“Of course, no one ever actually spoke Latin,” a particularly stupid – and incompetent – Latin teacher once told a friend of mine.
The teacher had been so perplexed by the difficulties of Latin – particularly the ablative absolute and the difference between the gerund and the gerundive – that he thought the language had been devised purely for literary technique.
But of course the Romans spoke Latin (when they weren’t speaking Greek). Gladiators swore at each other in Latin. Supporters cheered Ben Hur in the Circus Maximus in Latin. And prostitutes advertised their wares in Latin signs on the streets of Pompeii: “Sum tua aeris assibus II” (“I’m yours for two bronze coins.”)
Latin and Greek have, for centuries, been considered the blue riband of the curriculum; the cleverest and grandest of subjects. Just think of the name “classics” and its connotations. No one would rename golf course management or media studies classics.
And so people have wrongly assumed that Latin should be confined to the higher realms of life: to inscriptions on tombstones and public buildings. What good news then that Duolingo, the world’s most popular language learning app, has just launched a Latin version.
I’m not suggesting that anyone should actually start speaking Latin on the streets of London. (Although I’m a fan of the Vatican news in Latin – or Hebdomada Papae, notitiae vaticanae latine redditae, to give it its Latin name.)
But it is in treating Latin as a normal language, just like any other, that you begin to recognise its different registers: from the prostitute hawking herself in Pompeii in direct, simple terms, to Virgil, writing the Aeneid in compact, multi-layered hexameters.
The master of Latin as a spoken language is the American Carmelite priest Fr Reginald Foster. From 1970 until his 2009 retirement, Reggie, as he’s called, worked in the Latin Letters section of the Vatican Secretariat of State. He also taught for 30 years at Rome’s Gregorian University, gave free summer Latin courses, and wrote the rigorous, invaluable book, Ossa Latinitatis Sola (“The Mere Bones of Latin”).
Reggie has now returned to his native Milwaukee. On August 15, he celebrated 60 years of religious profession; he turns 80 on November 14. And he still continues those free Latin courses, now in Milwaukee.
One of Reggie’s tasks at the Vatican was to translate the names of everyday modern phrases into Latin. He came up with the Latin used at cashpoints in the Vatican: “Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem” (“Insert your card so that the account may be recognised.”)
I’m not suggesting that we start doing the same in Britain, although we wouldn’t have to change our exit signs if we did; and it would be a field day for pedants – they’d insist on exit signs being changed to exeunt signs if more than one person was using an exit.
But to have a real understanding of the way Latin was spoken is to understand the oddness and beauty of the language. As Reggie knows, to learn to speak Latin, you have to know it inside out.
Speak Latin and you will get a feel for the extreme concision of the language. I compare translating from English to Latin to squeezing a concertina shut – in the way the number of words decreases and a single noun has the power to signal so many of its intentions through gender, case and number.
It is this concision and complexity that make Latin hard to learn – but a pleasure to have learnt. There isn’t a day that goes by without me using my Latin. Not so much directly as indirectly: knowing when to use a Latinate word, often for precision or artful complexity, as opposed to, or alongside, a simpler, Anglo-Saxon word.
I’ve got a theory about a certain generation of English writers, born in the first half of the last century: Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell and Kingsley Amis. They caught the tail end of the same sort of in-depth Latin education Fr Reginald Foster had. But they also grew up in the days of Modernism, and novels written in easy-going, conversational English.
The combination usually worked out brilliantly: they could move between serious and jokey registers, and between highfalutin and rough and ready ones.
I can’t speak Latin. I wish I could – although, like the last native speaker of Cornish, Dorothy Pentreath (who died in 1777), I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else to talk to.
But I do know enough Latin to know that every new Latin word I learn intensifies not just my understanding of Latin and English, but also of Western civilisation.
Harry Mount is author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That (Short Books)