EVERYBODY’S DEAD LANGUAGE: LATINITY

BY:  JAMES F. O’NEIL

“. . . yet in these days, when an extended curriculum tends to curtail considerably the amount of Latin read, it seems to me that anything which may help boys to some knowledge of Latinity in a short time is not wholly useless.”  –Preface, Latin Phrase Book, Trans. H. W. Auden, 1894 [Reprint 1990].

How much Latin should a person remember who has studied the classics and languages, say 25, 35, or even 50 years ago?  Quis curat?  (“Who cares?”)  Does it matter anymore that a person study Latin at all?  Humerus is the humorous bone.  Why know differently?  Funny, no?  Make no bones about it: Don’t forget the radius and ulna, too.

I have many semesters of Latin (and Greek) noted on my transcripts, high school and college.  I have sung in Latin, prayed in Latin, translated into Latin and Latin into English.  I have even had the good fortune (Deo gratias!) to pass the Latin examination as part of my Master’s degree program (M.A., Magister Artium).  Years of daily study, from basic rex, regis (as in “king” and “of the king”) to the study of Thomistic philosophy and theology in Latin, prepared me for a three-hour written translation of some classical piece of Cicero, without a dictionary.

I am still Latinized, cannot avoid it in my life, nor could not avoid it as an English lit/humanities major: Never would I have been able to manage my way through the works of Chaucer nor those of John Milton without some Latin.  Moreover, Latin even contributed to the success of one of my previous blogs, “HOW’S YOUR LATIN?”  OR, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: https://memoriesofatime.blog/2013/11/08/hows-your-latin-or-sleeping-with-the-enemy/   This gave a bit of my Latinity, and my living with a Dead Language.  Nor can you avoid it–even if you have not studied a classroom word of it.

Yet you have: “Vocabulary test on Monday, don’t forget!” your teacher says as you begin to race out the classroom door on a Friday afternoon.  You know you had to study, memorize, and remember.  And the SAT, the PSAT, the ACT vocabularies: lists of roots and prefixes (like pre-fix: “before”) were the fundamentals (fundus: “ground, earthy, foundation”).  Recall now: anti-, ante-, intro-, extra-, inter-, ad-, mal-, mel-, etc.  (Oh, that’s one: et cetera: “and so forth.”)  You studied from morning to night, a.m. and p.m. (ante meridiem: “before noon”; post meridiem: “after noon”; “before”; “after”; diem: “day,” as in per diem: “per-day” expenses).  Some of you studied long and hard, to illness (perhaps even to “mono” illness) requiring medication PRN, or BID, or TID.  Huh?  Every eight hours?  Ter in die.  Every twelve hours?  Twice a DAY is bis in die.  Maybe for that serious pain, hydrocodone pro re nata, as needed, or whenever necessary–when the Tylenol does not do it!

Ergo (“therefore,” those three dots used in geometry, or the conclusion in philosophy or logic: “Therefore, all men are animals.”), it may not be so easy to be without Latin in our daily lives.  Medicine, geography, law, politics, religion, everyday living, literature, movies, sports, etc.–each contains various Latin expressions as part of the vocabulary of the subject, i.e. (id est: “that is”), particular words recognized by users in that area.  Usually one has to first begin a study of a subject by studying the vocabulary of the subject.  (I cannot forget those long lists of vocabulary in Latin classes, every week.)

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.  —Caesar’s Gallic Wars.  This is how my formal study began, in 1955 or so.  Church Latin began years before that, however: reading, singing, and listening to Latin at Mass and at Church services. 

I am certain that most of you reading this blog now can look at the Latin of Julius Caesar and guess at a few words, can even recognize a few meanings.  And in this very paragraph, look to see some Latin (not “paragraph,” however: that’s Greek: para-: “beside”; graphein: “writing”: a short stroke or mark was made alongside text to indicate a new “section”).  Look: “certain” (certus: “sure”) and “re-cognize” (re: “again”; cog: “knowledge”).

You can see it’s a living language for me, not a dead subject.  I can watch George C. Scott, the actor, in the movie Patton, walking in the silence in North Africa among the ruins of an ancient city.  I realize what he is there for, portraying this warrior general, George S. Patton, to annihilate (nihil: “nothing”) the enemy.  And I recall my Latin heard, learned, from somewhere, CARTHAGO DELENDA EST!: “Carthage must be destroyed [deleted]!”–now an expression of total warfare.

patton patton

General George S. Patton, U.S. Army

DELENDA.  A keystroke.  Delete: A key on my computer keyboard . . .  (Thirsty here, I take a sip from my bottle of Aquafina [“water”; “pure”] . . .) Now I don’t go around in my life obsessed with Latin or searching for Latinity.  It comes about, comes to me.  It excites me to remember something I learned long ago, still remember, have memoriesofatime, or still use.  Well, maybe not necessarily “excites,” but just makes all that previous effort so worthwhile.  That I did learn something, that I do remember something, that I can read (or hear) and make some kind of living connection somehow with ex officio, vox populi, habeas corpus, ex cathedra, fiat lux, extempore, semper fidelis!, dexter, semper paratus, ad astra per aspera, sine die, de fide, in loco parentis, sinister, gravitas, aurora borealis, summa cum laude,  contra, Taurus, ad hoc, bona fide, placebo, ad nauseam, etc., et al., ad infinitum . . .  You do get the point.

And thus, my friends, SATIS (“enough”).  My revels now are ended.  My Little Living Latin exercise ends; I make my exit (exit: “he leaves”; exeunt: “they leave”).  For certe, Toto, sentio nos in Kansate non iam adesse.  

ADDENDUM

CAESARCommentarii-de-Bello-Gallico

Books and sources abound for further study of the Dead-Living Language.  A Google search (or Amazon quest) reveals copies of major works in Latin, often with English translations (q.v.: quod vide: “which see”):  http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/index.html

Latin is still being taught in many secondary (and primary) schools, and in programs in higher education, here in the United States and in Europe.  So much the language of medicine (anatomy), law, and science, Latin is useful also in the study of words themselves, etymology, from Greek to Latin to French or Middle English.  Useful, fun, T-shirt-able, important, serious–whatever the need: “What good is Latin?”  Well, for one, it’s to help us understand our view of things, to help us “get” it, to even ponder how we think about . . . life itself?

carpe diem t-shirtCARPE DIEM T-SHIRT

. . .

**Latin for Dummies (2002) “makes learning fun and brings the language to life.”

**Latin for the Illiterati (2nd ed 2009) is a reference to common Latin words and phrases.  Not a dictionary, but rather “a compendium of words, expressions, familiar sayings, abbreviations, with an English-Latin Index.”

**More Latin for the Illiterati: A Guide to Medical, Legal, and Religious Latin (2003).

**Latin Phrase Book (1990 Rpt. of 1982 ed.).  A Longwood Academic reprint book I found is a translation (1894) from the sixth German edition of Lateinische Phraseologie by Professor Carl Meissner, organized into seventeen topics, with Latin and English indices.

©  JAMES F. O’NEIL  2018

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3 comments
  1. Susanne said:

    So enjoyed this post, James. I would love to learn Latin now since I’m thoroughly enamoured with words. Understanding their etymology would be enormously satisfying.

  2. Suze said:

    ut alii legunt, cum venerit enim dies scribe super scribe tibi verba. I think……..gosh it has been over 40 years! Professor Grindleman would be proud……lol

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