Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Amo, Amas, Amat

A recent New York Times editorial, "A Vote for Latin," which discusses the value of studying Latin and laments declines in enrollment for the subject, reminded me of my own experience with the language and prompted some reflection on one of the more painful but rewarding episodes in my academic life. I studied Latin in the 8th and 9th grades, having a teacher, Mrs. Hall, who must have been 80 at the time. I even remember how we joked that she must have been alive at the time of the Punic Wars, a popular subject for translations. I also recall, painfully, how those first few months were such a struggle - learning a new vocabulary, cases, conjugation, gender. For an 8th grader it was all a bit overwhelming. And more than once the students in my class would recite that bit of damning doggerel: "Latin is a dead language, it came across the sea. It killed all the Romans, and now it's killing me." But once I had a sense of Latin's structure - and how it behaved - it became fun, like solving a puzzle. Accurately completing a translation was cause for celebration.

Of course, by the time I came along in the late 1970s, Latin was no longer one of those bedrock subjects that defined one's years in school. An education in the Classics, at least in this country, had become a rare thing indeed. Yet as the Times article points out, Latin scholarship proved valuable for several reasons. It taught one academic discipline, a necessity when trying to master any new language. It also exposed one to the history and culture of Rome, and thus offered the student a very different perspective on the world. Studying Latin also gave one a better understanding of our own language, since so many words in English have Latin roots. And finally, tackling Latin made it easier to pick up other languages later. (I remember finding German easy after having trudged through Latin textbooks.)

When I was an editor with the Papers of James K. Polk, I would regularly pick up letters to and from President Polk that were sprinkled with Latin phrases and allusions to classical texts. (Polk himself graduated from UNC with a degree in classics.) A quality often clear in these letters was the authors' broader understanding of history, particularly in the ways their own political experiences reflected the legacies of Athenian democracy and the later Roman Republic. Moreover, they seemed to possess a keener sense of the power of language. In this age before the "lowest common denominator" attitude of radio and television, the printed word could change the world. In our own national experience, for example, just look at the language - and impact - of Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence," the U.S. Constitution, or Thomas Paine's "Common Sense." These were "revolutionary" texts in the full sense of that word.

Recalling the bits and pieces of Latin vocabulary I can still remember, one word sticks out, a word I've remembered from 30 years ago: laudere, the infinitive for the verb "to praise." After reading the Times article, I have to look back and praise Mrs. Hall for having shared that knowledge and experience. And, honestly, I hope my kids have the opportunity to experience that painful epiphany of Latin's beauty.


jblack designs said...

Wonderful post.

I fear we created a much bigger problem (in terms of educating our youth) when we tried to solve two smaller ones. First, we wanted to open the curriculum to other cultures (and not assume everyone was from a Euro-Judaic-Christian background). A good cause, no doubt. Second, we wanted to make childhood happier, less stressful, more filled with self-esteem. A less noble goal, but kind-hearted none-the-less.

What we created, instead, was a vacuum. Instead of adding to the curriculum, we zeroed it out. There's not much memorization or comprehension of the schema of any history required anymore. And in developing a false sense of self-esteem in our children we've negated the opportunity for earned self-esteem.

But I do go on. One of my buttons, obviously.

One Wink at a Time said...

I've always wanted to study Latin and I think it should be at least an elective in schools. I have limited knowledge of the language but have often been able to decipher an English word by establishing it's Latin root.
Yay for Mrs. Hall and her gift to you.

How come Latin isn't the language spoken in Latin America??? I ask you. ;-)

Isabel said...

I always credit the easiness with which we Portuguese learn other languages to how we were exposed to Latin.
In our urge to keep up with times, we forget the important tools of the past that still help us to understand the present.
Latin still helps me any time I read something in English, French, Spanish, or even Italian.
Sometimes, I find myself tackling Romanian texts as if I was playing Sudoku-looking for the roots of words, picking up the context here and there, and getting all excited when I am able to decipher a sentence.