Et Tu, Readers?

You mean you’re not studying Latin, either?


In recent conversations with friends who are well educated and well read, I happened to use a couple of words that were familiar to me but drew blank stares from my companions. At one point, I referred to a “parlous situation” (no prizes for guessing what I had in mind), and another time, to the old saying “propinquity breeds contempt” (though “familiarity breeds contempt” is probably more familiar).

Parlous and propinquity are not words I use often in speech, but I have used them often enough in my writing for magazines and books. They are both, as so many of our words are, derived from Latin — parlous, a variation of perilous, from periculum, danger; and propinquity, nearness, from propinquus, near.

This may be sounding a little pedantic, but what these reactions from my friends brought home to me is how much learning Latin has helped my writing. Study of Latin comes in and out of fashion. The argument you hear most often is that it will help you learn foreign languages — the romance languages derived from Latin, obviously, but others as well.

But I think the biggest reason is how the study of Latin enriches your understanding of English. Recognizing the Latin words in an English sentence lets you hear the echoes of nuance reverberating through the centuries. For a writer, Latin is a key unlocking a treasure chest of vocabulary.

Hemingway and Strunk and White have told us to avoid Latinate words in favor of those derived from Anglo-Saxon (i.e., German). These words, we are told, are “livelier.” They lend themselves to short, declarative sentences and are more accessible than the polysyllabic words coming down from Latin.

Whatever merit there is in this dictum, it has been overdone. English is a marvelously supple language with double the vocabulary of other Indo-European languages because it blends Latin and German roots. That is one of the main reasons English has become a universal language.

I have saved my Latin dictionary and grammar, my Loeb bilingual editions of Virgil and Ovid, through many moves with the aim of getting back to the classics in the original when I retire. Retirement, however, continues to prove elusive, and these recent conversations reminded me that if I wanted to get back to Latin, I shouldn’t wait much longer.

It turns out there is a DC Classics Club, organized through Meetup, that gets small groups of would-be classicists together to puzzle through these ancient texts. So I ended up a few days later with a group working its way line by line through Livy’s History of Rome, and specifically Chapter XX in Book I dealing with Numa Pompilius, who succeeded Romulus as the second king of Rome.

One of the passages discussed in this meeting was cited by Wikipedia as summing up the important religious contributions made to Roman society by Numa. It is a passage about establishing temples and a priesthood, paying for it with public funds, what sacrifices to make, and how to celebrate not only sacred ceremonies or the gods, but funeral rites, too.

These few lines contain words that have given us numerous terms in English — sacred, temples, sumptuous, impecunious, public, private, pontiff, subject (verb and noun), consult, plebeian, divine, juridical, negligent, patriot, rites, peregrinations, perturb, celestial, mode, ceremonies, funebrial, remain, docent, prodigies, fulminating, mission, susceptible, cure.

And these are just the obvious ones.

Another group in the club is Latin for Beginners. They are working through Hans Ørberg’s classic textbook, which teaches Latin without translating, but by using illustrations and building gradually in complexity — a method known as contextual induction. (Warning: They have advanced far enough in the text that it is more like intermediate Latin than beginner.)

In any case, it’s never too late to start, or start again. The English speaker and writer can only benefit from delving into the deep root meaning of our words and seeing them in their original context. Tempus fugit!

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