Latin Lover

IN 1960 OXFORD and Cambridge ended the regulation that all entrants should have a GCE in Latin or Greek. It was not the end. but it was the beginning of the end,’ of interest in language for its own sake among school pupils. The results we can see all around us.

It was Latin’s great virtue as a discipline that an appreciation of the magnificence of its literature was never a requirement. That came later (if at all). It was taught because it was assumed to give you a h grammatical grasp of your own language. And it did. I could never make head or tail of parsing in English. Doing it in Latin was a piece of cake. The reason was, I think, that the language was so alien. It could put the words (apparently) in any order it felt like, yet the same overall sense would emerge. Understanding this was a true challenge, and the ultimate test of one’s grip was the ability to compose in Latin for oneself.

Not that the English sentences offered for translation in the exercise books ever made much sense. This was because the vocabulary out of which they had to be constructed was limited to simple words typical of the linguistic paradigms they represented; and when the words had to be put together into sentences, one found oneself lost in a world of dream-like inconsequentiality. Cows were bedecked with flowers, while farmers praised the poetry of the girls, and kings adorned boars with crowns. Queens avoided the water, inhabitants saw the beautiful roses, and heralds prepared long spears and sometimes (controversially) short ones.

It was bliss. One could, of course, protest with Molesworth that it did not make any sense, but as long as the Latin was correct, that was sufficient – for that was the point. Language and sense were as far divorced as they could possibly be. Latin had become a meta-language, abstracted from the concerns of everyday life, forcing the attention of the schoolboy onto pure language, grammar for its own sake. If ever you struggled with abstract concepts like case, tense, agreement, or voice, their concrete exemplification day after day in the otherwise meaningless Latin sentence soon removed your fear. Naturally, the work threw up all sorts of bogus rules (‘plural subjects take plural verbs’ – in Latin they regularly don’t), but there was nothing wrong with that. Awareness of linguistic ‘rules’ gave one mastery over them.

Prose composition, to which one moved at a later stage, was based on the assumption that Latin was a uniquely economical, precise and logical language. The assumption is, of course, nonsense, but that did not matter. The game was to get at the basic meaning of the often intentionally inflated English, and translate that into Latin. A prose might contain, for example, ‘They communicated a rapid motion to their ships by means of their oars’, for translation into Latin as ‘they rowed very quickly’. An invaluable habit of mind was formed which nowadays seems to have disappeared from public life: Oldham Social Services Department are investing resources into a newly-formed Capacity Building and Research team to directly inform and develop its’ [sic] Commissioning Strategy and Service Development. At this current time the department is see- both to lead and develop broad partnerships to meet the challenge of both user-focused and sustainable services.. . (an advertisement in The Guardian).

But there was a second, no less valuable, game: comparing cultures. Given a prose about, say, Cato preparing to commit suicide, one was in a thoroughly Roman milieu and the transfer of English into Latin, whatever grammatical problems it presented, did not involve conceptual ones. But what about a Times leader discussing racism? Or a speech by Harold Wilson on the white heat of technology? The Vatican has its neo-Latin dictionary, of course, to help the Pope talk about hamburgers and moon-probes, but technical vocabulary was not the problem: reconciling ancient and modern thought-processes and idioms, an extraordinarily interesting exercise, was.

Unlike everyone else of course. I am biased on this subject. I know that a Latin description of English grammar can never do full justice to English, but it does offer a practical way of understanding the basics of word function and meaning, as nearly two thousand letters told me in 1997, when I wrote a twenty-part ‘Learn Latin’ series in the Daily Telegraph (now published by Duckworth). Equally, I fully agree that Latin is not the only means to this desirable end (‘desirable’, of course, unless you hold linguistic skills in contempt); but who teaches these basics now? Likewise, since I think the main reason for reading Latin is the same as that for reading Shakespeare (its literary merit), I regard all the grammatical stuff as secondary. I have not even mentioned the lexical, historical and cultural benefits.

A little immersion in Latin makes English poetry more fun, too. Here is Alexander Pope in misogynistic mood (‘the sex’ = women):

Pleasures the sex, as children birds, pursue,

Still out of reach but never out of view.

Sure, if they catch, to spoil the toy at most,

To covet flying and regret when lost.. .

This is pure Latin. That does not make these verses great poetry, of course; but the pleasures of ellipse, antithesis, chiasmus and balance afforded to those trained in Latin ways of saying things are intense. For the unlatinate, by the way, ‘sex’ is the subject and ‘pleasures’ (like ‘birds’) are subsequently picked up by ‘out of reach’, ‘out of view’, ‘toy’, ‘flying’ and ‘lost’.

I once ran a seminar on this with an unlatinate sixth form. At the end, half said ‘That’s wonderful! Why haven’t we been told this before?’; the other half, ‘That’s stupid’. QED.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter