Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: 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 Paideia Institute, 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, and quite a few who speak it well too. If you want to see high-end Latin fluency in action, 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 him giving a lecture in which he says a lot of things I don't think are true.

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 to a degree when it comes to people who speak Latin as well as Miraglia does. But it's not even that uncommon for ordinary medievalists to develop a good reading proficiency in Latin that allows them to deal with any text in the language, albeit with the help of a dictionary. The reason is a practical one. Unlike classicists, medievalists and 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 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. 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 in a way that classicists almost never do.

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. 
Note 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. 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. Think about it for a moment. 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 too 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 some amount of archaism, and Tacitus' rhetorical habits can get a bit mystifying at times, especially when he himself seems to be a bit sick of what he's writing about. But a lot of Tacitus isn't all that much more difficult than Caesar. More to the point, Beard's 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. Just 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 at all baffling for their original audience. The comedies of Plautus and Terence did not pose a comprehension challenge to their rather varied audiences when first performed. The Greek of Demosthenes' speeches was not puzzling to Athenians when he first delivered them. Not only were most of the classics we read easily understood by their target audience, but they 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 write 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, however florid and high-flown Cicero's speeches may be, and however annoying it is for Latin students to try and hunt for the verb heading his main clauses, they were speeches delivered orally to an educated audience that cannot have had great difficulty understanding what he was saying in real time.

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 our own 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.

Non-ancient Latin is constantly ignored into invisibility despite its profusion. The result is intellectual impoverishment. For example, even specialized 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 people tend not to think so today. His Latin is — in an important sense — "unreal" to most modern scholars studying him. 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.

  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. Nor is Tacitus. 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. Hello, I don´t know nothing about latin. I ask you for greek. Sometimes I think how could greeks make/form the participles and the absolute genitives (just for giving one example) in the rutinary life? did greeks can speak this almost mathematic and too dificult greek? idk, or example all the morphological changes with contract verbs and so on, did they really thought all of those things?
    I wonder if you on the other hand can tell us some methods to get familiar with ancient greek as a speak languague -I´m really interested in speak it, and also and more than this in read almost fluently Plato or Thucydides. Thanks a lot

    1. 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: