Dec 17 2008

Latin Lessons: #0 Introduction

This isn’t actually a lesson; that’s why I numbered it zero, so lesson #1 will be the first real one. I thought instead of jumping right into vocabulary and grammar, I’d kick this series off by explaining why I’m doing this and why anyone should care.

Why Learn Latin Anyway?

Learning Latin Improves Your English
English is such a simple language that you can muddle along, writing and speaking it fairly well without really understanding how it works. As long as you get the words in the right order, people will usually know what you’re talking about. Not so with Latin. Since Latin changes the endings of words to indicate their relationship in the sentence, you can’t learn it without knowing how those relationships work. You’ll have to understand subjects and objects, active and passive, transitive and intransitive, or you’ll get nowhere. In turn, all that will help you speak and write better English.
At least 60% of English words descend from Latin, especially the hard ones. In a very general sense, the short words (house, cow, walking) tend to come from Anglo-Saxon/Germanic languages, while the longer ones (domicile, bovine, ambulatory) come from Latin. As you learn Latin, you’ll recognize those English words in Latin ones, and strengthen your comprehension of them in both languages.
Classic Literature
I don’t suppose many Latin students go on to read a lot of Cicero or Ovid outside the classroom in the original language. But if you want to, you’ll be able to. There are always nuances of meaning that don’t survive translation. Even if you read them in English, knowing the language behind the translation can help you understand the context.
Other Languages
All languages have things in common, so learning a second language makes the third one easier, which makes the fourth even easier yet, and so on. But Latin really stands out in this regard, because its “inflections” (changing the word endings for different parts of speech) help prepare you for other languages that work the same way, like German or Russian.
The Romance languages—called that because of their connection to Rome—like French, Spanish, and Italian, get 90% or more of their words from Latin. Having a base of Latin helps with learning those languages even more than it does with English.
While learning Latin, you’ll be exposed to some of the most important people and events in history, since many of the surviving texts from Roman times are historical records, like Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries about the Gallic Wars).
Latin has been the official language of the Catholic Church almost since the beginning. All important Church documents are still written in Latin and then translated into other languages. This way the language provides a certain amount of continuity through the centuries, since Latin is a “dead” language and the meanings of its words don’t change. If you want to study what the Popes have said over the years, or what the first complete Bibles were like, you can go to the source with Latin.
The Latin Mass
If you’re Catholic, you don’t have to understand a word of Latin to assist at the Latin Mass and have it be completely valid and meaningful for you. If you go a while, you’ll start to recognize some of the regular prayers anyway: Agnus Dei: Lamb of God; Dominus vobiscum: The Lord be with you; Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: it’s time to kneel again. But understanding more of the prayers may help you feel more involved.
General Thinking Ability
Latin is very orderly. When you translate a sentence, almost every word has an ending that tells you its purpose in that sentence. Translating is partly like building a bridge and partly like detective work, as you move back and forth from the part you’ve figured out to the part you haven’t, building your translated text one word at a time, with each piece providing context for the next. That kind of mental discipline is useful in any field inside the classroom or out of it.

Why Are You Doing This?

I took Latin for four years in high school, and like most students, I forgot it soon after I graduated. (And I liked Latin; subjects I didn’t like were forgotten daily. Burn down the schools!!!—sorry, getting off the topic there…) I recently found my First Year Latin textbook and thought I’d re-teach myself. Serendipitously, this was just a couple months before I discovered the Latin Mass was coming to Quincy.

I breezed through the first 15 or 20 chapters, plowed through the next 10 or 15, and trudged through chapters 35-45. At first I was doing a chapter each night in about 30 minutes, but by the time I stopped each one was taking a few hours spread out over a week, and I realized it wasn’t sinking it very well anymore, and I needed to back up and regroup. This book has 75 chapters, and I don’t recall whether we used it all four years or moved on to another book. I do recall reading some Ovid and Caesar that aren’t in here, so there was probably another book. This one should provide a good grounding in the language, though.

There are some Latin tutorials and lessons online already, of course, but I haven’t been terribly impressed with them. Some seem to move too fast, some too slow, and some try to dumb it down too much. Like the modern use of “whole language” in English classes instead of phonics, they seem to hope you’ll absorb the language by osmosis from a lot of examples. Latin doesn’t really work that way; the structure (grammar) is too integral to understanding it. I intend to focus these lessons on the structure, which may make them seem hard at first, but should pay off in the long run.

I’m also hoping this gives me something useful for my web site beyond my usual blathering about whatever comes to mind. If this becomes a useful resource, it will allow me the time to develop other useful things here. I may put this into e-book form at some point too, but it’ll always be freely available in per-lesson form here. I’m also considering doing real-life classes or tutoring, if there’s an interest in that locally.

So I’m Convinced; Now What?

The next lesson will dive into words and inflections, so I won’t get into that here. Just a few notes:

  • It’s easier to learn a language (or almost anything) if you can discuss it with someone else. Please feel free to ask questions or discuss the lessons in the comments boxes. I always welcome comments, but in this case they can help everyone who’s following along.
  • I’m more qualified to teach Latin than my high school calculus and computer teachers were to teach those courses, but I’m no expert. I’m bound to make mistakes, so don’t be afraid to point them out. Also, sentences can sometimes be translated in different ways, so feel free to offer better translations than mine any time. People who already know some Latin are certainly welcome to jump in and help us out.
  • I’ll be following much of the format of First Year Latin, but I’ll make up my own exercises so I don’t violate their copyright. That means you won’t need the book to participate in these lessons, but if you want it for your own use, that link is to a revision very close to mine. (My exact revision from 1975 is unavailable at Amazon.)
  • Each lesson will explain a few new things and provide some exercises, from short phrases to longer passages to translate. I may give the answers to each lesson’s exercises in a separate post on a later day; I’m still figuring out some of those details. I expect to post at least one lesson each week, and produce at least a hundred of them. If you’re still with me after all that, we should both be pretty solid in the language by then.
  • This textbook and my previous studies were all in what is called “Classical Latin,” the language written by educated Romans during the time of the Empire. Now that I’m going to Latin Mass, my interest has shifted somewhat toward “Ecclesiastical (or Church) Latin.” Fortunately, there aren’t great differences between the two except for pronunciation, and the Church Latin comes closer to what seems like natural pronunciation to us. I’ll try to mix vocabulary and texts from both sources, so if you’re particularly interested in either Classical or Church Latin, I hope you’ll find this useful.
  • Speaking of pronunciation, I’m going to try making some audio clips to go with the lessons, if I can figure out how to record audio and make it sound decent.

I think that about wraps up this introduction. Next time: first declension (noun endings), genders, and a few other basics to get us started.

By the way, if you want to subscribe to these lessons via RSS but you don’t want to read all my other random stuff, click this link. That will subscribe you to this category only. You can do with that any category or tag on my blog, simply by adding “feed” to the end of the URL that you see after you select a category or tag.

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