Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?


Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

Why, you ask, would anyone like me try to learn Latin on his own? Yes, I know the epithet about old dogs and new tricks.

Well, for one because it’s a challenge and I like challenges. They keep my brain plastic and agile. I try to learn new things all the time. I’m not the physical sort of guy who will learn to parasail or skydive at my age (though I would have a few years back in my motorcycle days…). Intellectual challenges are more my modus operandi these days (notice how I cunningly snuck some Latin into the conversation?).

And learning another language is a serious challenge. It’s a Big Deal, intellectually. You have to rewire parts of your brain to do it. You have to learn to see things differently and not to mix up your native language and the new one. And it’s hard enough to keep English straight.

Life is too short not to learn new things as often as you can. What else would we do with out time if we didn’t seek to wrestle something new into our lives? Watch TV? Nah… probably play World of Tanks or some other (addictive, competitive) computer game….

Second because understanding Latin helps me better understand legal, scientific and philosophic terms I come across in my other reading. I simply want to know what they mean without always having to go look them up every time. Do you always remember what “propter hoc…” means? Neither do I. But I would like to.

Third, Latin helps me understand other languages, including (and especially) English, but also Spanish and French. My French is woefully neglected, and likely unsalvageable. I still remember somewhat of my Spanish – which was mostly self-taught – but would need a few solid months in Mexico to kick off the rust. As soon as I win the lottery…

And finally, there are some great opportunities for making erudite quips and even snide asides in Latin which will impress and baffle people (or confuse and bore them…). I have a couple of fun books of Latin insults and reply lines to that effect, but they’re not derived from classical sources – unlike my collection of Shakespearian insults – so I haven’t memorized any (aside from carpe cerevisi). Still, to be able to toss off a snappy line from Seneca or Cicero into a conversation, well, that would be the cat’s pyjamas.

Understanding how English developed, where its sources stem from, how words became incorporated into it, and how they changed in structure and meaning is something that obsesses fascinates me. So knowing more about Latin feeds that interest. I delight in etymology and Latin will give me a better footing there.

But, you continue, it’s a dead language. Why not study a living language, if you want to learn another?

Good point, gentle reader, albeit not quite accurate. While Latin may not be spoken much outside a rather rarefied zone of academia, it’s hardly dead. It’s not Rongorongo, after all. Latin’s heart beats on, two millennia later, particularly online (and there is a small but active movement online to get users to speak Latin, not merely read it).

Thanks to the internet, there are more people learning, reading and writing – if not necessarily speaking (yet) – Latin than ever before in the past two centuries. But even so, Latin has remained alive in some form in legal, philosophic, linguistic and scientific fields. At one point within my own lifetime, you needed Latin to get into many sciences, like paleontology, although that may not be true today. If you didn’t know some Latin and ancient Greek, you couldn’t classify or name new species of dinosaur you might uncover in the Mongolian desert.

You need to read some Latin to properly study theology and the history of both the Christian church and pre-Renaissance Europe. From Roman times into the late Middle Ages, almost all major documents, books, liturgies and legal contracts (like the Magna Carta) were written in Latin. So were Gregorian chants and antiphonaria.

And, of course, today we (well, some of us, anyway) still read Roman authors like Horace, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius and Suetonius. Knowing something of their language, being able to read some of their words in their own language, helps appreciate and understand them (as I age I find that the classics have more pith, as it were).

I expect I will find some valuable learning aids online, too, to help me on my rocky road. I will be happy, delighted even, if I could learn enough to stumble through a Latin text as well (or as poorly) as I can stumble through one of Chaucer’s original pieces and get some sense of it.

But, I will argue back, it’s not just wanting to learn any language. Were that the case, I might struggle with Tibetan. Sanskrit. Portuguese. German. Chinese. Japanese. Celtic. Greek. The list is almost endless, and I am tempted by many of them, although I hesitate to hope that I’d have enough time left on this mortal coil to learn a sufficient slice of them to make it worthwhile to be eclectic.

After all, aside from the Bardo Thodol, what might I read in Tibetan? it’s tough enough in an English translation…

Latin appeals more to me, biological time remaining notwithstanding. Books are available, original documents in facsimile, too. There are printed guides, dictionaries and even tutors. And Latin is inextricably intertwined with English, and I love learning about English. So Latin it is. I hope.

Check back in a year to find out how far I’ve progressed… moneo, mones, monet…

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Ian Chadwick
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  1. Pingback: Found in translation – Scripturient

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