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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 10 August 2018

"Amo, Amas, Amat ... and all that" by Harry Mount

This book endeavours to convince its readers of the joys of learning Latin and, along the way, to teach, in a remorselessly traditional way,  the grammar and vocabulary necessary to undertake some translations. I thought that the second aim rather undermined the first. Had I wished to undertake the learning of Latin I would have purchased one of the teaching courses available, a Latin dictionary, and a Latin grammar. For all his delightful anecdotes, many describing his own education at private schools, the interesting asides and the somewhat waspish pillorying of celebrities such as Paul Gascoigne and Jeffrey Archer (Mount is clearly a Classics Master manque), the large chunks of rote learning required made this book too severe to be fun.

And I have a problem with the rigour expected on Latin students. Mount makes the point that Latin is, to all intents and purposes, now a dead language and that therefore there is less "wriggle room" is translating it. But Latin was a live language for well over a thousand years and there were at least three ages of literary Latin (Golden, Augustan, and Silver). To suggest that Latin did not evolve and mutate in that time is like suggesting that Chaucerian English and modern English are the same. I find it difficult to understand how someone can be so definite about the 'correct' way to decline a noun or the correct spelling of any Latin word. Did Romulus write the rules and then all Latin authors slavishly followed him? Or have we discerned the rules from an analysis of the surviving corpus? And were they really all slavishly adhering to the same standards?

At the start of the book, Mount is firmly on the side of the sceptics. He extols a book about Venice that avoids the "Accademia" and "four million Tintorettos"(p 17)He points out that Latin "was a language that people once used to talk about the weather and their sex lives; people laughed and cried in Latin." (p 25) He points out that "to say you need to understand Latin to understand English ... is as crazy as saying you need to understand Anglo-Saxon, German and Norman French to understand English." (p 27) He labels those who use Latin where there is a perfectly suitable English word as Wankers who only want to show off. “Since you can't split a Latin infinitive, because it's a single word, you shouldn't do it in English, or so the pedants say. That seems bloody stupid to me - Latin and English are two different languages.” (p 125). And he loves colloquial translations. “Who's ever said, ‘Sejanus, needing to be promoted, enjoined the centurions to go by, with or from home?’ Much better to say, ‘Sejanus was so desperate to curry favour with the emperor that he told all the centurions to quit the city by nightfall’.” (p 38)

But in the end he still wants you to learn all the declensions and the conjugations and the tenses and the genders and the gerunds and passives and the whole lot.

Towards the end there are a whole lot of grammatical terms, some of which are really rather useful, and an awful lot of phrases from Latin that we use nowadays, most of which I knew.

At the end of the book, Mount mourns the decline in the learning of Latin. As with so many other classicists, he misses the point. Latin, he proclaims, is worth learning by virtue of the access it grants you to some wonderful writing. I would not dispute that. But, Mr Mount, ars longa, vita brevis (which Mount tells me is a saying from Hippocrates although I always assumed that this gentleman spoke Greek). There are so many things that are worth learning and life is short. It is wonderful that my mate Fred, who lent me this book, is translating the Aeneid from Latin into English for fun. But I am really glad that I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge. I suspect Mr Mount considers the Sciences, and Engineering, and Maths to be functional subjects but, Harry, they are subjects that offer entrance to worlds of beauty and enchantment as much as Poetry or Latin or History or Art Appreciation. Or football, for that matter. We humans have created many things of beauty. Who am I to say that Physics satisfies the soul more than Latin? But when I watch a drunkard spit at a light bulb which subsequently shatters and I find I can understand the sequence of events in terms of a number of scientific sub-disciplines I do experience a little joy which is essentially spiritual. And who is Mr Mount to suggest that the thrills he experiences in translating Latin are more profound that that? And who are either of us to feel superior to a football spectator whose soul is moved and whose life is validated by a moment of sporting brilliance? No, Harry. The decline in the learning of Latin is not because on an inherent philistinism in modernity but because of the increase in so much of the competition. Schoolchildren don't learn less. They now learn other things.

And the decrease in rigour between O-level and GCSE is because GCSEs are designed to be qualifications that everyone can access. You were lucky to go to a private school. Most people aren't. But they deserve an education too. And they deserve, if they so wish, to study Latin. If you refuse to make it accessible, don't be surprised if it withers away.

Here are some interesting facts I gathered along the way:

  • The word ‘candidate’ evolved from the fact that Roman candidates for election wore togas covered in white chalk dust to make them stand out in a crowd.” (p 44)
  • The gerund is ... a way of turning a verb into a noun: so the gerund of ‘I love’ is ‘loving’.” (p 76)
  • The gerundive is ... a verbal adjective, meaning, ‘needing to be kissed/electrocuted/ glued’.” (p 77)
  • The name Amanda is also a gerundive, meaning ‘a girl that must be loved’.” (p 77)
  • Of course, bloody Wilfred Owen ripped the line off for his poem, Dulce et Decorum est, in 1917. Got shot a fortnight before the armistice. Serves him bloody right. That's what happens to boys who plagiarise.” (p 91)
And some interesting Latin words that I didn't know as well as I thought I did:
  • Codex: "Originally spelt caudex, it meant 'tree trunk'. Came to be used to mean a book of wooden tablets" and by extension a manuscript.
  • "Locum tenens - a substitute" later shortened to locum but also frenchified into "lieu-tenant"
  • Pari passu: "two enterprises being treated in the same way"
  • Passim "everywhere"
  • Quis custodiet ipsos custodes was used by Juvenal to refer to "the problem of finding men to guard women suspected of infidelity"
  • "Re ipsa loquitur - the thing speaks for itself": self-evident
  • "Vade mecum - go with me"
  • "Velis nolis" is the origin of will-ye nill-ye subsequently willy-nilly.

This book had many lovely moments but it hasn't convinced me to relearn Latin. August 2018; 269 words


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