How to become a Latin Lover : Juan Pablo Sánchez Hernández

Latin inscription

The simple mention of Latin will first evoke in you some vivid scenes of the Ancient world with the people who spoke such language: gladiators, Roman generals, senators in their long ceremonial robes, and crazy emperors who would play the lyre while the city of Rome is crumbling in ruins. But then you soon remember how idiosyncratic Latin as a language is, and how it is easily assumed as the symbol of the self-contained life and vaunted status of the academics. In fact, the heraldic mottoes of many universities, from New South Wales in Australia to Sâo Paulo in Brasil, will speak in Latin to noble sentiments and encourage you to “dare to know” (Sapere audere), to acquire “Knowledge by Hand and Mind” (Scientia Manu et Mente), because only “Through knowledge you will win” (Scientiā Vinces). Other inscriptions will rather commemorate great events, such as the one in the picture above, at the walls of Salamanca University in Spain (my country), that hails the visit in 1985 of the (then) Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko of Japan: Akihitum et Michikam, Imperii Iaponici serenissimos principes, universitas laeta recepit 28 Februarii MCMLXXXV. The inscription says literally that the “university warmly welcomed” them (universitas laeta recepit) on a 28 February —which was much appreciated by the soon-to-be crown emperors after a long trip and in one of the coldest cities in Spain. — And then you have the quite intriguing warning that is used as the motto of the world famous Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus (“Never tickle a sleeping dragon”). But if Latin is scattered through all the Harry Potter books, it is not just only because J.K. Rowling read Classics (Latin and Ancient Greek) at the University of Exeter, but also because she knew quite well too that there was something about Latin that would compel and enchant her potential readers as a language for initiates. In addition, you can learn useful information over here.

The influence of an Ancient tongue in the modern culture should not come to us as a surprise. Latin’s most obvious legacy is simply the alphabet, the “ABC” that many world’s countries (including most of Africa and Asia) have adopted to note their own respective languages. On the other hand, even if it no longer spoken, Latin has also survived in the form of the Romance languages, such as Italian, French and Spanish; those three languages in which the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) talked with courtiers, women and God respectively— Apparently for all its roughness and vehemence, he used German for his horses. — Learning Latin would be, therefore, a gateway into such modern languages. But also, as roughly two-third of the words in English are based either on Latin and/or Greek roots, knowing Latin will also increase your understanding of English and help to build up your vocabulary— which also explains why, not surprisingly, my former Latin and Ancient Greek students scored so much better on entrance exams, when applying for graduate programs either in the UK or the US.— In fact by learning Latin you will be able to understand those stylish words and Latin phrases that writers throw into books and articles; and even learn the difference between e.g. (exempli gratia “for example”) and i.e. (id est, “that’s it”), and the meaning of other Latin abbreviations with which most texts are usually strewn.

As you see, a language may fall out of everyday use and change its form; and yet writers will still use an old language to do new things. Latin has been the language of the Church since the Middle Ages and was used during the Renaissance and the Modern era by a large European intellectual community. Newton, Kepler, Copernicus and other great thinkers that formed the “Republic of Letters” (in Latin the Res publica litteraria) were from different countries and spoke different languages, so they used Latin as a common means of scientific communication. In fact, up to the 19th century many scholarly works were written in Latin (some journals still accept papers in that language) and medical, scientific, and legal terms are all based on Latin and Ancient Greek terms. The International Botanical Congress might have decided in 2011 that new discoveries can be described in English (the new lingua franca in academia in the 21st century), but the binomial Latin naming system – with a genus and a species name in Latin for all living beings – is still surviving as it was established by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae, first published in 1735. Linnaeus used Latin because it is in its nature of to be elegantly compact and to speak for itself in short, concise, and meaning-packed phrases. As Henry Beard says at the beginning of his book, X-treme Latin: “Look around—Latin is all over the place: lawyers use it to screw you, doctors use it to scare you shitless, and politicians use it to hide their tracks while they rob you blind.” Thus, if you want to become any of them and have an advantage over your peers, learn Latin.

Latin is currently the official language of one single country, the Vatican (also home, quite charmingly, of the world’s only Latin ATM machine), and it has been adopted by the Pope as a sacred tongue for homilies, encyclical letters… And for his succinct messages on twitter! But the Catholic Church did this not just because Latin was presumed to be the language in which God should speak to us. Latin gives you a direct access to a cultural and literary tradition that lies at the very heart of the Western civilization and that was born in Rome, the head of the largest empire in the Ancient Mediterranean region. For example, the Accademia Vivarium Novum was founded in 2004 in Rome as a liberal Arts college and Latin is the only language spoken inside and outside the classrooms —you can even watch on Youtube some performances of the choir of the Academy, the Tyrtarion—; but also other institutes in the USA, such as Paideia or SALVI, run regular summer programs amidst the magnificent ruins of the eternal city and they use Latin actively, as someone else would use a modern language in a trip. The interest in Latin has since been growing around the world in unexpected places such as China, where there is a study group called Latinitas Sinica, or even in Africa, where the study of Latin and Ancient Greek has been introduced in schools and universities in Nigeria and Malawi. Aside from that, you can also find Latin radio stations in Germany and Finland with Nuntii Latini (“News in Latin”), online newspapers and magazines with your favorite crosswords, such as the Hebdomada Aenigmatum (“Weekly Puzzles”), and you can even choose Latin as a default language on Facebook where on logging you will be asked in your status: Quid in animo tuo est? (“What’s in your mind?”). That’s quite something for a dead language that was rather supposed to be embalmed in canonical texts more than 2000 years old!
Don’t you fancy taking at least one hour of Latin class? Tell me, don’t you find it really delightful that the first thing that you —most likely— would learn is the conjugation of the verb amāre “to love”: amo, amās amāt (“I love, you love, he/she/it loves…)? But I am not going to hide you the truth: that Latin’s nouns have seven cases and five declensions; and that its verbs have six tenses, four moods, two voices, and four conjugations could be intimidating in prospect (well, ok, IT IS!). But to learn a rigorous language like Latin will teach you patience and love for detail and it would help you to improve your ability to think logically. After all, this jigsaw puzzle that seems to be Latin should not kill anyone who is already familiar with the complexities of Sanskrit, another “dead language” as logical, consistent and well-organized as Latin (and that is, moreover, another member of the large Indo-European family of languages). Therefore, Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus!; or “Let’s live and love, my Lesbia!”, as the poet Catullus of Verona said to his darling—Lesbia being her poetic nickname—, many centuries before Shakespeare immortalized these two young lovers from the same city, Romeo and Juliet. As Professor in Classics at Cambridge, Mary Beard, says: “You do not learn Latin because it helps you understand the spells in Harry Potter… you learn Latin because of what was written in it”. And regarding this, you will discover that, far from being a language for soporiferous military reports, Latin was also meant for romance — the perfect Latin palindrome Roma-Amor (“Rome”&“Love”) just suggests that. — Even an Art of Love (Ars Amandi) was written by a prolific poet, Ovid, who knew that “Love conquers all” (Omnia vincit amor).
In sum, “Seize the day” (Carpe Diem) as the poet Horace said in one of his most memorable crafted lyric poems. It is never too late to touch with your lips some of the most exquisite words that you have ever imagined and become the next successful Latin lover!
Quod me nutrit, me destruit (“What nourishes me also destroys me.”)

It is not the motto of a pro-anorexia group, but rather a warning: what really motivates a person can also consume him/her from within!

Beard Henry, X-Treme Latin: All the Latin You Need to Know for Survival in the 21st Century, New York: Gotham books, 2005.
Mount Harry, Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life. London: Hyperion Books 2007
Mount Harry, Amo, Amas, Amat… and All That: How to Become a Latin Lover. London: Short Books 2008.
Patty Ann, Living with a Dead Language: my Romance with Latin. New York: Viking Press, 2016.
Stone Jon R, The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations: The Illiterati’s Guide to Latin Maxims, Mottoes, Proverbs, and Sayings. London/NY: Routledge, 2004.
Stroh, Wilfred, Latin is dead; long live Latin (original in German: Latein is tot, es lebe Latein): Berlin: List, 2007.

NUNTII LATINI (Breaking news in Latin!):
SCHOLA NOVA (Belgium):

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Juan Pablo Sánchez Hernández
Juan Pablo Sánchez Hernández 1 posts

Juan Pablo Sánchez Hernández is a Classicist whose field of research is Greece and Asia Minor (Turkey) during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. His scientific articles have been published in journals such as Mnemosyne, Greece & Rome, and Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies; and his contributions to Historia National Geographic have featured in multiple issues in Spanish, English, French, Italian and Dutch.


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