Some people acquire foreign languages more easily than others. I, alas, am one of those others. I cannot truly say that I have possession of any foreign language. I have perhaps two hundred or so words of Yiddish—just enough to fool the Gentiles into thinking I know the language, but not enough to speak to real Jews. When I was a boy, I was sent to Hebrew school. But Israel only recently having become a state, Hebrew was still thought of chiefly as a liturgical and scholarly language, and not yet as a spoken one. So my fellow students and I learned pronunciation and prayers, this in preparation for reading our Torah portions at our bar mitzvahs,but regrettably we did no translation. I have sufficient French to read Pascal and La Rochefoucauld but not Montaigne nor Proust. Owing to the elision so rampant in French speech, I do not hear spoken French very well. On the few occasions when I have been called upon to speak French, I sounded, I have a sad hunch, comme une vache espagnole.
When I was coming out of grammar school, those thought to be among the more promising students were directed to take Latin. Some earnest young boys, at age fourteen already intent on a medical career, were instructed to take German, useful, it was said, for reading scientific papers later in life. The dullards among us did Spanish. I took it for two years in high school. El burro es un animal importante is pretty much all that remains of my Spanish, not a sentence I have found much use for in later life.
Is there any connection between facility with foreign languages and other skills and aptitudes, such as is sometimes thought to be true of a linked aptitude for mathematics with that for music? I have heard it said that acting ability, the skill of turning oneself into someone else, is aligned with that of acquiring foreign languages. In one of the most delightfully risky generalizations I have come across, Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time describes a character—X. Trapnel—as able quickly to acquire speaking knowledge of foreign languages, and, the narrator of the novel goes on to say, like all people he has known who have this gift, “he was fundamentally untrustworthy.” If this is so, then I must be among the most trustworthy people in the land.
The multiest-lingual person I have known was a man of no otherwise great intellectual distinction named Thomas Donovan, who seemed to have all languages. When I asked him how he did it, Thomas replied that it was no big deal. “I just acquire a novel in the new language I am trying to learn and a dictionary of that language,” he told me, “and, with the dictionary’s help, work my way through the novel.” This suggests an intrinsic, universal understanding of all grammar, and a powerful capacity to accommodate several different vocabularies.
In my mid-twenties, I made a stab at learning Russian, toting around a small Russian grammar, which I read on coffee breaks at my job. This set in motion the rumor, started by a fellow worker I shall call Schmuckowitz, that I was a communist. A couple of decades later, I audited a course in ancient Greek but, owing to the press of other work, had to drop out. I recall being very impressed by the instructor, a man named Stuart Small, who told us not to be concerned overmuch about our pronunciation of ancient Greek, for we needn’t worry about communicating with the great Greek writers but about their communicating with us. Sound advice, I thought at the time, and still do.
If I had a family crest, Ne ex experientia umquam discas, or “Never learn from experience,” would be the motto inscribed upon it, for two years ago, at the age of eighty-one, I set out to learn Latin. Why Latin? And why so late in life? The short answer is that I found not knowing Latin a deficiency, especially in a person of my rather extravagant intellectual and cultural pretensions. I also felt I had a fair chance of mastering the language. Latin presents the same alphabet as English. The language also offers no strenuous problems in pronunciation. One will never be called upon to speak it (except of course, in the bad old joke, to Latin Americans). Then there is the fact that for centuries, from Roman times through the Middle Ages, Latin was the language of the educated. As for taking up Latin so late in life, my response, which comes from St. Edmund of Abingdon, is: “Disce quasi semper victurus; vive quasi cras moriturus,” or “Learn as if you will live forever; live as though you would die tomorrow.”
Another incitement to learning Latin is that I had for some while been on a binge of reading Roman history. I had read Sallust, Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Seneca among the Roman writers, and Edward Gibbon, Theodor Mommsen, Ronald Syme, Arnaldo Momigliano, and Peter Green among the writers about Rome. I have long felt a minor but nonetheless nagging disappointment in reading Catullus, Virgil, and Horace in English and wondered if they were not among those writers who had to be read in their original language to be appreciated. (The greatness of the small handful of truly great writers—Homer, Cervantes, Tolstoy—survives even poor translation.)
Latin, or specifically the study of Latin, has its proponents, its proselytizers, its propagandists. One among them who is all three is N. W. Gwynne, a retired businessman who had gone to Eton and thence up to Oxford. Before taking up Gwynne’s Latin, modestly subtitled The Ultimate Introduction to Latin, I had earlier read Gwynne’s Grammar, an unapologetic defense of standard English in which its author defines grammar as being “simply the correct use of words” and expresses the refreshingly retrograde belief that “pictures in textbooks actually interfere with the learning process.”
Gwynne holds that the study of Latin provides “a training and development of the mind and character to a degree of excellence that no other mental or physical activity can come anywhere near to bringing about.” The study of Latin, he believes, concentrates the mind, exercises the memory, improves the facility of analyses and thereby the solving of problems—and through all this enhances “the powers of attention to detail, of diligence and perseverance, of observation, of imagination, of judgment, of taste.”
This may seem to be going a bit far. But then, when I think of it, at the time I began university teaching in the early 1970s, my best students—they could write grammatically, they knew how to argue—were often those who had received a Catholic education, which in that day still meant four years of Latin. In England of an earlier day, by the time a student had arrived at Oxford or Cambridge he had taken seven or eight years of Latin and Greek. This surely must have gone a long way toward helping create brilliant generations of English historians, philosophers, and literary critics. Today, alas, neither in most Catholic high schools nor in English public schools is such training in Latin any longer part of the regular curriculum.
After setting out all that is to be gained by learning Latin, Gwynne then goes on to note that—pause here for a clearing of the throat—“no modern language comes close to approaching Latin in difficulty.” This is doubtless so. Latin does without definite and indefinite articles and often dispenses with pronouns. Inflection, or cases—nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, vocative—is crucial to the language, and there are no fewer than five different declensions of nouns and four different conjugations of verbs. Toss in that all nouns are assigned a gender—masculine, feminine, neuter—and that there are six tenses among verbs. About pluperfect past participles, gerundives, locatives, deponent and semi-deponent verbs, and the ablative absolute, let us not speak.
Latin is, moreover, without the straightforward syntax—subject, verb, direct or indirect object—that is at the heart of the English sentence. In Latin, verbs tend to appear last in a sentence, adjectives (some of them) before nouns, adverbs (usually) to follow verbs. But clauses arise without commas separating them, and phrases (clauses without verbs) can pop up anywhere. Every Latin sentence of any complexity is therefore within itself a small puzzle awaiting solution. In Long Live Latin, his excellent study of Roman writers and their use of Latin, Nicola Gardini writes: “Latin resists linearity, straightforwardness, immediacy. On the contrary, it pursues allusiveness and multiplicity.”
Gardini’s account of the rewards of Latin goes less to developing character, à la Gwynne, and more to pure aesthetic pleasure. Learning Latin, he holds,
is a highly exciting process of selection and decision making. Logic is involved, but logical skills alone are not enough. Learners of Latin must use intuition and imagination, be ready to take chances and be daring. . . . Latin is here to remind us that meaning is not to be taken for granted; that words are complex entities, almost like living creatures, and therefore have memories and intentions of their own.
Even in the hobbled condition of my own Latin, I agree entirely.
I began my study of Latin by auditing a first-year class at Northwestern University, where I had myself taught for thirty years, a class taught by a woman with the mellifluous name of Francesca Tataranni and the charming Italian accent to go with it. The class met at 10 a.m. and had twelve students. After asking Professor Tataranni for permission to audit, I also asked her if she would be so kind as to not call on me in class, for I feared not knowing the answer to one of her questions and thus appearing a lunkhead, which at my august age would mean a hopeless lunkhead. She, kind woman, agreed.
I bought the text, Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, and began attending the four-day-a-week, one-hour class. Professor Tataranni proved a sound and sensible teacher. I did each night’s homework, not always flawlessly, and showed up for every class. But I soon found that attending class, even though only a few blocks from my apartment, and doing homework was taking up roughly four hours of my day, and those the hours in which I generally did my own work. So I quietly but reluctantly dropped out of the course and decided to continue studying Latin on my own.
This meant acquiring other Latin textbooks. Along with Gwynne’s Latin, these included Eleanor Dickey’s Learn Latin from the Romans, Reginald Foster’s Ossa Latinitatis Solas, Robert J. Henle’s First Year Latin, Basil L. Gildersleeve’s Latin Grammar, and a few supplemental volumes including, yes, Latin for Dummies. I ranged round in these, passing from one to the other. I listened to Wheelock’s pronunciation guide online. I translated all the sentences—Latin to English, English into Latin—in Gwynne’s Latin. I made endless notes about vocabulary, third conjugation verbs, fourth declension nouns. I did my best to remember to discriminate among docere (to teach), discere (to learn), ducere (to lead). I memorized adverbs (iam, etiam, forsitan, denique),did the same for prepositions (ad, ab, sub, de, in, post, ante, ex), tried to keep straight yesterday (heri), today (hodie), and tomorrow (cras). Then there were all those “Q” words: numquam, umquam, quoniam, quis, quod, quam, quid, quoque, and so on into the night.
Many English words derive from Latin, of course—as many, I read somewhere, as 65 percent—which is a help in grasping their meaning. But many Latin words are, in the French phrase, faux amis: Why should neuter mean “neither” and not “neutral” or even “spay,” or tandem mean “at length” and not “paired together”? Why should placenta mean not what one thought it obviously should mean but instead mean “cake,” and why should opera turn out not to mean the English word “opera” at all but “labor,” “trouble,” “difficulty”? Cum, tum, dum; tam, nam, tamen; hic, haec, hoc; ille, iste, idem; vox, vix, vae!—in and out the mind the words come and go, and they ain’t speaking of Michelangelo.
The usually subtle Nicola Gardini pauses in his book to state the obvious: “Learning Latin demands attention and memory.” The memory of a man in his eighties is not famously efficient. In a charming book called Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin, by Ann Patty, I learned that people who are on the autism spectrum tend to be good at Latin because of their powerful memories. The memory of the very young is also said to be capacious, perhaps because there is less already there to crowd things out, which is no doubt why Latin and ancient Greek were staples of English public school education, and why the young often acquire languages fairly easily. Montaigne, a prominent figure in my own small pantheon of cultural gods, grew up speaking Latin at his father’s insistence before acquiring his native French. I found my own memory unsteady. I could make out the passive and subjunctive verb forms on the page, but if you asked me to give you the third-person plural subjunctive of the verb habere, I’d doubtless stammer.
Much of education is divided between that centered on memory and that centered on the conceptual. When at eighteen I went off to the University of Illinois, at a time when the school accepted anyone who lived in the state and was said to flunk out roughly a third of each year’s entering freshman class, much of my first year’s education was based on memory. Biology, in those pre-DNA days, was chiefly devoted to learning the phyla, with the dissection of a sad frog tossed in at no extra charge. My introductory French course was also chiefly based on memorization. Thanks to a reasonably good memory, I did well enough to avoid the disgrace of flunking out. But then, such was my fear of failing, I believe I could have taken a course in the telephone book and gotten at least a B.
In more advanced education, the role of memory becomes less important. When I transferred after my freshman year to the University of Chicago, the emphasis switched from learning chiefly based on memory to that of making intellectual connections. Making dazzling connections is what marks the intellectual giants, from Tocqueville through Max Weber through Sigmund Freud, all central figures in the University of Chicago undergraduate curriculum.
Literary intellectuals of generations earlier than mine had vast quantities of poetry in their heads. (I always thought that before his death Harold Bloom ought to have recorded himself reciting Wordsworth’s Prelude from memory. What a splendid device that would have been for ending dull parties!) Apart, though, from remembering historical facts—the line of kings and queens of England, the dates of the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, the names of great works, recalling what Aristotle thought, Shakespeare wrote, Churchill said—memory is not the name of the game in intellectual life.
In the early stages of learning a language, memory is crucial. I followed the instructions of my textbook and teachers and memorized as best I was able the various declensions, conjugations, tenses, and moods of Latin. I often wrote them out. Too often I found that what I thought I had locked into memory escaped, departed—what was it nikmi means? what is the future infinitive of currir?—gone where notes of music go. Would it have fled so successfully from the fourteen- or twenty-year-old me? I suspect not.
Meanwhile, I stagger on. I should like to be able to say that I am up to Book VI in my translation of the Aeneid, and believe I am doing things in my English version of the poem that have never been attempted before. Unfortunately, not true. Closer to the truth to say that my Latin may not be good enough to take Professor Tataranni’s first-quarter final. What has grown is my love for this language in which I am fairly certain I shall never achieve anything resembling the equivalence of fluency in reading. “It is astonishing,” wrote Basil Gildersleeve, “how much enjoyment one can get out of a language that one understands imperfectly.” The love of Latin in my case is in good part love for the precision of the language. One cannot guess at the meanings of Latin words, but must know their meanings by their inflections, tenses, genders. The virtue of Latin being a dead language is that the meanings of its words do not change in the way that words in contemporary languages do. No Roman, after all, ever said that at the end of the day he was weaponizing multiple existential threats to ensure a level playing field.
My dream in taking up Latin was to achieve an easy mastery of the language. I imagined myself picking up a Latin version of, say, Tacitus, whose Latin is notably difficult, and casually reading two or three paragraphs in the washroom. I can perhaps now do that, but the effort would be far from casual and is likely to have me in the House of Commons, as Dylan Thomas called the washroom, for more than three hours. I cannot yet say that I can really read Latin, but merely that I can, given time and with the help of my iPhone Latin app, figure it out.
Will I, in the unknown amount time left to me on the planet, ever master Latin? Perhaps strangely, I find I do not much care. I simply enjoy working—or is it playing?—with the language, testing my memory, puzzling out complex sentences, marveling at its orderly richness. The idea of a good time for many people my age is to do crossword puzzles, play bridge or Scrabble, hit golf balls. I prefer to wrestle with this long dead but still magnificent language. Like the man said, De gustibus non est disputandum.
Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.