Page 10, 17th November 2006

17th November 2006
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Page 10, 17th November 2006 — At last, a dead language is rising from the grave
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At last, a dead language is rising from the grave

And Pope Benedict XVI can take some of the credit for the Latin revival, says Harry Mount A.nd is it true? Are the long-held ' dreams of a thousand bachelor schoolmasters, their shoulders sprinkled with scurf and chalk-dust, coming to life?

is the great Latin revival happening? After half a century of decline, when the teaching of Latin retreated to a few small brave frontier outposts public schools and grammar schools mostly, some American prep schools, and the Vatican is it back?

The answer is yes...a bit. The dead language is showing some small signs of recovery; mere glimmers, perhaps, but significant all the same.

First came the news that Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, decided to hand remedial teaching of English grammar, punctuation and spelling over to his classics department.

Appalled by the sloppy writing of the 13year-old new arrivals at the school, Mr Cairns has introduced compulsory weekly grammar lessons for all of them. And it's only the classicists, the last tribe of crack grammarians, who are up to teaching these lessons. English departments long ago gave up teaching the basics, preferring the instant gratification of literature to correcting grocer's apostrophes, or should that be grocers' apostrophes?

Mr Cairns was quickly joined in the Latin Revival Club by Pope Benedict XVI, who has announced plans to make it easier for Catholics to attend the Tridentine Mass, celebrated almost entirely in Latin.

The boys of Brighton College could learn a lot from the old Latin rite, where the priest celebrates High Mass with his back to the congregation, intoning the Latin liturgy amid puffs of incense, throwing in gobbets of Greek and Hebrew too.

Pope John Paul II began the Vatican's return to Latin in 2001 when he signed off the directive, Liturgiam Authenticam, demanding translations of the liturgy that are closer to Latin. The Old Testament may have been written in Hebrew, the New in Greek, but it was in Latin that the medieval priest principally read and in Latin that he spoke in church.

It is in the translation from the Latin, too, that worshippers were used to hearing the liturgy. Confusingly, the Latin Church used a Greek liturgy for several hundred years before adopting Latin, but it was the Latin version that stuck until Vatican II.

In America, Australia, Scotland, England and Wales, bishops have now voted to accept these new Vatican-backed translations closer to the original Latin.

So, in America for example, the prayer before Communion, which had gone "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you," now goes "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof." That's much closer to the original: "Domine, non stain digruts, at bares sub tectum meum."

Likewise, in the Nicene Creed,"bom of the Virgin Mary" will revert to "incarnate of the Virgin Mary" ("incarnatps...ex Maria Virgine").

And the congregation's response "And also with you" will become: "And with your spirit."

Again, this is much closer to the original Latin: "El cuni spiritu tuo."

Latin is particularly on the up in America. The country suffered a great classics slump in the late 20th century. but now the subject's booming again.

In 1905, 56 per cent of American high school students studied Latin. By 1977, a mere 6,000 pupils took the National Latin Exam. That went up to 134,873 last year. And, even before Pope Benedict XVI announced his plans to ease the restrictions, you could find five churches in New York alone that celebrated the Tridentine Mass.

All good news, then, for Latin fans.

Still, let's hope that the Latin revival won't just be confined to classrooms and chancels, that the language will be used for pleasure, as well as for instruction and ritual.

Of course the boys of Brighton College will know their English grammar better by learning from Latin teachers who know their actives from their passives. And priests and congregations who understand the Tridentine Mass will tend to have better written English than those without Latin. But the Brighton College boys should really be going one step further, and learning Latin, not English, from their Latin teachers. And let's hope those priests and congregations will enjoy some Latin literature as well as Latin masses.

The real point of Latin and Latin teachers is not their gift for improving your English but for improving your Latin; and so allowing you to appreciate some of the finest prose and poetry ever written.

To say you need to understand Latin to understand English, as some people do say, is as crazy as suggesting that you need to understand Anglo-Saxon, German and Norman French to understand English.

All these languages went into the pot to form English but no one suggests learning them to improve your grammar. English is not nearly as close a relative of Latin as, say, French, and even French is a descendant through many generations. Once the Romans left Britain to the Angles and the Saxons, our native language went through several incarnations.

The language the Angles and Saxons brought with them -Anglo-Saxon imported large chunks of non-Latinate words, as well as some pretty garbled bits of Latin, often borrowed via French. And then, when the Normans camc, their new brand of French imported even more Latinate words. But it was much-mutilated and diluted Latin that poured into the mix which became modern English. The idea that the pure strain of original Latin forms the spine of modem English is ludi crous. In fact, the main reason you will know English better as a result of reading Latin is because it is so different from Latin, not because of any similarities. It is in computing the changes from one language to. another that you are forced to think about the structure of each of them.

Latin is particularly useful for this computing exercise, thanks to the very quality that it is usually attacked forits deadness. Because living languages are in a constant state of flux, there's a great deal of wriggle room when translating from one to another.

Precisely because Latin is dead, there's none of that flexibility. You are much more likely to be definitely wrong in a translation from Latin to English than from, say, French to English, if you haven't understood exactly what a particular word means or how a grammatical rule works. Still, it's pretty grim to think of Latin like this, as a sort of mental gymnastics, a grim, utilitarian exercise for strengthening the mind.

Yes, if the Brighton College boys and the priests and congregations celebrating the Tridentine Mass really get to know their Latin, they'll incidentally improve their English.

But much more wonderful than that they will then know world literature from the third century BC, when writers got going in Rome, through to the Golden Age of Latin Lucretius, Catullus, Sallust, Cicero and Caesar.

They will know the Augustan Age Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Livy down to the end of the Silver Age in 120 AD: Martial, Juvenal, Lucan, Seneca, Pliny and Tacims. It's a pretty inspiring reading list. If they happen to pick up some grammar along the way, well, all the better, but I hope they don't forget to look out of the window and take in the beauty spots too.

Harry Mount's Amo, Auras, Atrial and All That How to Become a Latin Lover is published by Short Books (f12.99)




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