Latin: Living & Dead

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Personal / Writing / Letters /

to the New York Times, 1984 November 13

I agree emphatically with E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in Reading Requires More Than Words [11/11/1984, Education] that cultural literacy is important and requires massive quantities of information. It also requires an awareness of misinformation and disinformation.

Mr. Hirsch writes that his son, a Latin teacher, mentioned to his class that “Latin isn’t spoken anymore.” Did he also mention that it seldom to never was by the Romans of, say, the time of Caius Julius, the original Caesar? Latin never was a spoken language (except for its artificial adoption by medieval clerics and lawyers). Caesar campaigned in prose in Latin; Cicero often opposed him by declaiming in highly convoluted Latin; Juvenal satirized in it; and Virgil sang of arms and the man in Latin: but when not speaking or writing publicly, the ruling class of Rome typically spoke Greek. When they weren’t speaking Greek, they spoke what everyone about them spoke: Italian: Old Italian. Any student of French, Spanish, or any other Romance language would find far more cognates and feel more comfortable with the grammar of Old Italian than with wholly artificial Latin. Latin in those times was strictly a literary language.

As hinted above, Latin was spoken regularly by the religious of the Roman Catholic Church of medieval times and by the growing class of secular scholars. Naturally, this spoken Latin rapidly became regionalized and mutually unintelligible. That’s what languages do. At best, it must have been uncomfortable, not to mention, ludicrous. Rather like the King James’s Bible reviving into the spoken tongue a stilted version of the old “thee” and “thou.” (Rather like the priests, Quakers artificially revived such archaisms into their speech.)

The real (nominalist) diversity of Europe as distinct from (and opposed to) the ideal (“Realist”: as in Aquinas’s Realism), catholicity of the Roman Empire, Holy or otherwise, still tears at the fabric of the illusion just as surely as did Luther’s Tract or Galileo’s telescope.

PS: Speaking of language and of political and cultural boundaries, how could Sue Standing’s question [p. 16] have gone unanswered? “Why shouldn’t African experiences be part of our teaching of English poetry?” They are, when Shakespeare imagines them in the mouth of an Othello, or when Hardy writes of a Boer battlefield and a Tommy buried under foreign stars. There’s far more scope for such experiences if she wants to talk about the study of poetry written in the English language rather than something so parochial as English poetry.

Digitizing that text today [early 2000s] makes me realize that I (almost) said clearly what I meant: but who can be expected to understand it? Certainly not the miseducated majority, including editors at the NYT, themselves victims of millennia of disinformation, propaganda, and illusion. Latin was never a spoken language. Neither was the Bible written in a spoken language. Jews had abandoned Hebrew before the Bible was compiled a few hundred years BC. Neither did King James scholars translate the Bible into a spoken English: they translated it into archaic English: supposedly elevating it as it were. But how many Latin teachers inform their students of these truths? How many know it themselves?

Naturally, I have no evidence that the Times shared my comments with the public. I doubt that the Times publishes 1% of what it knows; and I doubt that the Times knows 1% of 1% of what it ought to know.

As to what might be known, that I’m sure is a more discouraging ratio altogether.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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