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.

A. E. Housman. Click image to expand.
A.E. Housman

At the beginning of the last century, A.E. Housman, that cantankerous giant of classical scholarship, was already complaining about "an age which is out of touch with Latinity." Around that time, philistines were excising classics from the popular curriculum, and the subsequent 100 years have hardly improved Latin's apparent relevance in Western society. Classicists may tout the fact that Advanced Placement enrollment in Latin doubled between 1997 and 2007, but this mini-surge brought the number of upper-level high school Latinists to a minuscule 8,654— literally 1 percent of the number of secondary school Latinists in the mid-1930s. Like its nouns, Latin continues to decline.

In the face of these grim prospects, I boarded a plane to Rome this summer to join the small network of scholars dedicated to preserving the language by actually speaking it. I found myself in the company of 16 other twentysomethings, puttering about the center of the ancient world chattering not in English or in Italian but —ecce!—in Latin.

I can assure you that the enterprise was even stranger than it sounds. The Paideia Institute's "Living Latin" program is an immersive, spoken-Latin summer course based in Rome. The mornings are spent at the St. John's University campus reading poetry and prose and commenting on the texts in Latin; the afternoons are spent doing the same thing at various sites of literary or archaeological significance. If you vacationed in Italy this June, you might have seen us standing around the Ara Pacis on a scorcher, offering competing Latin orations on the pax Augustana. Other exercises were more modern: using hip-hop beats to memorize Alcaic meter, say.

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The class comprised undergraduate and graduate scholars with advanced reading knowledge of Latin but little to no spoken experience; not even the Catholics among us had used the language of Cicero to comment on the vicissitudes of Vespa-dodging, or to describe the phenomenon of the "pimp coat" (tunica lenonis). The latinitas was often exhausting—try rendering a future-less-vivid conditional in proper tense and mood with 32 eyes boring into you and the carabinieri hollering obscenities just outside the window. Most humbling was the constant juggling of stressed and unstressed syllables; a language that had existed too long only on paper was coming fitfully to life, demanding as a newborn. Students, operating in good faith, even did their best to make dinner plans in Latin, though pizza sounds a lot less appetizing in its Latin form: placenta.

While Paideia's "Living Latin" is technically a new program, it derives from Aestiva Latinitas Romae ("summer Latinity in Rome"), an iconic course taught for over 20 years by Friar Reginald Foster. Described by the American Scholar as "a kind of one-man Audubon Society for the Latin language," Foster is known as "Reginaldus" to his students—or, rather, to his acolytes; something approaching a cult of personality has sprung up around the Friar. An American Carmelite monk, Reginaldus served for more than 40 years as the Vatican's secretary of briefs to princes. More simply, he was the Pope's chief of Latin letters, a role that found him translating papal bulls into Latin while overseeing the Vatican's Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis, which offers helpful neologic Latin for such items as popcorn (maizae grana tosta) and pornography (pellicula cinematographica obscena). Reginaldus' eight-week summer Latin course, meanwhile, achieved legendary status among classicists, early modernists, archaeologists, and any number of other scholar-types. A decade ago, a high school Latin teacher described the course to me: "I learned Latin in school, but I did not know it until I met Reginaldus."

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