Veni Vidi Didici: An Intro to Latin through the eyes of English speakers

Latin is over two thousand years old!  Until being displaced by French and then English, Latin held the position of being the literary language of the West. Authors took to their pens with it to record ideas of philosophy, politics, spirituality, science, diplomacy, music, and love. You may have heard of some of the most famous Latin authors: Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Seneca. The list does not end there…additionally: Augustine, Bede, Erasmus, Issac Newton, etc. No matter what you are interested in, there is a book for you in Latin! There is even a thrilling description of a haunted house by Pliny the Younger. What are you waiting for? Here I want to introduce you to Latin by highlighting its differences from English. When deciding whether to take up a language, understanding its features informs upon your decision.

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The Familiar

Cozy up with your new Latin book effortlessly with the same alphabet as ours. It is like ours with only a few differences, for example no “j” or “w” and “v” is written as “u” and vice versa. A full explanation on pronunciation can be found here. The sound of Latin is very melodic with its long and short vowels. Here is a preview:

The Differences

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English is a very word-rich language. Like a delicious stew, with it we combine many large and small elements to create hearty sentences. Latin is not like this. It uses the least words necessary to say the absolute most. Like a raisin, it packs a punch in the smallest form possible. And so, when translating to and from Latin, it can feel like moving between a grape and a raisin. Imagining the water leaving the grape or putting water into the raisin creates intentionality with each word choice. Students worry about adding too many words in English or they have trepidation over the lack of words in Latin. Regarding the transition as a change in the fruit itself helps.

This transformation happens because Latin is an “inflected language.” This means “the nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs have variable endings that indicate the relationship of the words to each other in a sentence” (Wheelock’s Latin p. xxvi). Think of it this way. English is like an office. Everything stands independently of everything else — the bookcase, the lamp, the laptop, and the chair. Latin is like a briefcase.  The laptop, books, and pens are all together within one portable object. Both are offices of sorts, but they are packaged differently. In English word placement is very important because that conveys meaning and grammar; however, in Latin, since the words carry their own meaning and grammar within the variable endings, you can have fewer words and they are not in a fixed spot within the sentence.

The number one difficulty for English speakers in reading Latin, in my opinion, is word order! This issue directly results from Latin’s inflected nature. Though word order does exist in Latin, it is significantly more fluid than that of English. Students hate to see the direct object first or sentences without a clearly visible pronoun subject. Exposure to lots of Latin cures this, though the student must make the conscious effort to understand that Latin operates significantly different than English. A secondary hiccup finds itself in Latin’s lack of articles (a, an, the) and diminished use of possessive adjectives (my, your, ours, etc). When inflating that raisin, the color of the fruit changes to green. So too, while translating into English the color of the language changes as we add in our own vital elements.

Surveying this here is easier said than done. Time and dedication are required to straddle the complexity of Latin’s inflected system. Motivation sits at the root of that effort. So why Latin?

Why Learn?

1.Your vocabulary will grow. Once you know the root of some our English words, taken from Latin originally, then you will know many more English words instantly. Additionally, your eyes will be open to the components of words you already know. This knowledge will carry into other languages with similar words.

  • Ira (Latin – anger) => irascible, irritated, ire.
  • Dormire (to sleep) => dormitory, to lay dormant.
  • Ducere (to lead) => induction, reduction, production, abduction
  • Exit (English) => exire (to go out) – ex = out; ire = to go
  • Casa (Latin – house) – la casa (Italian – house)
  • Dare (Latin – to give) – дать/dat’ (Russian – to give)

2. You will learn grammar. period. The safety net of fluency is taken away when reading Latin as with any other language. However, as I showed above, Latin has a sophisticated “labeling” system with its inflected nature. Verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs look distinctly different and they are built, instead of merely placed. Navigating this will bring to light the fundamentals of grammar: What is a noun? What is an adverb? How do words “agree” with one another? Moreover, a thorough understanding of Latin’s grammar specifically can provide a head start in the grammar of other languages. For example, compare “to be” in French and Latin below. Other highly inflected languages, such as Greek, Hungarian, or Russian, will come more easily as well.

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3. You will read some wonderful writings – literature, pieces of music, engravings, etc. As I preached in the introduction, Latin has something for everyone. The latin library has a rich collection: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/

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Baylor University, Crouch Fine Arts Library, Waco, TX
http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/bu-rarebook/id/13876

Dead?

There is a myth that Latin has taken its last bow. Now it is true that students read classical ancient Latin literature in their classes. However, some amazing people share some real-world Latin! Have a look:

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Watch the video for more information and a look into Latin grammar!

*Veni Vidi Didici – I came. I saw. I learned.

*Column from Volubilis

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