Latin as She is Spoke: How Classicists Tricked Themselves, and the Real Issue with Mary Beard's Latin


Not long ago, Mary Beard graced us with a bit of honorable honesty in the Times Literary Supplement, in which she confessed to what is a bit of an open secret among most classicists. She can't sight-read a complex Latin text all that well. Most classicists can't. This admission — from someone like Beard — is good to have out there.

What irritates me is that —again like most classicists — she treats this as a self-evident fact to be just accepted rather than a problem to be dealt with, as if nobody could hope to actually read Cicero with ease. It always strikes me as bizarre and a bit embarrassing to see classicists insisting that it is impossible to acquire fluid or fluent command of Latin or Greek, that "we" can never do this. It's not just that this assumption would be news to people like Galileo, Kepler or Descartes. It's that people do actually acquire this kind of competence. Today. Anyone who pokes around at, say, the Conventiculum Bostoniense, will find proficient Latin-speakers as readily as Zeus finds incestuous booty-calls.

Take Msgr. Daniel Gallagher who worked for a decade at the Vatican Secretariat's Latin Office. Here's him delivering a lecture about the possibility of a manned mission to Mars in Latin. Here's Jorge Tárrega teaching one of Horace's most famous poems through the medium of Latin. Here's Justin Slocum Bailey talking about Aulus Gellius in Latin. If you want something literary, here's a lovely poem by Cäcilie Koch (AKA Caecilia) inspired by the discovery of the jaw-bone of a Neanderthal boy, and another poem by Alanus Divutius dedicated to the 9/11 victims. Here's a Latin Wikipedia article about special relativity. Here's a scene from Jurassic Park dubbed into Latin. Here's the Quomodo Dicitur podcast in which three people (not always the same people) have unscripted conversations about various topics in Latin.  I could keep spouting these links till either I or you, dear reader, die of boredom. There are plenty of people who read Latin as easily as any "modern" language that they have acquired as adults. There are entire internet forums written in it

There are even still people who write scholarly material in Latin — very, very occasionally. The subject matter tends to be unlikely to be of interest to anybody who can't read Latin well (here's a good example). One exception to this, which would be of interest to linguists — particularly sociolinguists who deal with more unusual forms of bilingualism — is Terence Tunberg's brilliant and informative monograph about the use and nature of spoken Latin in early modern Europe. The whole thing is in Latin, and not the kind of simplified user-friendly Latin found in textbooks. Here's a passage from the first page:
Libri tam medio illo aevo quam litterarum et artium renascentium aetate Latine scripti adhuc exstant permulti: quibus perlectis, etiam nunc iudicare possumus quale quisque genus scribendi coluerit: at non tam facile iudicare valemus quibus modis, quam crebro, quam diligenter homines iam pridem emortui ex tempore et pro re nata soliti sint Latine colloqui
There exist as yet a great many books written in Latin as much from the Middle Ages as from the Renaissance. Having read them, we are even now able to judge what kind of writing-type any given person practiced. We are not as easily able to judge how, how often, or how carefully people long dead were wont to converse in Latin when speaking it spontaneously on an as-needed basis.
My English translation is a bit stilted, because I wanted to keep close the structure of the Latin, and even so I had to shift some of the information into a new clause ("when speaking it") and render an idiom with another somewhat inapposite idiom (pro re nata -> "on an as-needed basis"). A phrase like "quale quisque genus scribendi coluerit" containing a hyperbaton-nested pronoun, can only be put into much more long-winded English. "Practice" is a poor substitute for "colere" which might more nearly be rendered as "cultivate" but is infinitely less pretentious. I rather doubt that the thought would have been expressed this way if Tunberg were writing in English. My point here is that, though written by a native English speaker, this does not read like the work of someone who writes Latin while thinking in, or mentally translating from, English. This is comfortably written, idiomatic Latin which could not be translated into un-stilted English without some rephrasing and recasting of sentences. And Tunberg wrote this in the year of our lord 2012 for an audience he expected to understand him.

Nonetheless, as Latin prose goes, this is a relatively straightforward passage with no rhetorical flourishes or stylistic fireworks. Tunberg's aim is purely communicative. He is not trying to entertain, and has no need to impress. Compare that with the beginning of a speech by Giovanni Rossi in Rome, about the poet Joseph Tusiani, which opens in full-on Ciceroniatio.
Munus mihi, Theodorice optime, mandasti grave et aleae plenum, in provinciam me tuam arcessens, qui lateres tracto, non carmina, et siqua facundia est in me, quam alii laudant, ego scio quam sit exigua, omnino sum expers poeseos, quin etiam — fateor enim aperte — raro versibus neolatinis delectari soleo, in quibus nescioquid fucatum mihi deprehendere videor. 
My good Theodoricus, you have ordered me on a hard and risk-riddled mission, summoning me into your bailiwick. I deal with bricks, not poems. If there is in me any of the eloquence which others laud, I know how paltry it is. I have nothing at all to do with poetry, and — I openly admit it — I tend only rarely to find pleasure in neolatin verse, in which I seem to apprehend something contrived.
Rossi draws freely on the Latin stylistic arsenal in his address, and translating it into a less awkward English would require not just a more thorough recasting, but also some sacrificing of nuance. As it is, my crummy English version sacrifices both the elegance and nuance of phrases like nescioquid fucatum. The term nescioquid here carries a force not only of indefiniteness but also of triviality, and fucatus  (literally "painted" or perhaps "covered in make-up") is not merely "contrived" but also "embellished" with overtones of falsity. "In provinciam me tuam arcessens" has a strongly military overtone to it, but provincia also has a more general semantic range of "sphere of official duty" and jokes relying on this word's association with military bureaucracy go back to Plautus. Rossi's familiarity with things poetic is already apparent (the phrase plenus aleae may or may not be meant to evoke its origin in Horace, as it is a stock phrase of Neo-Latin). The trivialization of the speaker's knowledge of poetry gives it a playful irony which becomes more apparent as Rossi's speech goes on ("tamen tibi, quae est humanitas tua, lubenter morem geram, Josephum autem amicum, virum laudatum, laudabo lubentius").  Humble posturing of this kind is common in Latin literature, though not always with this kind of self-awareness. Rossi expresses the modesty topos by toying with a famous phrase of Cicero's in Pro Archia ("Si quid est in me ingeni...quod sentio quam sit exiguum") and variations on that phrasing are not uncommon in mock speeches in Renaissance literature. The mock-aspect is heightened,by substituting facundia "fluency, eloquence" for ingenium "natural ability" in a Ciceronian phrase template.

The Latinity here shines in a high-end literary polish even as it cracks a smile of genre-savvy humor and casual familiarity. The speaker is not taking himself or his high-flown clausal structures too seriously.  Because Rossi himself was not unknown to his audience, even personal biography comes into play. The statement that lateres tracto, non carmina is an allusion to Rossi's professional background as an architect.

There is a specifically Latinate aesthetic at work here. Its cultural register is quite different from the passage I took from Tunberg's book. Full understanding of the denotative content of a speech like this requires a well-developed grasp of Latin idiom. Fully apprehending its connotative dimensions requires a peculiar kind pragmatic awareness which depends on a shared knowledge of the Latin canon. And this is from a speech delivered in 2009. To an audience that understood what he was saying in real time (about a Latin poet born just a year before the birth of the first television station.)

Oh, and if you want to see high-end spoken Latin in action:

Here's Wilfried Stroh talking in Latin about Lucretius.
Here's Luigi Miraglia giving an interview in Latin in which he discusses, among other things, how he was taught the language.
And here's Miraglia giving a lecture in which he says a lot of things I don't think are true.

This is what I mean when I say Latin is not a dead language, so much as one that just happens to lack native speakers.

The thing of it is that classicists often act like they don't know these people exist. Or if they do, they imagine them to be a small congeries of exceptional souls. That may be true when it comes to people who speak Latin as well and spontaneously as Miraglia does, or who would be able capture ever nuance of a speech like Rossi's in real time. (I am so very, very far from being either of these.) But Tunberg's book is not aimed at a tiny audience of eccentric linguistic necrophiles. It is aimed at Renaissance scholars who deal with Latin texts a lot, and whom he expects not to have much difficulty understanding the substance of his arguments expressed in the language.

It's not uncommon for renaissance scholars to develop a good reading proficiency in Latin that allows them to deal with any text in the language, albeit not without the help of a dictionary. The reason is a practical one. Unlike classicists, scholars of Renaissance literature often have to deal with texts precisely like the one that so frustrates Mary Beard: texts that are not available in translation, let alone in modern critical editions with regularized spelling complete with footnotes that hold your hand.

Quoth Mary Beard:
And you are on your own: there's no crib here, like there is with Tacitus
To which a medievalist or Renaissance specialist will respond "welcome to my life." People whose scholarly work depends on dealing with medieval or Renaissance Latin texts have to have a better command of Latin than the kind Mary Beard describes. And if you're sitting there thinking "but Medieval Latin is simpler than Classical Latin" realize that I don't just mean reading the pared down language of the Res Gesta Francorum or even Jerome's Bible. I mean reading Cicero's letters, alongside Petrarch's Ciceronian response to them. I mean reading Virgil alongside Walter of Châtillon. I am talking about the kind of reading proficiency that allows one to skim hundreds of pages of text in order to find material relevant to one's research. If Peter Godman couldn't read new, unfamiliar and often abstruse Latin texts, he could not do the research he does. Medievalists and Renaissance scholars — even those taught by painfully ineffective traditional methods — get practice dealing with texts on their own way more than classicists as a rule.

Quoth Mary Beard:
Why, I still wonder, are Latin and Greek so hard. I think it is partly that most of us, even if we have done our turn in trying to translate English into Latin, still learn ancient languages largely passively. It is both the plus and the minus of Latin that we never have to ask for a pizza, or the way to the swimming pool, in it. 
Beard treats Latin as if it were any other "ancient language" which "we" mostly learn passively. But as "ancient languages" go, Latin is quite unusual in its active cultivation. Though the example of Sanskrit shows it is hardly unique, and there are those who use and learn Ancient Greek actively too (see hereor hereor hereor here or here). This is fundamentally unlike the situation with, say, Old English, Gothic, Old French or Middle English (though Alice In Wonderland has been translated into all of these, and the occasional nerd still writes poetry in Old English.) It's unlikely that, say, a relatively obscure linguistics concept could readily be discussed in Old Irish or Ancient Egyptian.

Note also the word "still" here, as if the exclusively passive study of Latin were an old tradition. It is actually a quite recent development. The beginning of it is less than two centuries old at most. More importantly, though, the idea of Latin as a specifically "ancient" language — to be treated and learned as if it were dead — is very much a 19th century conceit. This is the language in which Newton, Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler did science. The language in which GaussFermat, and Euler did math. The language in which Spinoza, Descartes and Francis Bacon did philosophy. The language in which Giovanni Pontano and John Milton wrote copious amounts of poetry. The language in which Thomas More wrote his "Utopia".

Renaissance humanists in particular were zealous advocates of a pedagogy which aimed at making Latin their students’ "second mother tongue" by constant conversational practice without burdening them with useless amounts of grammatical analysis. Giovanni Pontano not only wrote only in Latin, but apparently spoke only Latin to his wife Adriana and his four children. He even wrote a series of Latin lullabies for his son Lucio. I rather doubt Pontano knew what an "agent complement" or "partitive genitive" even was. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was common for schools to require that Latin be spoken amongst students. Scholars have unearthed letters in which parents wrote to their sons in boarding schools in Latin, often for the purpose of providing good practice. There was once a tradition of Latin school theater — a Protestant development which the Jesuits helped spread throughout much of Western Europe — which served, in essence, as a glorified language exercise. Most of the plays performed were new creations, not recycled classics from antiquity (although many in the Middle Ages and Renaissance did indeed study the comedies of Terence and Plautus precisely in order to learn conversational style.) This gave the players a chance to broaden their vocabulary and tighten their grasp of the various stylistic registers of Latin. In fact, I'd bet that a student who happens to pick up Jakob Bidermann's Canodoxus will discover that such plays can still serve that function today. Latin in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance was taught as what it is: a completely normal language. It's important to realize how "modern" a habit it is to treat Latin as a language to be learned passively through grammatical gymnastics. This pedagogical habit developed not long ago, and for rationally understandable reasons. It is not written into nature. The fact that there aren't any Romans to chat with anymore didn't stop people like Erasmus from using it as a conversational language with other educated people. Even though there is little practical need for spoken proficiency in Latin anymore, there is no reason why learners of Latin today should be railroaded into the kind of semi-literacy that academic classicists often acquire. There is no reason why learners should be made to treat every Latin text as puzzle to be deciphered into translation, rather than a specimen of normal human communication to be understood as such.

Quoth Mary Beard:
But more to the point is that most of the classics we have to read in Latin, or Greek, are so damn difficult. Making sense of Thucydides or Tacitus is closer to making sense of James Joyce than Charles Dickens . . . and after even 10 years at the language one is hardly quite up to the task (and it was probably almost as baffling for native speakers too).
This, to me, seems profoundly untrue, and by only mentioning historians, Beard has fudged the issue a bit. History, as a Roman genre, was prone to (a) some amount of archaism and (b) a tendency toward syntactic innovation. Historians from Livy on, experimented with the future participle, with the gerund and gerundive, with the infinitive dependent on adjectives, with plain cases with compound verbs. There's a strong tendency to deletion of assumed constituents that would normally be made explicit. Tacitus' rhetorical habits can indeed get a bit mystifying at times, especially when he himself seems to be a bit sick of what he's writing about and to take delight in overdoing the syntax. But Beard is I think massively overstating the difficulty this would cause for native speakers. In an earlier and much more wrong-headed piece she even suggested that "asking a school student to read Tacitus is a bit like asking an English learner to go off and read Finnegan’s Wake."  If you find Tacitus remotely comparable to Finnegan's Wake in his difficulty, that says more about you than about Tacitus. (If it's an innocent exaggeration, it's one that is so out of proportion as to be uninformative.)

And Beard's broader implication that "the classics we have to read" challenged the comprehension skills of native speakers in their own time makes so little sense that I have trouble accepting that she really believes this. Leave historians to the side for a moment and consider any of the "classic" texts which we know were composed for oral delivery or performance. Aristophanes' comedies may sometimes deploy bizarre language, and are often deliberately silly, but we have no reason to think that they were truly baffling for their original audience. The comedies of Plautus and Terence cannot have posed a serious comprehension challenge to their rather varied audiences when first performed. Not only were most of the classics we read easily understood by their target audience, but many of them were intelligible when delivered orally at normal speed.

The aspects of the language that modern students often find superfluously difficult when reading any ancient Latin author (such as word order) posed no comprehension difficulty to those authors' original audiences. We have a lot of ancient Latin of a non-literary kind to compare Cicero or Tacitus with. Even the most subliterary papyri taken via dictation — fascinating as they are in many ways — contain a lot of the same features that modern learners often stumble over. And the Cena Trimalchionis, which deliberately imitates the ordinary (and subliterary) speech of uneducated freedmen, is by no means especially easy for Anglophone learners.

To be sure, a lot of Romans whose knowledge of literary Latin fell below the high standards of the rhetors were unable to compose coherent complex prose like Cicero, or Tacitus a hundred years later. (We have good evidence, for example, that even in Tacitus' day the inflected passive didn't have a great deal of currency in most people's ordinary speech, and letters taken from dictation tend to avoid using it in anything but its most basic and predictable forms.) Learners of spoken Latin as a second language during the empire could not necessarily write elegant or even competent hexameters. (Sometimes their attempts to do so were comically inept and incomprehensible).

But the upper echelons of Roman society in the Late Republic and Early Empire were a world in which speechmaking was important and ubiquitous, in which different contexts will have required different styles of composition and delivery, and where it is vanishingly unlikely that, say, Cicero's speeches would have been completely intelligible when delivered orally to their intended audience. However florid and high-flown his speeches may be, however annoying it is for Latin students to try and hunt for the verb heading his main clauses, they were speeches meant for an educated audience that cannot have had great difficulty understanding what he was saying in real time (except on those occasions where he actually intended to be opaque). Point being: it would be a poor public speaker indeed whose speeches were so syntactically florid that nobody in the audience could understand him without a sentence diagram.

Quoth Mary Beard:
"I have often said that more things survive (in both Greek and Latin) of what the ancient Romans wrote than anyone could hope to read in a lifetime."
This sounds like a huge overestimation to me. To be sure, a lot of it probably isn't worth reading to most people, at least not for enjoyment. Much of it is only of incidental "historical" interest, I suspect. But the entirety of extant literature in Greek and Latin through to, say, the Late Empire is probably enough to fill a single small bookstore. It's a lot, sure. But a single person could probably read all of it. Even if you added to that all the personal correspondences unearthed in papyri and on wax tablets, and all the inscriptional material I doubt that it is impossible for a human to read all of it. I certainly wouldn't want to. I can't think of anyone who would want to, really. How many grave inscriptions would they have to read? How many tabulae in which a soldier in Britain sends for underwear or something? Still, it would be doable. Once you push the threshold of "ancient Romans" through into the very ass-end of Late Antiquity, though, it is quite plainly impossible for a single human to read it all.

In fact, "Ancient Latin" represents less than one percent of all that has been written in the language. We pigeonhole this language as "ancient" because 19th century ideas about what "real" Latin is have — in a highly warped form — delimited the general sense of what Latin is, and can be, how it can be learned, and how it can be read. Even in the 19th century, though, a lot of interesting work was produced in Latin. Like Giovanni Pascoli's poem about gladiators who escaped with Spartacus.

Outside the rarified and often invisible academic discipline of Neo-Latin studies, non-ancient Latin is constantly ignored into invisibility despite its profusion. The result is intellectual impoverishment. For example, students of baroque French literature tend to be ignorant of Du Bellay's Latin poetry, which is every bit as copious and accomplished as his French poetry. A full appreciation or assessment of Du Bellay's accomplishment as a poet should — I think — require consideration of his work in both languages. But, with a few exceptions, people tend not to think so today. His Latin is — in an important sense — "unreal" to French literary history.

As early as 1923, Thierry Sandre put it well:
"Il paraît qu'on ne lit plus le latin, depuis longtemps déjà. On ne le lit plus surtout parce qu'on ne nous y intéresse plus. Qu'on nous apporte une traduction d'un bon ouvrage que nous ne connaissions pas : nous aurons envie d'en voir l'original. Mais, dira-t-on, y a-t-il encore de bons ouvrages que nous ne connaissions pas ? Il y en a malheureusement beaucoup, beaucoup trop ! La littérature latine du Moyen-Age est considérable ; nous n'en savons pas grand'chose ; et toute la littérature française du XVIe siècle est doublée d'une littérature latine dont nous ne savons à peu près rien. Quel vaste champ à explorer ! Que de découvertes à faire ! Plus d'un chapitre de nos histoires littéraires y gagnerait une lumière utile. On laisse presque toujours dans l'ombre les poésies latines de nos poètes français."
(It seems we no longer read Latin, and have not done so for some time. Above all, we no longer read it because nobody gets us interested in it. Show us a translation of a great work we don't know, and we will want to see the original. You may well ask, are there still great works in Latin that we do not know? Unfortunately a great many, too many. The latin literature of the Middle Ages is considerable, and we know little of it. The whole of 16th century French literature is coupled with a Latin literature we know virtually nothing about. What a vast field to explore, what discoveries to be made! More than one chapter of literary history would benefit from the light it might shed. We almost always leave the Latin poetry of our French poets in the shadows.) 
Another case in point is the study of Orientalism. Modern scholars of European Orientalism almost never know Latin, despite its omnipresence in the scholarly firmament of Europe from the Middle Ages through to the end of the 18th century. It is a pity, as Latinate Orientalism was a bit of a different animal than what was produced in vernaculars. Sir William Jones, for example, wrote so much more about Persian and Arabic literature in Latin than he ever bothered to say in English. Most of his Latin writing — influential in its day — remains untranslated and thus almost never read today. A thorough reading of Jones' "Poeseos Asiaticae Commentariorum Libri Sex" and a consideration of the variety of people influenced by it, including Goethe and Friedrich Engels, offers a dimension to European literary Orientalism that is often simply invisible to modern literary historians and theorists.

Mary Beard is a great scholar, and I don't want to be misunderstood as saying otherwise. There is more than just language proficiency to successful academic life, after all, and it is by no means the most important thing. For many reasons, knowing a language well is less valuable in academia than than knowing something else about the people who used the language, or having something worthwhile to say about texts written in it. The Czech writer Jan Kresadlo was at home enough in Homeric Greek that he was able to write a brilliantly hilarious Science Fiction Epic in it. But his facility with the language did not mean that he knew the first thing about Ancient Ionian land tenure practices.

Still, one needn't strive to achieve a knowledge of Latin comparable to that of Giovanni Pontano or John Owen or Luigi Miraglia in order to have the kind of comfortable reading ability that allows one to understand unfamiliar texts of considerable complexity. It is completely doable. Language learning is never effortless, but a lot of the difficulty classicists in particular face in acquiring a working reading knowledge of Greek and Latin is completely avoidable. To bring that burden down to its more natural weight, though, a lot of things will have to change. It can't happen on a large scale in the absence of teachers who both know the languages much better than most classicists do and are trained in second language pedagogy.

Nor can it happen if learners are simply told that high reading proficiency is an unattainable, or even unreasonable goal. Mary Beard's confession is admirably honest, but it should not be taken completely at face value. Though her experience is a very common one, it is possible to do better. Latin and Greek are normal human languages. Teachers and learners will do themselves and each other a capital favor by treating them as such.

If anyone reading this is interested in learning to read Latin as a normal language, then I strongly recommend Hans Ørberg's Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata series. It's perfect for either self-study or classroom use, and I've seen it do wonders to help struggling learners. Above all else, it helps you learn to think about Latin in Latin. It's the only Latin textbook I know of that actually helps you avoid transverbalization (the habit of mentally translating everything you read.) 


  1. Well I find in classical Hebrew some things are much harder to read than others.... Poetry is usually harder than prose and some texts have a lot of obscure words (at least for me). History and legal texts are relatively easy to read, parts of the prophets are hard.

    1. This is because Hebrew poetry (the prophets wrote largely in poetry) intentionally uses archaic language--as in, archaic even to the one writing it. There is also a paucity of ancient Hebrew works written on interesting topics (_please_ enlighten me if I'm wrong), which makes true acquisition even harder than Greek or Latin. It sounds like you are much farther ahead than most students of classical Hebrew though.

  2. Latin and Greek are normal human languages, of course. Like English, German or Spanish. And that's precisely why I don't think Beard's analogy argument about the differences between Joyce and Dickens can be dismissed at once. Doesn't a German speaker as a second language, even a competent one, encounter sometimes insurmountable difficulties in confronting Goethe? And a Spanish learner who can read the daily press without problems can approach Cela, Rulfo or García Márquez just as well?

    1. Modern speakers of German as either a second or first language may sometimes find passages in Goethe that are a bit odd to say the least. The question there is whether this is due to changes in how literary language is used between Goethe's time and now, or something else. (A phrase like "keine Ferne macht dich schwierig" sounds rather odd and would never be written today). But I really doubt that competent Anglophone German-scholars need to take the extreme measure of consulting English translations just to figure out what the hell Goethe is saying.

      There are texts that even native speakers can find perplexing, particularly experimental poetry. Marina Tsvetaeva or Nicanor Parra come to mind. Even Dante's language is occasionally so thoroughly scrambled that Italian Dante scholars are still unsure of quite how to parse the syntax in a line like "farotti ben di me volere scemo".

      But Cicero's and Pliny's letters are not literary exercises meant to strain language to somewhere close to its breaking point. Texts exist in varying languages of difficulty, of course, and the rhetorical floridity of a Cicero poses a much greater challenge to learners than St. Jerome's Bible. Phaedrus' versified fables are certainly easier to follow than Virgil's Georgics. I'd even go so far as to say that, in the mid-to-late Empire at least, we have evidence that the high literary language was a struggle for native Latin speakers of low educational attainment. There are plenty of 3rd and 4th century authors who mention the need to use "barbarisms" of one or another sort to be understood by the "vulgus".

      The point I am making, though, is that most of the "classics" that make their way onto a syllabus would not have been perplexing to their original intended audiences. It seems to me vanishingly unlikely that Roman senators would have found Cicero's speeches at all hard to understand, let alone "baffling". The bafflement that modern readers often experience in the absence of a translation is — I think — generally because they simply don't know the language, and its idioms, well enough.

      I think classicists since the mid 20th century have sometimes been too willing to blame the text rather than themselves for comprehension difficulties.

  3. We do have a lot of specimens of Ancient Greek that appear to be more or less in colloquial everyday language, such as Attic comedy, and yes the same morphological complexity I think you're talking about is present there.

    There hasn't been as much use of spoken Greek in teaching as there has with Latin. But you might be interested in the Polis Institute in Jerusalem which, though it focuses on Koiné Greek rather than Ancient Attic, teaches ancient Greek via active use in its program. See the link below

  4. Thank you for this wonderful reply to Mary Beard. It should be published in the TLS as well. I found you through the Metafilter website - if you want to see their discussion about your blog post, you'll find it here:

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  6. Marvellous! I love it. I would like to comment lots of things regarding this publication. I´d love to check all the interested references you share here. First of all, regarding the lecture of Mr Miraglia, could you name some of these things you don´t agree with? Thanks in advance!

  7. I'm by no means competent in Latin, but I do know enough to tell the difference between classical Latin and ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, and Mary Beard's spoken Latin makes me doubt she has ever studied the language at all.

  8. As a former student of Professor Beard, I can assure you that she has studied the language to a point that you would be unlikely to comprehend.

  9. Now, A.Z.: is 'Finnegan's Wake' a genuine citation from Professor Beard or your little joke?

  10. I could not agree more with the essay above. Professor Beard seems to underestimate the linguistic ability and scholarship of a great many of her peers. It is true that intelligent Sixth-Formers (16-18 years old) usually have some difficulty with Cicero and Tacitus, but this can largely be ascribed to the relatively small attention and time given to Latin even in the best British schools.

  11. I had a wonderful Classics teacher at school, Hilary Goy, whose aim seemed to be to make us read really copious amounts of any set author. I find that a new author leaves me floundering for a bit, but that once I have mastered the vocanbulary and usage of a particular person I can read them at sight.

    1. Agree. Each new author takes getting used to.

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  14. Honestly, as a very bad Latinist and Joyce fan I find a page of In Catillinam more comprehensible than a page of Finnegans Wake. Not least because its opening sentences start on the first page. Honestly, 'Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? ' is ridiculously straight forward compared to any 'sentence' in FW.

  15. Robert, it's the very first sentence of In Catilinam I; so it's got to be powerful and hard-hitting. The sentence structure thereafter gets more complex.

  16. Up to a point I can agree with you. But, as Victor Shklovsky has taught us, in literature (particularly in poetry) there is a tactic we call "defamiliarization" in which language is deliberately made strange and difficult to comprehend. In Latin even an unusual word order probably falls under this definition.

  17. I've read a fair bit of Latin and I think what you're talking about is pretty rare. If I find something I feel is very complicated I usually assume I'm not up to it yet, rather than assume it was made deliberately hard. When I do see what I consider deliberately complicated word order, it is usually glaringly obvious.

  18. Daniel Peterson, of does a video of him speaking mostly unscripted Latin each week. Very impressive. Not trying to be Ciceronian, just talking.