Resolved: Anno MMXVIII

‘Tis the season when the bold firmness of our New Year’s resolutions begins to fade before the ever-present temptations of old habits, pressing demands and crowds at the gym. I’ve never been one who is keen on New Year’s resolutions, actually. But I did make one solemn one this year: to be less prone to being annoyed with others. You might well wonder why I chose to frame this in terms of abating a negative response instead of nurturing a positive one, like supportiveness or sympathy. For me annoyance with a colleague or a student is always a first response; my measured responses are generally pretty kind. So it amounts to resolving to take a deep breath before responding, particularly when pressed by the behavior of others. Primum non irasci.
This is sometimes hard when among my fellow Latinists, either in person or especially electronically. I am often astonished by how differently some colleagues, especially some younger colleagues, feel about certain issues. Take Latin names in the classroom, for instance. When I was teaching a three- or four-year program, I would give my students a list of Classical Latin names, or help them Latinize their given names, or translate an adjective or a nickname they wanted to go by. My limits were the usual classroom ones. My thinking, in pedagogical terms, was that this allowed them to hear nominal morphology in a real context from the very beginning of the course. It also gave them a base to understand vocatives, as they heard them in class all the time. And it allowed for a natural assimilation of Latin phonemes in a context where their motivation to learn their classmates’ names would focus the process.
Some students just loved having a Roman name. I know of one student who gave her daughter her Latin name (viz., Aelia. It’s a pity that my student never pronounced it in a standard way, despite my dedicated efforts.) And, of course, if a student really made it clear that s/he did not want a Latin name, that was fine (As it happened, I watched this process once again play out in a Latin immersion program last summer. My personal feeling was that the instructor pressed a little too hard. There’s little to be gained by demanding to get your way here.)
You can imagine my surprise when I was part of a discussion about this in a Facebook Latin teachers’ group and heard from several colleagues who felt that strongly encouraging students to adopt names in Latin class was intrusive and unsettling for a fair number of students. For them, the negative repercussions were likely to outweigh the benefits.
Upon reflection I was not so surprised. Many colleagues teach in environments where maintaining a safe and positive classroom that welcomes all students is a Sisyphean task. My one public high school teaching experience was in a Maine school that was near the median by most available rubrics. But Latin and Russian were electives that appealed only to the college bound, and the school had separate de facto general, college prep and honors tracks in most subjects. I mostly don’t know what my colleagues’ school climates are really like—a sad consequence of the isolation in which we work.
And so I’m inclined to listen more and to accept more, beyond what I know works for me.
Let’s take one other issue, which I find harder. I am very cognizant of the fact that few American students study more than one “foreign” language in any high school. This is a big difference from my and my peers’ experience in my public high school in the early 70’s, where there were about 20 students (in a graduating class of perhaps 115) who took both Latin and French or Spanish through level 3. Today, since I firmly believe that learning to comprehend and express yourself in a second language is a salubrious and productive cognitive experience (and research increasingly says I am correct), I am committed to providing that experience to my students as much as I can. This has to include both a reasonable sense of idiom and an awareness of language pragmatics.
Of course all of this is especially, although not uniquely, complicated for Latin, being without native speakers. Most languages have a literature that floats upon a sea of talk. While that was true for classical authors, it isn’t for us. But that fact doesn’t give us carte blanche to think that anything that’s “grammatical” is correct. My journeys through the hive-mind of Facebook Latinists, however, often leave me close to despair: there there are many who think that Latinglish, or whatever grouping of words that is grammatically without error, is just as valid as what people who have spent decades learning what is historically accurate are kind enough to point to.
Perhaps I should define what I mean by Latinglish: expressions in Latin that are word-for-word translations of English idioms, or nearly so. E.g.: hoc est apium genua! Feles canesque pluebat. Pennā me prosternere poteras! My first Latin teacher, more than 50 years ago, was found of saying “ἱερά βοῦς!” which was a fine joke. Actually, she had a latent Doric streak, as she said, “ἱερά βῶς!”
This isn’t snobbery or elitism on my part. In fact, making this point in this case of a modern language is faintly ridiculous: why learn expressions in a second language that do not make sense to anyone who is not a native speaker of your language?
How do we make things better? Well, a place to start is to make Latin Composition more prominent in BA and MAT programs. And I don’t have in mind “Translate JFK’s Inaugural Address into Ciceronian Latin” as a place to start. Just consistent self-expression in Latin that is grammatically and idiomatically correct. Conticui tandem factoque hīc fine quievi.

Leave a comment