All adult survivors of high school Latin remember the old joke about its being ‘a dead language that nearly killed me.’
Having survived (just barely), I now lament its elimination from the high-school curriculum and am gladdened by distant rumors of its revival.
But the news from England is not good.
In a piece headlined ‘Return of the Dark Ages,’ in the Spectator, Harry Mount bewails the passing of the era when children had to recite Greek verbs (talk about a killer dead language!) at the breakfast table.
‘Whatever you might think of The Passion of The Christ, at least Mel Gibson tried with the Latin,’ Mount writes. ‘There aren’t many films with a credit for ‘Theological Consulting and Aramaic/Latin Translation’, and Dr William J. Fulco, the Jesuit priest brought in to sort out the locatives and the subjunctives, gets an alpha beta, if not quite an alpha, for his homework.’
ASDL (Adult Survivors of Dead Languages) will be amused by Mount’s jolly comments on the movie’s uses of the language:
‘The Latin is pretty straightforward, though. ‘Sanctus est,’ is Mrs Pilate’s view of Jesus. ‘Facta non verba,’ is the Roman soldier’s order to Christ, when he starts talking too much. ‘Mortuus est,’ says Longinus, the soldier who sticks a spear in Jesus’s side to check whether he’s alive. There’s only one slip ‘ noticed by the editor of this magazine. If you are addressing a man from Judaea, you should use the vocative ‘Judaee’, not ‘Judaeus’; vide Julian the Apostate’s Vicisti, Galilaee.’
Father Fulco isn’t alone in being vocatively challenged. Not only do fewer and few people study Latin and Greek, Mount notes, those who now ‘take’ Latin or Greek aren’t as steeped in the mechanics of the language as their predecessors.
Mount writes of the current study of Latin at the university level:
‘Hello, Cambridge Latin Course — the evil Latin-for-idiots school textbooks which say that learning things like cases, genders and vocabulary puts people off; much better to give you the translations at the bottom of the page and let you work out how the words fit together by feel. The course just plain doesn’t work: it’s like dumping a carburettor, a spark plug and a windscreen-washer-fluid holder in front of you, and expecting you to build an engine out of them.’
In other words, even if you take Latin today, it won’t kill you.
I wasn’t good at Latin. But I always knew it was civilization calling to civilization, across the seeming dark of the Middle Ages.
I wanted to take it, even if I hadn’t known Papa would kill me if I didn’t. Some kids just couldn’t win. Thank heavens.