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How Did People Back Then Understand This?

Robert Dudley

Teaching students to speak Latin correctly and master its cadences is indispensable. Latin was meant to be heard, and the texts of antiquity were meant to be read aloud. Quintilian’s instructions for reading and mastering one’s letters provide evidence that scrolls were written with a view towards cultivating a pastime of reciting aloud (Johnson 2010). Today, that pastime is a crucial pedagogical tool. I offer in my paper my insights both as a teacher of Latin as well as a former Classics Major in the recent past. I did not acquire any spoken Latin until my first year of Grad School, and I will argue how, for all my dedication and proficiency at translating in undergraduate years, I never fully developed an appreciation for what Latin authors have accomplished until I myself started to attempt to write and speak in their language. This paper shall discuss the necessity of introducing all students to the spoken and written dimension of Latin as early as possible.

My presentation will have two parts. The first shall explain the merits of written and oral Latin for the comprehension of grammatical constructions; the second shall deal with the importance of oral Latin for understanding stylistic devices and complicated syntax.

The first part will feature Bradley’s Arnold, and discuss the importance of reinforcing its lessons through oral drills in the classroom. The subtle art of Latin prose composition reinforces a vital lesson: Latin has different ways of expressing things than English and, as an inflected language, utilizes a more complicated syntax. For instance, translating “Happy Birthday” into Latin is not a simple matter of substituting vocabulary (Dies Natalis Felix). A better translation would be “Dies Natalis Prosit,” which illustrates the use of the optative subjunctive. Singing this aloud to the tune of “Happy Birthday to you” helps students understand that the optative subjunctive is not merely a rule of grammar they need to know, but a powerful means of pithy expression. Such exercises would also hone one’s reading ability: imitating how a Latin-speaker would use the optative subjunctive makes us much better equipped to recognize why a Classical author would deploy it. In order to achieve this, we must be demanding of correct pronunciation: an Anglicized conflation of the vowels “a” and “e”, for instance, deprives listeners of the auditory signals that distinguish the first conjugation from the second, the subjunctive mood from the indicative, etc.

If oral Latin is important for understanding grammar, it is essential for understanding style. This is the topic of the second part of my presentation. In order for students to enjoy the many complex stylistic devices of Classical Latin, they need to live the language, to hear it in action right at the elementary level. For this reason, oral Latin is anything but a fad. To illustrate this, I shall use an example of hyperbaton, one of the more alien stylistic devices for Anglophonic students. Take the following question: “quantos habuit nauta timores?” In order to emphasize the word timores, I have separated it from quantos and placed it at the end of the sentence. Furthermore, nauta timores has a smooth, dactylic cadence. If I recite the sentence properly, the students can hear why the position of timores is more effective at the end of the sentence than after quantos. When students accustom themselves to hearing and reproducing Latin’s most challenging syntax, they will understand why the works of Cicero are rhetorical masterpieces rather than a labyrinth of encoded script they have to decipher. My presentation will involve some recitations of Cicero and Tacitus to bring home my argument.

I conclude with an analogy of music. One could talk about the musical theory behind Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but we cannot convince anyone of the music’s value until we convince the ears, “quarum est iudicium” quips Cicero, “superbissimum” (Orator 150). 

Session/Panel Title

Talking Back to Teacher: Orality and Prosody in the Secondary and University Classroom

Session/Paper Number


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