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Ossa Latinitatis Sola ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque:
The Mere Bones of Latin According to the Thought & System of Reginald

by reginaldus thomas foster 
and daniel patricius mccarthy
catholic university of america, 831 pages, $39.95

A recent online video shows a math teacher expounding the binomial theorem by way of a genially intuitive geometrical demonstration; the video went viral because it “demystified” that which the algebraic expression, for many pupils, made too abstract to grasp. The technical rubrics and conventions peculiar to any field of learning (think of the complexities of musical notation or the elaborate grammar of chemical molecular formulae) can be so intimidating that some students prematurely despair and give up before the fascination proper to the enterprise has a chance to work its magic. Not least daunting in this regard is the study of the language of ancient Rome, notorious for its multiple conjugations, declensions, and sundry other pedantries that have dismayed so many neophytes in so many cheerless classrooms.

To the rescue comes Fr. Reginald Foster, O.C.D.—“Reggie,” as he was known to generations of students—a one-man Panzer battalion fighting for the resuscitation of the Latin language and against the pedagogical flummery that (he is convinced) has kept it in its grave. His enormously popular classes at Rome’s Gregorian University attracted disciples from the entire English-speaking world, making him famous well beyond Italy and a somewhat nervously cherished celebrity within the walls of the Vatican. Foster presented to the public a studied cantankerousness that ensured his dealings with pupils and employers alike took place on his own terms, as he had the luxury of dispensing with any business that wasn’t. This reviewer knows a dozen or so of Foster’s students, all of whom are profuse in their praise, all of whom attest that, in the classroom, he delivered what he promised. One of these likened Foster to that freak at corporate headquarters who is allowed to show up wearing Frank Zappa T-shirts and play Cream LPs at full volume in his office inasmuch as he’s the only one who really knows how the IT system works. In cultivating his status as enfant terrible and Latinist without peer, Foster was able to keep joshing his fans through the tough patches of grammar while confounding most of his critics.

Ossa Latinitatis Sola ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque is as much a portrait of the artist as a specimen of his art. This 830-page cinderblock is a peculiar hybrid: part instructor’s manual, part chrestomathy, and part near-verbatim transcription of Foster’s classroom discourses, themselves a characteristic mixture of folksy grammar and polemics. Authorship is jointly credited to Foster and to his student Daniel P. McCarthy, O.S.B., with McCarthy doing the work of collating the worksheets and texts distributed by Foster and relying on notes or recordings of his presentations for the narrative parts of the instruction.

 “The Mere Bones” themselves are prefaced by a foreword, a prologue, and the authors’ introduction (these the work of four different hands, in which the Foster method is outlined and repetitiously extolled), as well as a copy of the pactum academicum or “contract” that Foster required students to sign before permitting them to enroll in his class. Four of the ten mandatory undertakings give the flavor of the master’s approach:

I [the student] take Latin as an independent, sovereign subject of study and in no way a false addition, special course, appendix, sideline of any faculty, school, program, or plan of education;
I am totally free in my decision to dedicate myself to Latin according to the particular method and system, presented in class—without any outside pressures or obligations coming from advisers, institutional rules, faculty deans, Vatican offices, intimate friends, blood relatives, marriage spouses, or spiritual directors-confessors;
I refuse all sorts of foolish joint-study arrangements, group consultations, copying sessions with others, as well as aids from external texts, tutors or books;
I absorb this heavenly language and literature on its own merit, apart from empty credits or records, and eventual letters of confirmation.

Foster, lest any doubt remain, demands our undivided attention. To show he deserves it, he takes us rapidly through a course of Latin sentence-building, beginning with the verb and extending the branches according to their syntactical functions, carefully foregrounding intelligibility with each new move such that the student is always able to create—and not just decode—meaningful sentences with the tools put in his hands. Several times Foster tells us that his is the empirical or inductive method by which persons naturally learn their mother tongue, but this isn’t really the case. His technique, rather, is to introduce and explain grammatical categories with user-friendly expressions in place of traditional jargon, to illustrate them by lucid English and Latin examples, and then to set the student to construct real sentences in syntactically real Latin: He teaches by putting live things together rather than pulling dead things apart.

Discarding the traditional terminology of “case,” for example, Foster substitutes the term “function.” Nominative, dative, and ablative cases become subject function, to-for-from function, by-with-from-in function, and so forth. The five noun declensions are sorted into two “blocks”; the verbal conjugations are relabeled verb groups. Foster replaces “tense” with “verb times,” of which T.1, T.2, T.3, T.4a, T.4b, T.5, and T.6 correspond to present, imperfect, future, present perfect, preterite, pluperfect, and future perfect, respectively. Indicative and subjunctive modes (or moods) are distinguished. Thus, the designation T.5i in Fosterese would, in the traditional jargon, be called pluperfect indicative, e.g., vīderat, “he had seen.” Most linguists will recognize that Foster is using the same instruments by which Latin has always been studied and taught, rechristening them with a pedantry of his own devising. Not all of Foster’s homemade labels are equally illuminating. I like his “foggy future” for the future-less-vivid condition; less so the term “crazy form” for the nominative singular of consonant-stem nouns (far from crazy, these forms simply obey a deeper set of generative rules, which Carl Darling Buck explained a century ago).

While it makes many things easy, the book also exhibits some avoidable difficulties. The treatment of the sounds of Latin is confusing. Vowel length, for example, has in Latin an importance it doesn’t in English, sometimes lexical (pilus, hair vs. pīlus, battalion), sometimes inflectional (portus, harbor vs. portūs, harbors), often accentual (décore, with elegance vs. decrē, elegantly). Though the macrons and breves were not indicated in Latin writing, conventional grammars add them to assist pronunciation and identification. Foster and McCarthy are quirky in this respect, only rarely supplying indicators and providing little rationale for their occurrence. Then, too, the consistently excellent exposition of syntax is accompanied by a nonstop growl, like an organ pedal continuo, declaiming against the imbecilities of traditional pedagogy—a crotchet that may have been amusing in the classroom but becomes wearisome on the printed page.

Finally, while the Latin is lucid, the English is faulty, raising the unsettling possibility that the price of acquiring an ancient tongue is forfeiting competence in one’s own. Whole pages might have been translated from the original Estonian by an underpaid grad student: “So freedom is left and also the responsibility is left to the individual using this book to personalize it to their own spontaneous way of presenting the different parts of the Latin language, and the examples will be discovered and used by the individual.” One sees what he’s getting at, more or less, but we don’t say it that way in our language.

Is the Foster method an advance? It’s not easy to say. The binomial theorem video has many enthusiasts, yet for every five viewers for whom it occasioned an “aha!” experience, another three, perhaps, were puzzled as to why the demonstration was necessary in the first place: The geometry is merely a bulky restatement of what was expressed more economically by the algebra. Not all learners learn the same way, and surely some students will find Foster’s build-your-own-syntax approach frustratingly haphazard. A person with a “top-down mind,” when embarking on a new discipline, feels uneasy without a global, structural glimpse of the whole; for him the beautifully lucid and comprehensive paradigm charts (given, say, in Henle’s old-fashioned Latin Grammar) are a godsend. He likes to know exactly where he is on the learning map at every moment, whereas for Foster much of the fun comes in surprising the student by revealing unexpected progress.

So what is the ultimate goal of acquiring a mastery of Latin, as opposed to a useful smattering? For one man, it is to turn Milton’s or Frost’s sonnets into elegant Latin lyrics; for another, it is to advance his understanding of Indo-European philology; for a third, it is to open a volume of Horace when no one is looking, to put his feet up, and to sink back into the melody of the verse for its own sake. I have encountered all three kinds of virtuosity, but never in the same Latinist, and it makes sense to imagine that, as there are multiple gauges of competence, there are multiple paths to mastery, to which Foster’s is a more than welcome addition.

For the student who already has some Latin, or for the beginner who has a Foster-trained pedagogue to help him, the book will be a useful acquisition; the collection of Latin readings alone makes it worth the asking price, and the later chapters comparing classical and post-classical syntax are, as far as I am aware, unique in a teaching grammar and valuable in their own right. It is less clear that it will work as a teach-yourself book. The Ossa Sola of the title ominously calls to mind the parched valley of the prophet Ezekiel: “Son of man, can these bones live?” In this case, it would seem that the prophet himself—or an acolyte infused with his spirit—must be continually, passionately at hand to supply the vivifying breath.

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.