Vivat Latinitas!  On my summer vacation, I spoke a dead language.

Vivat Latinitas!  On my summer vacation, I spoke a dead language.

Vivat Latinitas!  On my summer vacation, I spoke a dead language.

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Aug. 22 2011 6:48 AM

Vivat Latinitas!

My lively summer speaking a dead language.

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Foster has retired to his home state of Wisconsin. (He now runs an eight-week summer course there.) But it is still on the force of Foster's personality that the Paideia program in Rome fuels itself. Paideia's founders, Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett, were Reginaldus protégés: When the Friar took ill in the summer of 2008, Pedicone and Hewett led the remaining month and a half of the Aestiva Latinitas course. The two are unswerving evangelists for spoken Latin, the type of guys who converse in Latin with precision and ease, though not with the same accent: Hewett, a devout Catholic who lives in Rome and moves in that city's arcane circle of ecclesiastical scholars, speaks the soft g's and hard v's of Medieval Latin, while Pedicone seems to prefer the reconstructed pronunciation of the Empire. (Both are finishing their dissertations, Pedicone on Latin meter at Princeton, and Hewett on Rabanus Maurus at the University of Salerno.)

In Latin, or the Empire of a Sign, Françoise Waquet describes Renaissance classrooms in which Latin was the only permissible language, and schoolboy informants known as "foxes" (vulpes) would snitch on those who slipped into the vernacular. The regime at Paideia was not so unforgiving and, unlike various modern-language immersion programs, did not involve a "language pledge." Nonetheless, even while we spent hours each day on scansion, supines, past-tense contrafactual conditionals, and other staples of by-the-book Latin, the thrust of the course was the revivification of an oft-obituarized language. Such a thrust necessarily involves a fair bit of cheerleading, the result being that the class felt less like school and something more like summer camp.

We descended into the Sybil's cave at Cumae to reel off the pertinent hundred lines of Virgil. We drew stares in the Forum as we declaimed latine (adv.: "in Latin") on the various points of interest. (One elderly Italian gentleman, several sheets to the wind, stuck with us for some time, offering applause and exclamations of "bravi" whenever he thought appropriate.) We stooped into the Catacombs of Priscilla or the bowels of the Basilica San Clemente, where a troupe of friendly Bulgarians listened to our Latinisms on the subject of Saint Cyril. (Cyril invented and gave his name to the Slavic alphabet—Cyrillic—and his tomb remains a pilgrimage destination for Slavs.) On an unusually foggy Friday, we tramped to the peak of Mount Vesuvius and read Pliny Jr.'s letters to Tacitus recounting the volcano's eruption in 79 A.D. A curly-haired Italian high-schooler fell in with us; he offered a sensitive Italian translation and was far less bemused with our manner of speech than one might have imagined.


Frivolous stuff, the haters will say—a fantasy camp for bookish types, an arcane and indulgent pursuit (largely funded by university fellowships) that does nothing to tamp down the national debt or carbon emissions. I'm inclined to say, somnium ("nonsense"). Thanks to a summer of speaking Latin, I can tear through hexameters like Caesar through Gauls. The summer was perhaps not strictly "useful"; summer, after all, is characterized by otium ("leisure"), the lexical antithesis to negotium, or "business." (Graduate students are of course notorious for mixing the two.) Latin immersion offers other, similarly unquantifiable benefits. Knowing one's history is an intrinsic good, and in this sense, the summer's archaeological-literary one-two punch was anything but frivolous: As Nicholas Ostler says in his engaging biography of the language, "the history of Latin is the history of the development of western Europe."

Sadly, latter-day history teaches us that, despite our best efforts, Latin remains on the ropes, dying even among the clergy. "I'm not optimistic about Latin," Foster has said. "The young priests and bishops are not studying it"—a Housman-like complaint that earned the Friar no points among those fellow clerics who had dozed off during Latin class. There is, at last, a comfort in these complaints: Each mini-generation of cantankerous purists will beget another, surmounting the stale calculus of Latin translation to speak it among themselves, in a conversation that has been going for a very long time.