Two years ago I began learning Latin when I spied a grammar book on sale for 50p at my local train station (they do a recycling thing where second-hand books are sold for a small fee and the money goes to charity). I decided that the opportunity was too good to pass up. Always having wished I could understand the language, I set about teaching myself. Two years later I still can't speak Latin but I understand a fair amount. My method of self-teaching involves translating Latin texts into English and then from memory back again. Of course, failing memories and the distraction of living make this task quite difficult. One friend famously joked that in order to learn a language, one needs a lover who speaks the language fluently. Sadly, as native Latin speakers died around sixteen hundred years ago such a lover would be mummified version. And the local Catholic priest should not really be up for such extra curricular activities.
My experience learning this old language has been revelatory. As a fluent English and French speaker there is always a dichotomy taking place in my head when I speak either. English is a language that is both beautiful yet elusive in conveying a meaning. We have perfected the art of saying things without inflicting too much damage in English. French forces the speaker always to say what they mean (hence je t'aime is quite simply “I love you” and there is no verb for “like”). So the French either like you or hate you. English-speakers on the other hand have varying degrees of affection, regard, friendship, and only when very drunk, love. Even more telling, in English we shy away from verbs to describe any of the above. I regard you as someone I trust. I value your friendship. I find you delightful, etc. But deconstruct these sentences very carefully and you will see the meaning is as nebulous, if not capricious, as a fairy's wand. People like me want to know WHY you regard me or value my friendship, not just say it! So how did Latin affect the evolution of thought in English or French?
Latin was a startling language for its time and we see how humanity was beginning to form a moral code some two thousand years ago. All of the big issues- religion, belief in fate, the idea of a malevolent or benevolent team of gods either tormenting us or rewarding us, the concept of loyalty, justice, real politick, the concubine, the wife who must be above reproach, the brevity of our time here on planet earth- the Romans were talking about all of these and placing them into the framework of their daily lives. I am often astounded when I read very old books to see how human beings have not changed at all - will it be another ten thousand years before we have figured it all out? Or more worryingly, given the way the world is going, will we cease to ask ourselves any deep questions at all and perhaps just grunt instead of speak? Or maybe science will turn us into non-sentient beings that communicate via telepathy only and about what, who knows! Remove the need to say “there's no milk in the fridge” or “I love you” or to even question one's existence and the need to speak all but disappears.... Don't laugh or roll your eyes. When I read Latin it is almost as if the Romans are seated at the dinner table conversing with me- despite the two millennia between us. Humanity cannot possibly be the same generations from now particularly as pen and ink have been replaced by a microchip. Perhaps I should put the question to you: do you see any of these questions still popping up in say another 1,000 years?
Here are some of my favorites taken from two years of failing miserably to learn Latin:
Gaudia non remanent, sed fugitiva volant. Joys do not stay but take wing and fly away.- Martial
Neve putes alium sapiente bonoque beatum. Nor can you suppose that anyone is happy but the man who is wise and good. – Horace
Temporis ars medicina fere est. The art of medicine is generally a question of time. – Ovid
Nec cui de te plusquam tibi credas. Do not believe anyone about yourself more than yourself. - Roman proverb.
Vivere est cogitare. To live is to think. -Cicero.
Non opibus mentes hominum curaeque levantur. The minds of men and their cares are not lightened by riches. -Tiberius
Sperate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis. Hope, and reserve yourself for better times. –Virgil
Ingenium res adversae nudare solent, celare secundae. Adverse fortune is wont to reveal genius, prosperity to hide it. -Horace
Photo copyright SvD.