Daily Archives: April 5, 2018

Book Review: Vita Nostra: Subsidia ad Colloquia Latina, Tomus I, by Stephen A. Berard. Cataracta Publications, 2018.

This book was recommended to me by a university-level colleague a number of months ago, and I wrote to Professor Berard to learn if I could get a copy. I was told, politely but firmly, to wait for its re-publication through Amazon. When it became available a few weeks ago, I eagerly plunked down my $25.00.
This book is most definitely a mixed bag—in some ways useful and wonderful, in others faintly infuriating. I also worry that it’s a book that will find very little audience because of a couple of oddities about it that I shall describe.
In essence, Vita Nostra is a workbook to support Latin conversation aimed at university students. Berard, in fact, suggests a scheme mapping chapters of this book to particular stages in Oerberg’s Lingua Latina per Se Illustrata. VN‘s thematic chapters (e.g. Domicilia nostra, Quae domi facimus) begin with two dialogues, one basic, the other more advanced (Sermones simplex et provectior). Each dialogue is followed by a brief set of comprehension questions. There then follows a lexicon of relevant vocabulary (Lexicon generale), grouped by parts of speech. This lexicon is substantial; as Berard says in his introductory “To The Student” section:
… do not be intimidated by the enormous amount of vocabulary you will find in Vita Nostra. These volumes are designed to be useful for Latin conversation for many years to come… the first time through, you will probably need to learn no more than 10% or 15% of the vocabulary you see.
Given that admission/approach, I cannot understand why Berard published this book without comprehensive Latin-English and English-Latin glossaries. As it stands, it is a major chore to locate a word, expression or definition that caught your eye but you do not recall. As a practical suggestion here, I found using the freshly recast Morgan/Owens lexicon (certainly one of Berard’s major sources) a workable online substitute in all cases I tested.
To return to my overview: Vita Nostra‘s thematic chapters are preceded by pre-chapters on ways of greeting and saying goodbye (Salutationes valedictionesque) and a glossary of familiar classroom vocabulary (Res scholares). Often thematic chapters are supplemented by additional glossaries. For example, Domicilia nostra is followed by a truly comprehensive glossary of color adjectives (modestly termed Aliquot adiectiva ad colores pertinentia) and another glossary of terms referring to living space, grouped thematically. Each chapter ends with a set of conversational exercises, some commonplace, some quite creative, from a modern L2 classroom point of view. Finally, each of the five thematic chapters ends with a collection of Locutiones, idiomata, et proverbia that is broad and well-chosen.
This brings us to the matter of Berard’s own Latin, which of course we encounter in numerous places throughout the book. In the composed dialogues, his Latin is straightforward and the characterizations are realistic. But, in the Proemium to the work, he is often exuberant, with an Apuleian flair, inserting Greek words with a zest that would have surely earned the grim ire of the Emperor Tiberius (see Suetonius Tib. 71). Here’s a frank passage from the Prooemium concerning modern philology’s responsibility for the consequences of the abandonment of Latin as an L2 vehicle of communication:
Rem sine ira et studio consideranti perspicuum factum est cultūs civilis Occidentalis illi Bucephalae (h.e. Lingua Latina velut communicandi modus) tam recentem mortem non bella conscivisse tyrannosve rudes, quin potius ipsius agasones. Nullam iam liquebat linguam vere “mortuam” nuncupari posse nisi morti concessam. Philologi recentiores, diversis de causis, colloquia Latina—ne quid dicam de litteris Latinis novis—omittentes, quamvis inscii, Bucephalam illum speciosissimum, delicias quondam suas, severa acu academica pseudopragmatica tamquam papilionem, exanimae formae admiratione frigida, transfixerant.
Berard, of course, is the author of the tour-de-force Capti, a “Fabula Menippeo-Hoffmanniana Americana.” I can cheerfully accept his gliding from Bucephalus to a butterfly in a single sentence, but it a) leaves me a trifle breathless and b) makes me unwilling to trust his judgment on sensible word choices for Neo-Latin vocabulary on faith alone. That said, my limited expertise finds little to fault with Berard’s choices in Latin terms for modern concepts.
With perhaps one exception: “Bonum diem (tibi exopto)!” and the like grates on my ear, given that we have good Roman alternatives. But I’ve heard and read modern speakers using them.
This book really gets better in the later chapters, with dialogues about job security versus following your dreams, a scene in small claims court, and an interview of a Japanese exchange student. The glossaries here are a tremendous resource and the exercises well-structured and open-ended.
Personally, I will enjoy reading and thinking about this conversational textbook for some time to come. It is not, however, a book that secondary teachers will find easy to use, even if they were inclined to—especially in any program where new vocabulary is something students expect to be quizzed on and therefore resent. And VN is far from the “shelter vocabulary, not grammar” mantra of the CI/TPRS practitioners. Indeed, Berard is quite inconsistent in the amount of morphological support he offers the user; instructors will have to think through that aspect carefully.
Finally, the book is not particularly well proofread (what book is these days?). Example # 17 on p. 68 is missing a negation in the English translation, so it says the exact opposite of the Latin. Cave, lector et magister!
More than 25 years ago, when I was trying to keep a public school Russian program afloat, I came across a conversation workbook called Speak Russian! The first part of this introduced us to a set of imaginary Soviet people from all around the USSR, each described with a mini-biography and a cartoon. These were wild stereotypes but they were well done; the Russian exchange teachers I was working with found them very funny. I wish we had more options like this for Latin—using descriptive as well as dialogue-ic language in context about Roman people, whether historical or fictional, and also about people today. A book along these lines could be used by anyone, at any level. Here’s hoping.