Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Weeny, weedy, weaky

"Latin is a language as dead as dead can be.
It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me."
Time was I thought that was pretty sophisticated wit, along the same lines as using a few pen strokes to change Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer to Kennedy's Shortbread Eating Primer. Oh, the long winter nights flew by where I come from.

Since giving it up at the age of 14 – which I couldn’t do fast enough – I’ve come to the conclusion that, properly handled, Latin could be fun. It's a language of fluid elegance, with depth and subtlety and a fantastic literature attached to it. The problem was that said literature is not a suitable teaching aid for kids who just see it as dull and dry. If the teacher is also dull and dry then you haven't a hope. Nor does it help if you have absolutely no idea what nominative / vocative / accusative / genitive / dative / ablative actually mean in real life. They took complex linguistic terms that students of English aren’t taught until much later, and crammed them down the throats of nine year olds. Maybe they still do. Nor could anyone ever tell me exactly why I might conceivably want to address a table.

Numerous teaching aids now exist that could make it more fun. Apparently the Vatican maintains a department dedicated to providing Latin terms for modern day words, so that in principle anything can still be translated into Latin if needed. And thus we can get books like Alicia In Terra Mirabili, Harrius Potter Et Philosophi Lapis and my favourite, Ursus Nomine Paddington.

What started all this off was reading that primary school children in Hackney are learning the language by writing postcards to imaginary Roman schoolkids. Good for them, I say. It entails inventing terms like "pedifolle" for football and "campus lusorius" for playground, though the mind still boggles at what cards they might get in return. "Dear Darren. Today we went to the Coliseum. Lions 8, Christians nil."

Or you can just practice on the various dog-Latinisms dropped into the works of Mr Pratchett, though best not imagine an actual Roman would understand them. The city motto of Ankh-Morpork is "Quanti canicula ille in fenestra" – roughly, "how much is that doggy in the window". And of course the immortal motto of the City Watch – "Fabricati Diem, Punc".


  1. You would want to address a table if you were sending it to someone in the post.

  2. Then you would need the flatpackative case, which the Romans never invented, which just shows how unnecessary it all is.


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