THOUGHTS ON THE STUDY OF LATIN


The real stumbling block for students learning Latin is something which is not generally apparent. The following essay is directed specifically to beginning or resuming Latin students, and should make a few basic points clear:




A thousand years ago English had inflected endings like those in Latin, which is quite natural since English is a member of the Germanic family of languages, which ultimately belongs to the Indo-European linguistic group. All I.E. (Indo-European) languages were originally highly inflected with an elaborate series of "endings". English lost its endings in the 9th century through the effect of a heavy stress accent on the first syllable of each word. In order to make endingless sentences intelligible again, English substituted a structured word order, in which the first thing mentioned was to be taken as the subject, the second a the verb, and the third a the object. All English sentences follow this structure, and only in classical English poetic diction can it be violated, under the rubric of "poetic word-order". (Chinese, which is entirely without inflection, uses this same Subject-Verb-Object word order to identify the structure of words in sentences; English having lost endings, has followed the same linguistic route as Chinese.)

Latin with its myriad endings, had no problems identifying the function of words in sentences, and used what may seem to us a "free word order". It is actually not free, often the first word marks a point of considerable emphasis, and if the last word is the verb, a well-known periodic or punch-line structure emerges. But in Latin, the word order is basically at the service of the author and his ideas, it can be a stylistic and an artistic consideration.

Students learning Latin try to find the subject first, then the verb, and finally get a grip on the object, after which they throw in all the other little things like adjectives, adverbs and pronouns. Don't even think of doing this, it will turn the sentence you are reading into a jumble, and you will never see what it really means. Each word must be read as a word, a basic meaning coupled with one or more grammatical functions (who is doing it, is it now or then, active or passive, real or conditional). Each of these "word-packages" must be filed away consecutively, as you move through the sentence, in the order in which it was written. This is hard for English speakers, because it is so contrary to the nature of English sentences, but it is the way Romans thought, and it is the only way to approach Latin. The problem is really not with Latin but with English. Japanese and German students find Latin much easier because it reminds them, in a simpler form, of a linguistic structure which is familiar to them.

It is only at this point, when you face up to this unfamiliar word order of a real Latin sentence, that you can start to understand the basic premise of language study, which is: People Do Think Differently! To learn a foreign language is to learn something about thinking differently, and this is a valuable lesson in the modern intercommunicating world, which has almost eight thousand different families of languages.

But there are other dangers. One of the most insidious is "trans-verbalisation", or the mental conversion of each word into English as the eyes traverse the Latin page. This dull and needless process was once taught in French and Spanish classes, but in the last seventy years it has been fairly well exterminated, as students were taught to "think in the language". Classes in which no word of English entered, pioneered many years ago by Middlebury College's celebrated language isolation system in its summer schools, has become the norm in teaching the modern languages, while Latin teaching has often plodded on in its old habits, unaware of change.

As soon as the student can grasp the meaning of a Latin word, the option of expressing himself in English must be removed. Reading out loud keeps attention on the Latin, and is linguistically proper since Romans always read along and actually were unable to read without phonating. By learning to think in Latin one enters into the thought processes of the author, and in the case of poetry, the gates suddenly come wide open. But the student who transverbalizes, no matter how adroit he is with grammar or facile with his class translations, will never get through the eye of the needle of literary appreciation. Go back to Section 7) of this language series for a full discussion of the untranslatability of Latin verse.

If in question how to go about this process of reading without transverbalizing, take a look at a modern Introduction to Italian, which will be based on the "think-Italian" method. Italian is three quarters Latin, much in a recognizable form, so this can serve as a good model for learning Latin. You can use a standard Introduction to Latin for its information, but for learning to read in an authentic manner, you will have to do something more for yourself. Verbum sapientibus sat.

Return to Latin Background index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris