Prose composition and the way we teach Latin

I’m sat here doing prose composition (so it’s pretty bad to be blogging while I’m supposed to be doing my work – on the other hand, it is technichally my lunch break). Generally, while I’m doing this, I have at least one prose composition book open (over the past couple of years my teacher’s loaded me up with several guides – thanks, Mr Smith!), my Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary (it’s nowhere near pocket-sized, it’s getting too brief for my needs, and I need to reinstall my Lewis & Short program on my computer), and my Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (which will always lead you back onto the straight and narrow path when you find yourself having to use some ridiculously rare irregular verb). In addition to this, I also own several commentaries and Latin texts, a couple of books of unseens and at least one other dictionary. And several folders full of cutesy handouts about rules I’m never really going to remember because there are simply far too many of them. And several old workbooks for old set texts. And a couple of Latin textbooks. And I’d have more, but I threw away all my GCSE stuff because it’s incredibly basic. When you study Latin, you just end up accumulating…well…stuff, and having to carry around a lot of this stuff to and from lessons. (And that goes without mentioning the merchandise that a lot of Latinists end up getting – I’ve still got my Non Omnis Moriar badge knocking around somewhere!)

Anyway, you get the picture: Latinists own a lot of random stuff. That’s somewhat interesting, but not at all the subject of this blog post; I was actually going to talk about how hard prose composition is.

Dark sign with a white snowflake and the words

My generation

At this point, should any hard-nosed traditionalists have finally figured out this internet business and managed forte (non-Latinists probably won’t get this unless they can think of a certain derivation, because I’m a hipster like that) to stumble upon this blog, they’ll probably be guffawing and rolling their eyes. I’m yet another poor sod complaining about the difficulty of writing Latin – as if I expected it to be easy! Honestly, this generation wants everything on a plate, flurry of special snowflakes that we are. Next thing they know, we’ll start complaining about cases and plurals, and respectable British society shall crumble before our entitlement. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that. Or something.

The thing is, I know that prose composition is difficult – and I don’t object to that. I simply have an idea about it.

For those not in the know, one of the things that makes prose composition so difficult (for me at least) is the multitude of rules, regulations and fairly obscure style points that you have to remember, like when time is subjunctive and what case durations of time take. Time is a problem. So are dates, because they’re all done in relation to certain days in certain months and you count up to them or down to them. There are several examples, and they are generally not difficult on their own; the trouble comes in how many of them there are. You will almost certainly forget some of them, or their usage, unless you’re a genius. In textbooks and on handouts they generally all tend to be whacked together in one big set of rules right before the exercise – and the longer I think about this the odder I find it.

You see, although nobody actually speaks Latin properly anymore, and although Classical Latin was an exclusively written language (it’s too complex to use in everyday conversation), its quirks and irregularities resemble those of living languages; irregularities in nouns, verbs and adjectives come about from being said and written so frequently that the original words lose their lovely, regular form. Complex grammar mostly comes from style and idiom. This is because living languages are fluid and constantly evolving – and the same thing has happened with Classical Latin, except its present state is just a petrified form of an evolving language. Trust me, if we still used it regularly it would be constantly changing – and indeed it did, from Classical Latin into Late Latin and evolving into all the Romance languages we know today. Even then it survived in Medieval Latin, and is still used today in certain applications (albeit it’s now evolved so far that it’s mostly unintelligible to people who only know Classical Latin, just as most English speakers don’t understand Medieval English or Anglo-Saxon for obvious reasons).

What I’m getting at is that for teaching purposes, it might be easier to treat Classical Latin as a living language, or at least as a fossilised one, rather than considering it as dead. After all, living languages have confusing irregularities and strange grammatical rules as well, and people still manage to learn them just by taking those rules in stride instead of…well, revering them, I suppose.


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