The Case for Latin

Climate change is one thing, but how about a new Renaissance? Is Latin merely an irrelevancy, a pitiful remnant of a once-great civilisation still holding a few of us back from our proper preoccupation with the future? Or is it just lying low, temporarily out of fashion, waiting for recognition again as a potent cultural instrument? I begin with an anecdote.

A former teacher of mine served in the British army during the war, attached to a West Country regiment stationed in Norfolk. As an Australian, he had no great difficulty understanding the speech of his own troops and of the local East Anglians, but they found each other at times incomprehensible. Apparently the local East Anglian fishermen found the Friesian Dutch relatively easy to communicate with. The point of the anecdote is that the formal distinction between “English” and “Dutch” may, it seems, be partly illusory: these are categories that are imposed by convention: by geography, by politics, by the power of the media, and by our natural desire for order. The reality, however, may be very different. If we could take away all such imposed perceptions, each speech community might make surprising choices about those other communities with which it felt the closest linguistic kinship.

Similar observations may be made about the distinction between Latin and the so-called “Romance” languages.

Hilaire Belloc claimed, in The Path to Rome, that he managed to speak Latin throughout his epic walk from the Moselle to Rome and that he was generally understood by all he met along the way. It was a bit of an affectation, you might think, but a harmless and delightful one—and one which may contain more than just a kernel of truth. To Belloc the modern Romance languages and Latin were so alike that mutual intelligibility was possible—at least in certain circumstances.

Sceptics will argue that French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian each possesses its own well-developed systems of syntax and phonology as well as its own rich literature. They will moreover confidently assert that no native speaker of French, Italian or what-have-you can possibly understand classical Latin without first submitting to long years of very possibly painful instruction. This is no doubt correct, though I cannot resist saying in passing that many an old Roman, I suspect, would have had trouble understanding Cicero when he was in full spate before a jury, particularly when his client’s case was a shaky one! Deliberate obfuscation, whether for literary affectation or to disguise a flawed argument, may be a useful device in any language.

But what can I seriously say to the sceptics? First, perhaps, that we should think of language in terms of registers. This word register has emerged as a technical term in the field of linguistics for the various styles or levels of speech and writing within a given linguistic community.

For example, in English we might speak of a popular youth register (my readers will perhaps suspect that I am starting at what I regard as the low end of the scale, and they might even sympathise with my jaundiced judgment). Let me define this register as that level of speech which we associate with Triple-J and other forms of media addressed to our hapless young, in which “goes” means “says” and “like” can mean virtually anything. Next we might consider the level of educated discourse, the kind of speech that one would expect to hear in ordinary conversation between educated people. Then there are technical registers: the language of sailors, or motor mechanics, or cricketers for example. This leads on to literary registers—the language of books—which may themselves be classified chronologically: Chaucerian, Shakespearean and Johnsonian English for example.

Now, the point is this: how many native English speakers are equally comfortable using or even understanding all these different registers? How many modern kids can really follow the King James Bible? How many modern rugby players can comfortably curl up with a copy of Johnson’s Rasselas? How often does your average dental mechanic dip into Middle English lyric poetry?

Yet we all speak English—or don’t we? I think there lurks a profound inconsistency here. Even today, a Spaniard will understand much if not most of what an Italian says, speaking in his own tongue. Yet how many of us would understand Chaucer if we met him face to face? On what basis, then, do we describe Italian and Spanish, on the one hand, and Latin on the other as different languages, while claiming that we ourselves share a common linguistic citizenship with Chaucer and even King Alfred? The fact is that we readily enough agree that “English” is the native tongue of Alfred, Chaucer and ourselves, and (if we think about it at all) that “Greek” has been spoken continuously from Homer’s day to the present. But “Latin” has somehow been sidelined. Dante, we are told, chose to write his Divine Comedy in the vernacular and thereby really “invented” modern Italian. Spanish too, and French, sprang apparently fully grown from their respective native soils, distantly related to Latin perhaps, but distinct.

Now the interesting fact is that Dante himself almost certainly saw this distinction very differently: he would have seen himself as using one form of Latin (we would now call it Italian) to write the Divine Comedy, and another (he called it gramatica, we would just call it Latin) for his de vulgari eloquentia, while accepting both forms as styles (or registers) within the same great linguistic tradition. In other words Dante instinctively distinguished between literary and vernacular registers of the same language. It is we who have seized on the distinctions he made, prised them apart and set them in concrete. In my own anecdotal example, the one with which I began this article, we see the imposition of metalinguistic categories on the basis of geographical and political convention; in the case of Dante, on the other hand, a chronological gulf applies—as a consequence, no doubt, of our post-medieval idea of “renaissance”, fuelled by Dante’s own precise and scholarly attempt to differentiate between categories of speech. If it’s old and dead we call it Latin, if it’s fresh and new and vivid we call it Italian. 

So what is the real relationship between Latin and the modern Romance languages? Are they merely different manifestations, different registers, of the same tongue? And if this is true, how is it that the Italian schoolchild has almost as much trouble learning to read Virgil as the young anglophone? And if this is not true, how did the independent vernaculars such as Italian and French spring into existence, and what was their relationship with Latin during the Middle Ages when, for a time, both Latin and the vernaculars must have existed side by side?

Modern scholarship has come up with some surprising and exciting answers. Before looking at some of them, we need to remind ourselves that all writing is merely notation, and that language is really about sound and utterance. In other words, judgments about language cannot be based merely on forms of spelling: appearances may be deceptive.

Lesson: do not trust spelling. If that seems far-fetched, consider such ordinary English words as night or knob or though, where notation and pronunciation have long since parted company. Other examples are legion. Paw, pore and poor are nowadays generally pronounced the same (though my father’s generation pronounced the latter distinctively), knaves and naves, knights and nights, whores and hoars, are very different things, and everyone knows Shaw’s spoof word ghoti. The invalid’s insurance was invalid and his bandage was wound around his wound contains examples of the reverse tendency.

French offers even better examples: the treatment of final s and t reveals a wide gulf between what might be called theory and practice. When we come to the language of Italy, and we encounter the word bonum in one text and buono in another, is it safe to say that the first text is written in “Latin” and the latter in “Italian”? It may not be that simple. It may well be that both words were pronounced identically, and that only the notation is different. Even in classical Latin, final m was definitely not vocalised in some situations, and probably never pronounced as we pronounce it. The curious Pompeiian inscription quisque ama valia peria qui nosci amare, if it is to be read as “quisque amat valeat, pereat qui nescit amare”, seems to indicate that at least one Italian in the first century of our era didn’t pronounce the final t of third-person singular verbs. The resemblance to modern Italian is startling.

Latin continued to be spoken by ordinary people in Western Europe long after Rome “fell”, but the available registers of the language no doubt multiplied as the education system weakened and the several regions of the old empire lost contact with the centre and with each other. Only towards the end of the first millennium, little more than a thousand years ago, do we first start to hear complaints that ordinary people could no longer readily understand their clergy when they preached to them! At about the same time new forms of notation appeared, not universally, but according to need. The Strasbourg Oaths are usually regarded as the first surviving document in French, but it is probably more accurate to describe them as the first attempt to express a particular military/legal register of Latin in phonetic notation, and to write down the universal speech as it sounded, rather than in accordance with traditional and conservative convention.

To anyone who loves language in general, and the Latin/Romance tradition in particular, this is exciting stuff for it brings with it that delightful frisson that comes from having one’s assumptions overturned. To those who find language a tedious but necessary tool it will perhaps offer less delight but much valuable instruction in the virtue of fluidity: to assume that French, for example, sprang into existence with the Strasbourg Oaths, to take no interest in anything that preceded it, nor any cognisance of the Latin that was written after it, is to impoverish and even cripple one’s capacity to judge and appreciate literature.

If we could go back to the last days of the Roman empire I think we would be surprised to find how Italian Latin sounded even then. The tendency towards the convergence of the oe and ae diphthongs with long e would have been well advanced, as would the characteristic modern Italian treatment of c and g. Syntactically, too, I think we would have detected a preference, among ordinary people, for a possessive de followed by what might have been distinguishable as an ablative, in place of the more formal genitive. Of course the ablative would have sounded like an accusative anyway, because the final m of the accusative would have been silent. It is not hard to imagine a kind of bastard register of spoken Latin in which prepositions were employed to carry more of the burden of sense, and in which final noun/adjective endings were sloppily fudged. Speak this patois according to the Italian rules of pronunciation and what have you got? Does it matter whether we call it Vulgar Latin or Proto-Italian? Would its speakers have understood Cicero and Virgil? Up to a point, if they were spoken clearly, with all the supportive clues of tone and gesture. Does your modern banker or plumber understand Shakespeare?

When I used to teach Latin in school years ago, I was often asked by appalled students, “Sir, did the Romans really speak like this?” I have to admit, too, that sometimes my own faith wavered, though I always knew that Latin had to be read aloud to be appreciated at all. More than thirty years ago I saw Don Dunstan splendidly declaim one of Cicero’s invectives against Catiline and I knew then that the power of any highly-developed literary language can only be made truly manifest in speech. Any lingering doubts I might have had were swept aside in 1998, however, when I took part in a conference of an organisation called Vivarium Novum in Italy at which everything, even the conversation in the coffee breaks, was done in Latin. Latin works, I discovered. It is both expressive and logical. It makes dramatic sense to begin a sentence with an accusative if we need to emphasise the object of the verb. Even in English this can still be done with our few remaining accusative forms, though it sounds a bit old-fashioned now: Whom do you seek? Him I prefer. Arms and the Man I sing! But for all that I think the conference organisers were wrong. They spoke their daily Latin with an Italian accent, and of that I approve on balance, but to me the whole exercise was artificial. In my opinion the Italian language itself is the proper register of Latin for day-to-day use. 

So why am I adamant that Latin is still the best second language to teach to people whose first language is English? Until the nineteenth century it remained in use as a rather artificial language of discourse in the universities. That is gone forever. But there are three areas in which it must, I think, be supported if the cultural balance of our society is to survive.

First, it is a vehicle for great literature, both ancient and medieval. Even in more recent centuries men like Milton, Donne, Herbert and Landor wrote in it and our knowledge of our own literary tradition is incomplete without it. It is arguable that much if not most literature written up to the close of the nineteenth century is heavily nuanced by the authors’ familiarity with Latin. To illustrate that point, though the skeleton of English is Germanic, perhaps three quarters of our English vocabulary, the flesh on its bones, are of Latin origin. But Latin is naturally less abstract than English, using concrete terms to express complex ideas, with the consequence that Latinate words which seem purely abstract may in fact be metaphors: a revolution is a turning-around, a confusion is a pouring-together, a resurrection is a rising-again, an injection is a tossing-in. It is a hard saying, but a full appreciation of the texture of literary English may not be achievable without a sound awareness of its roots.

Second, it is a principal language of history. Not only are most of the primary sources of the ancient, medieval and early modern history of the West in Latin, but so too are many of the secondary ones. And when translations of primary sources exist, can they be rightly called primary? Surely there is a gulf, if only a subtle one, between original and translation.

Third, in the closely related (from a linguistic and historical point of view) fields of theology and philosophy, Latin remains an invaluable tool. There is a tendency in most people’s thinking to link Latin with Catholic theology only, but this is not the case. Thomas Cranmer, the principal author of the Book of Common Prayer, wrote his serious theology almost exclusively in Latin, as did most of the Anglican divines of the English Reformation.

It is not easy to bridge the wide semantic and syntactic gulf between Latin and modern English—I cannot pretend otherwise—but modern pedagogic methods and aids probably make it easier to achieve than ever before. All that is lacking now is the will. The Renaissance and the enlightened centuries that followed, especially perhaps the nineteenth, did Latin studies a great disservice by transferring the emphasis in language training from elocutio to eruditio, from speech and communication to painstaking analysis of text. Even as late as Dr Johnson’s time, Latin was a normal and perfectly acceptable lingua franca, a sort of “scholars’ vernacular”, a means of practical communication between literati of any background. The nineteenth century’s prissy insistence on classical correctness, its exclusive exaltation of the classical Latin of the “Golden Age”, its refusal to recognise any merit in the “decadent” Latin of later ages, brought the Great Tradition to the brink of collapse.

Finally, a sharp look at Latin’s chief rivals, the modern languages. How sad that natural allies should come to loggerheads, but the exigencies of modern school timetables have forced classical and modern languages into a collision course and a fight for territory. They should complement each other, but they don’t. Traditional Latin teachers have tended to be contemptuous of Latin’s modern descendants: “I assume as the foundation of all my view of the case, that boys at a public school never will learn to speak or pronounce French well, under any circumstance,” said Dr Thomas Arnold. But conversely few modern language teachers have had the depth of training in philology that they need to appreciate fully the evolution of the vernaculars and their dependency on earlier forms. How well could the average Australian school leaver communicate in France after six years of high school French? I shall always argue that it would be wiser to commence French studies from a sound basis in Latin.

Latin must never die, so long as learning is valued. There will always be a need for Latin readers, so long as we need to read primary sources in history, theology, philosophy or linguistics. And apart from its scholarly value, Latin has a wonderful and varied literature stretching over two millennia to delight us.

Dr David Daintree is President of Campion College, Sydney. He suggests that any reader interested in pursuing the historical and linguistic aspects of this question should consult the essay collection Latin and the Romance Languages in the Early Middle Ages, edited by Roger Wright, 1996.  

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