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Latin

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“Salve. Quid agis?” That is Latin for, “Hi. What’s up?” But nowadays, Latin is hardly a language useful for communicating with people of different cultures. In that sense, learning Latin today is impractical. When I tell my friends that I study Latin, the issue that Latin is not a modern language, is often raised, along with an eyebrow. “Latin is a dead language,” they say with a mocking finality.
But to me, Latin is far from a useless or lifeless language. In a most basic way, Latin helps me examine the grammar and the structure of English and to understand English cognates. For example, by learning Latin, I understood what it really meant to use the passive voice, and when we should use “who” or “whom.” Knowing Latin also allows me to read the works of some of the most famous poets and figures in history such as Vergil, Ovid, Caesar, and Cicero. Caesar, in his “Comentarii de Bello Gallic,” his commentary on the Gallic Wars, writes of his conquests of the Gauls in what are now France and England. The opening words of his commentary, “All Gaul is divided into three parts,” ring forever in the minds of many students of Latin. The ability to understand the famous authors of old gives Latin vitality and a wonder that only knowing that ancient language can provide.

For ancient writings are far from stale. While going through the rigorous process of translating a Catullus poem, a book of the Aeneid, a letter of Cicero’s, I cannot help but ponder the implications about which they wrote. What insights can I make into Roman culture, way of life, and values? Reading a work in Latin also forces me to think in a different way, a feature of all second or third languages, dead or alive. For example, word order is irrelevant in Latin. This allows for much more poetic and rhetorical techniques, and can beautifully increase the ambiguity of a passage. For example, Catullus “49” is a poem that Catullus, a poet known for his love poems to Lesbia, his lover, and also his obscene poems, wrote about Cicero. The punch line is that it is ambiguous as to whether Catullus is saying that Cicero was “the best patron of all patrons,” or that he was “the best patron of everybody.” Cicero was a lawyer and in his political maneuvers, it often happened that he defended someone, whom he had once prosecuted, or vice versa. This made him “a patron of everybody.” Because of the lack of word order, Catullus leaves it up to the reader to decide whether he is sincerely praising Cicero or mocking him. The way that Roman writers were able to use their language to create such ambiguities, and more often, to create beautiful, flowing yet complex poems with chiastic structures makes them a joy to see, to read aloud, they come to life.
From the very act of searching for nouns and adjectives, identifying cases, and determining the tenses and agents of verbs, learning a new language not only forces me to read differently, but forces us to at least look at the world in the way the speakers of the language, dead or alive, might have seen it. The Romans have a dozen words for the verb “to kill” and “to die,” and a knack for witty and explosive humor. Latin is far from a dead language; in fact it is a vibrant language, full of vitality, and provides much insight, and just as much beauty and wit.





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