All of the resources are free of charge

The Latinum podcast now has over 50 lessons online, each lesson is composed of several episodes comprising:

a. grammar
b. English-Latin conversational dialogue (question and answer)
c. Repetition of the same short dialogues in Latin only, first with
pauses, then again more quickly.

There are already thousands of regular users of the lessons, located all over the world. The clickable map on Latinum's home page gives an insight into where in the world people are studying and listening to Latin.

If you cannot attend an actual Latin class, (and even if you can) then Latinum's lessons, and extensive vocabulary learning resources, classical text readings, etc, will be an invaluable resource.

Many established Latin programmes, including schools and universities, are also now directing their students to it.

With over 1,300,000 lessons downloaded to date, this is the largest single Latin programme available.

Bryce said...

Wow, this is quite the debate over the modern use of Latin. I think there are some good points on all sides.

You guys might find this to be a great online Latin resource:

Latina wiki browser