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Latin Lessons and Regrets from Dorothy Sayers

A few years ago, the classicist Mary Beard made waves by admitting publicly that knowing Latin wasn’t the same thing as knowing French. That is, someone who makes the latter claim can pick up and read anything in modern French with complete understanding. In Latin? Definitely not.

As you can imagine, this set off a firestorm of response and criticism. All of this has generally led people in the Latin and Greek world to further divide along the lines of the Analysts—parse and translate—and the Acquisitionists—speak and listen (see my post on that here).

In an essay I link to at the bottom of this post, Dorothy Sayers gave a talk on Latin—not in Latin, alas—in which she makes a few observations pertinent to me as a Latin teacher (and all Latin teachers and students in my audience).

She contrasts sharply how she learned Latin and French (she had a French-speaking governess for years and *enjoyed* the French Literature she read), and determines that she knows French in a completely different way than how she knows Latin. She concludes:

It ended, I say, there, leaving me, after close on twenty years’ teaching, unable to read a single Latin author with ease or fluency, unable to write a line of Latin without gross error, unfamiliar with the style and scope of any Latin author, except as I had taken refuge in English translations, and stammering of speech because by this time all three pronunciations were equally alien and uncertain. And this was a thing that never ought to have happened to me, because I was born with the gift of tongues.

On top of that, she realizes that the facility she reached in French allowed her to keep it up through her adult life, whereas she lost most of her Latin.

I, mute and inglorious as I am, and having forgotten nearly all I ever learned, still know more Latin than most young people with whom I come in contact.

So, she hits on a question my students often ask. If I’m not going to remember this, what good is it for me? In general, I’ve never had a completely adequate answer to this. The analogy I usually use in response is that we don’t remember what we ate last week, but we’re still quite glad we ate and continue to do so. Rather, we assimilate most knowledge to a deeper level than measurable skills. This deeper knowledge often forms the frameworks for how we look at the world, solve problems, and relate to others.

That is, we don’t remember and actively use all the knowledge we consume; rather, we incorporate it into our lives as wisdom. If ever we have to turn it back into words or dig for the principles whereby we are acting, then we remember a great deal of our education, more by making it new rather than reviewing it as we would for a test. So, Dorothy Sayers realizes that even as all the specifics of syntax and morphology fall away (could she, at the time of this speech, distinguish a present active participle from a gerund, or identify of supine?), she nevertheless had incorporated a structure into her mother tongue that helped her. Or, as she herself puts it:

…if I were asked what, of all the things I was ever taught, has been of the greatest practical use to me, I should have to answer: the Latin Grammar.

She then goes on to suggest improvements, and it’s not what many in the Spoken Latin world now advocate. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite:

Looking back upon it, I feel sure that the trouble was simply that the whole process was far too slow.

Why did the French, which I began by hating, haul up so fast upon the Latin, which I began by loving? For two reasons: I was encouraged — not to say compelled — to speak it every day and for a great part of the day. And, more important still, as soon as I had got a hold of the grammar, it presented me with works of literature which were not only in themselves such as to hold a child’s attention, but which were easy enough to be read fluently and quickly, by pages instead of paragraphs at a time, and were written in the same language which I was learning to speak.

Partly she vindicates the Spoken Latin crowd! Partly she continues to think grammar should be taught (and learned) explicitly. Additionally, she seems to soft-pedal the speaking part, because she thinks it may have been done with just reading. The kicker really comes at the end, though, when she suggests using a different means to foster fluent reading.

Even without conversation, reading might have stimulated the enthusiasm which leads to ease and fluency. But here was the trouble — I could not get on fast enough. And it is my belief that the classical texts of the Augustan Age are simply far too difficult. They were difficult even in their own day, in the sense that they were elaborate, literary, and highly artificial.

And so, what we need in the Latin world is not just the writing of tons of Latin novella (neo-Latin material), but we need to acknowledge that the culture of Latin literature does not consist only in a two-hundred year period bookending the BC-AD line. Rather, the stories, poems, hymns, and arguments of Late Antiquity and Christendom are written in a wider variety of registers (read: some of them are easier!) and genres. While Prudentius rivals Vergil and Augustine can sound like Cicero, many authors in this era are a great deal easier than their Classical forefathers. How many students of Latin read any Prudentius or Augustine? As Sayers tells us:

the greatest single defect of my own Latin education, and that (I expect) of many other people, is the almost total neglect of those fifteen Christian centuries.

I love Vergil as much as or more than every Latin and Greek student I’ve ever met (though I prefer Homer, I have read all of The Aeneid once and will do so a few more times, God willing, before I die). I can’t say that about a lot of authors. I would also like to read all of Homer, but I’m a long way off from that goal. The same with Cicero. I agree that his prose sets the highest-water mark for Latin, but Erasmus had to write entire books making sure that we don’t make our best model of Latin our only model.

Love that Kills

And so, she ends with a warning all teachers would be wise to heed. Sometimes, we can kill something we love because of how we love it.

if it [Latin] is dead to-day, it is because the Classical Scholars killed it by smothering it with too much love.

And so, as I move from a teacher across the humanities (Latin, Greek, English, and History), to a teacher more focused on the languages themselves, I see this as part of the project for this blog. I want to help make the medieval texts easier to find and read for pleasure. Ultimately, I want to help construct a syllabus for teachers and schools that would allow students to read across the centuries of Latin literature for ease and pleasure. Thus, we may set our sights on the best of our students eventually reading Vergil and Cicero, but should we not also have the goal for them to read Prudentius and Augustine (5th-century), or Anselm and Aquinas (11th and 13th-centuries), or Erasmus and More (16th-century)? I would love to find the steps of each ladder that lead towards fruitful and enjoyable reading of these authors in their original words. As Sayers continues:

And—to go back to my former point—the mediaeval Latin is much easier than the Classical. Not all of it ; some of it is very crabbed, and there were always, in every age, men who tried to conform their living Latin to the Latin of the Augustans. But the true mediaeval Latin is akin to us, with its simplified construction and modern analytical syntax. The proof of that is that I, who cannot read a page of Virgil or Cicero or Horace without the pains of the damned, can read Aquinas without more difficulty than is involved in understanding what he is talking about. When I read Benvenuto da Imola on Dante, I can pass from Italian text to Latin commentary and scarcely notice the change-over. In short, my training in the Latin Grammar, while it left me still unfitted to cope with the Augustans, did fit me to cope with the Mediaevals, whom I could have read easily and fluently, had anybody directed my attention to them in time.

And so, stick around this blog as I put together the tools to do this. I hope other teachers and homeschoolers will find it helpful and that even public school teachers can teach about Christian culture instead of pretending that religions don’t exist. Most of the texts that will end up on the syllabus will help forge a sense of how the age of Late Antiquity or Christendom was different not just from our own, but from what we call Antiquity as well.

Any readers out there with suggestions, favorite authors, or anything else that’s relevant, please sound off in the comments!

Here is the original article. Dorothy Sayers’ Regrets on Her Own Latin Education.

2 thoughts on “Latin Lessons and Regrets from Dorothy Sayers”

  1. I am looking forward to anything you put together on this front. You know that I have been beating this drum for years, but I’ve gotten most of my advice from you, so I don’t know that I can be much help.

    As I read your post I wondered if simply reading more of the easier authors would have enabled her to read Augustine or if there is another bridge that needs to be built between the two. Maybe that’s what you are planning. Certainly, reading a lot of Dickens would make it easier to read Shakespeare, but I’m not sure that reading a lot of Rawlings would. Even if it wouldn’t get you there, it couldn’t hurt.

    • You’re touching on the second problem: Latinitas. In other words, and in other posts that I’ve brought up, there seems to be a bit of a leap between quotidian, middle-educated Latin and exquisite, well-wrought prose and poetry. So, even when we go to the Middle Ages, the highlights tend to be those whose Latin sounded most Classical. Check out this book (https://archive.org/details/stephenson-1939-a-critical-anthology-of-latin-literature/page/n5/mode/2up?view=theater) for what I mean. Augustine, Leo, and Gregory are all praised, in part, because their Latin was beautiful. It helps if you agree with their theology (which we can’t say for Cicero and Seneca), but they’re nearly as well-written as those guys. I would argue that, aside from attention to vowel-length at the ends of sentences (aka clausulae and the mark of Golden and Silver Age Latin), they’re basically indistinguishable.

      I may do a follow-up post on Latinitas. It plagues a lot of us trying to bring Latin back. Everything from Latin Wikipedia (Vicipaedia if you’re googling it) to the Easy Latin Readers fall into the colloquial problem, which is that we didn’t preserve much colloquial Latin until much later than the 3rd century or so. If the first century BC and AD is the standard for literary Latin, where is our colloquial (or, dare I say it, vulgar) standard. These lines are drawn pretty clearly in other languages. Spanish is spoken in countless dialects and the Latin American Spanish is different enough from Peninsular Spanish that they generally get two different types of dubbing and subtitles. And yet, the two “languages” are mutually intelligible and you can get poets and novelists from both sides of the Atlantic. I need to do some more thinking and writing on this topic, and then I’ll come back to the Latinitas problem. I also need to get more familiar with scientific Latin. That seems like the prose would be relatively straightforward (I’ve never even looked at Newton or Galileo in Latin, but Galileo wrote a dialogue… would that be easy Latin or wickedly difficult? I don’t even know). Anyway, these are my initial thoughts that I’ve got to hammer out into something better for my students.

      Thanks for the comment moving the conversation forward!


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