Archive for the ‘Latin’ Category

Studying Latin

When you study Latin in America you mainly study the Latin of Caesar, Virgil, Ovid and Cicero – as if Latin died out soon after them. But, in fact, Latin continued to be the high language of the West throughout the later Roman Empire, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, clear up until the 1600s. That is why English has so many Latin words and why knowing Latin helps you to know English.

So there are other ways to go about studying Latin.

C.S. Lewis says you should start by reading the Vulgate, the Latin Bible. The Latin is easy and the stories are familiar. So is the wording and style of speaking: “Oh ye of little faith”, “born in a manger”.

From there (as he told Dorothy Sayers):

  • For an intelligible narrative poem, what about a chunk out of “Waltharius”, by Ekehard of St. Gall (tenth century). See a delightful account of it in W. P. Ker’s Dark Ages.
  • For prose:
    • “Saxo Grammaticus” (has the the Hamlet story);
    • Jordanes (or Jornandes) “De Rebus Geticis” (lots about Attila);
    • Gregorius Turonensis “Historia Francorum”;
    • the anonymous “Gesta Francorum” (on the First Crusade);
    • Geoffrey of Monmouth (some Arthurian bit);
    • The “Somnium” of Kepler for some Renaissance science fiction

The idea here being that Medieval Latin is much easier and allows you to get comfortable before taking on the harder stuff of Cicero and the Renaissance.

“Latina Pro Populo” by the Humez brothers gives a good overview of Latin, its history and grammar. They also say you should start with the Vulgate and the Middle Ages.

The Latin reader “38 Stories” is also good. The stories parallel the chapters of  Wheelock’s grammar, so you can look there if you get stuck.

The Vulgate is worth reading in its own right: it is far sharper and closer in meaning to the Greek of the New Testament than anything in English. That is partly because it is much easier to turn Greek into Latin than into English. But it is also because the fashion these days is to make Bibles easy to read rather than faithful in meaning. Reading the Vulgate opened my eyes to that.

Latin dictionaries, by the way, are lacking. They only have the Latin of Cicero’s time. There are many words in the Vulgate, for instance, that are not found in ordinary Latin dictionaries (most of them seem to come from Greek from the sound of them).

A good Latin dictionary would not just cover Latin from -150 to +150, but instead from -150 to 2008. Not just all the Medieval and Renaissance words, but scientific terms (scientific papers were being written in Latin up to at least the 1800s) and commonly accepted words like telephonum for all the latest stuff.

But do not let that stop you from reading the Vulgate since you can always look at a (more imperfect) English translation if you get stuck. But do that only as a last resort because otherwise you wil not learn much Latin.

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Vulgate-manuscript_1The Vulgate (405) is the Bible as it was put into Latin by Saint Jerome. It was the main Bible people read in the West till the 1500s. It was the only book that Gutenberg ever printed. Even today the Catholic Church still uses it.

It is written in easy Latin: although Jerome wrote to his friends in the old-fashioned Latin of Cicero, for the Vulgate he used the Latin of the streets, which was already beginning to turn into Portuguese and French and so on. His starting point was the (cringey) Old Latin Bible.

Some English Bibles are based on the Vulgate: Wycliffe, Douai-Rheims, Confraternity and Knox. But not the King James or Authorized Version: it goes back to the Greek and Hebrew that the Bible was written in.

Some English words that come from the Vulgate: creation, salvation, justification, rapture, testament, regeneration, apostle, angel and the phrase “far be it”.

The Vulgate’s New Testament is far better than anything in English:

  1. It is much easier to turn the Greek of the New Testament into Latin than into English.
  2. It is more faithful to the wording of the New Testament.
  3. Jerome had much older copies of the New Testament than we do. He even had the book of Matthew in Hebrew. We have it only in Greek, which came later.
  4. The koine Greek that the New Testament was written in was still a living language in Jerome’s day. He would know the shades of meanings of words much better than we possibly can.

For the Old Testament, Jerome started out by basing it on the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that Christians had always used up until then. But then he gave that up and based it on the Masorah instead, the Hebrew Bible that Jews used.

It is because of this decision by Jerome that Catholics and Protestants now use the Masorah for the Old Testament while Orthodox Christians still use the Septuagint.

The part of the Old Testament that Christians know best is the book of Psalms. Since Christians knew the wording of the Septuagint psalms so well, Jerome translated them twice: once from the Septuagint and once from the Masorah. That is why you see the book of Psalms twice in some Vulgates.

The Catholic Church says the Vulgate has no errors that would affect religious teachings. That is a natural thing for it to say: it has been using the Vulgate for over a thousand years. Until the 1960s Latin was the language all the priests and bishops knew. It was even the language used in part of the church services.

There are two sorts of Vulgates that you can get these days:

  1. The Stuttgart: an attempt by scholars to get as close to what Jerome wrote as possible. It is based on the oldest copies of the Vulgate that we can find.
  2. The Nova Vulgata: the Vulgate used by the Catholic Church. Not all of it is Jerome’s: some of it is new.

– Abagond, 2008.

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daughterofminosOvid (-43 to +17), a Roman, was one of the best poets ever to write in Latin. He wrote the “Metamorphoses” and the “Art of Love”, among others. Most of our old Greek and Roman stories about heroes, gods and goddesses come from him.

At the end of “Metamorphoses” Ovid said his words would last down through the ages and so they have. The stories he told had been told for ages, even in his time, but no one has told them better.

As one of the best-loved authors in the West from 1100 to 1650, he influenced Dante, Botticelli, Shakespeare and Milton, among others. Shakespeare, for example, did not invent “Romeo and Juliet” – he took it from “Metamorphoses” and set it in Verona.

But even though Ovid was a great poet and storyteller, his writing is not what you would call deep. What depth it has comes from the stories themselves, which he merely retold.

Ovid came from Sulmo to the east of Rome across the mountains. He came from a family of rich blue bloods. His father sent Ovid and his brother to Rome to study rhetoric and law. Ovid did well and in time became a judge.

It looked like one day he might become a senator, but Ovid followed the true passion of his heart and became a poet. He became famous and all was well. But then in the year 8 the First Citizen, Caesar Augustus, banished Ovid.

Augustus gave no reason. Ovid’s “Art of Love” had offended him, it is true, but that was not reason enough. It seems that Ovid knew some deep, dark secret about Augustus.

Ovid was sent to live at the edge of the Black Sea, then called the Pontus. He lived there till his death. We still have the sad letters that he wrote from there.

The “Metamorphoses” tells the history of the world from the Creation down to the time of Augustus by means of stories about Greek gods and heroes. Love, jealousy, betrayal, murder – it is all there, just as in Shakespeare. So are Hercules, Venus, Icarus, Minus, Daphne, Aeneas and so on. It is called the Metamorphoses – Greek for “changing form” – because men turn into trees, birds, cows, stones, stars and even gods.

His “The Art of Love”, written in verse, is just what it sounds like: a handbook for men and women in the art of love. It offended many and helped to get him into trouble.

His earliest work was “Loves”. Well-written but not deep, nevertheless it greatly influenced how love is written about in the West.

In his book “The Feasts” Ovid wrote about the months of the year, telling us a lot about Roman history, custom and religion along the way as well as more of the old Greek and Roman stories. He never finished it: he only got up to June.

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