Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rusticatio Virginiana 2008: My first experience with Conversational Latin

My Latin Background

I did not begin, perhaps fortuitously, my Latin adventure until my junior year of undergraduate studies. I had tested out of foreign language requirements (vitium scelestum!), but was still
keen to study another language. If I did not benefit from exposure as a child, I at least had acquired sufficient maturity by my first course to study it with a good will. In my case, I expect that
was best.

We pushed through one half of Wheelock's in one semester. With a few friends also taking the course, the routine was to quickly decode the Latin a few moments before class began (Wait wait, where is that verb again!?). Class was essentially a TA writing paradigms on a chalk board. If not as a language, I at least appreciated Latin as a puzzle---and still do. I am a recovering engineer.

My degree (or perhaps my laziness) prevented me from studying more in undergrad. I graduated (my degree was in physics) and went off to grad school (math and, originally, computational
astrophysics). Grad school allowed me to freely take other courses, so I enjoyed a second semester of Latin, then a third. This time with Ecce Romani, and a much better experience overall. Somewhere around this time I also heard of Dexter Hoyos' and his crazy ideas about reading Latin in word order. I was intrigued and gave it a shot. I did, mea sententia, embarrassingly well in these later courses.

I discovered I didn't care much about astrophysics and started searching for a new area. I heard something about computational linguistics, thought it was somebody's strange idea of a joke, but went asking around anyway. I thought maybe I'd like it because I like Latin. Eheu! (Re vera, mihi satis placet, sed paucitatem latinitatis continet).

I later started auditing an intermediate course on Petronius but dropped out. I didn't have enough time and it wasn't very well taught. And my advisor wouldn't have been exceptionally keen
to hear I was doing something I enjoyed. Aside from credit, there is little reason to read Petronius in such a class when one can read it at home. Re vera, I completed those three semesters
of Latin mostly so that I might one day have license to teach it, not to help me learn.

In summary, prior to the Rusticatio, I was essentially a good student but with comparatively little accredited Latin. I had never read more than a few lines of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil or any other classical author. I had a smattering of the Latin Vulgate and some reading of the Summa. I had twice read through Oerberg's Lingua Latina alone. I very much wanted to try speaking Latin, but it seemed rather hopeless by myself at home.

What I Expected to Learn

Without having formulated them coherently in my mind, I think my assumptions prior to the Rusticatio were that: (1) noone actually uses Latin to communicate, only to practice using Latin, (2) Latin is essentially not a language, because real language are used freely and expressively to address complicated, profound, delicate, humorous, or raucous ideas. Surely, this could not happen in Latin---everyone is too busy finding the verb in their head! I wanted to learn how to speak, but frankly wasn't sure it was possible. Maybe I thought Reggie Foster was just better at faking it than most people. Ha!

I expected to remain only an English speaker, but perhaps with a greater mastery of Latin. I did not expect I would have any original thoughts in Latin or would use Latin with anything approaching the expressive power of English.

I did want to believe Latin was a language. But there is a difference between wanting to believe something and actually believing it.

What I Learned Instead

The hardest word to pronounce all week was the very first "Salve".

That is the point when you ask yourself: O God, who are these people? And what on Earth have I gotten myself into?

I asked myself this because I didn't yet believe Latin was a language. Or, at least, though I did want to believe it, I hadn't yet moved the Latin forward in my brain so that I could use it like one. Saying "Salve" to another English speaker was a completely absurd proposition, as if I had no idea what the word really meant. This is the problem with every lexicon, and why the better ones give examples. When you say the word "Hello", you say a word you've said a thousand times, to friends and enemies alike. To mom and dad. You know what it means because you know where you've been.

But "Salve" was a dead word. Was a dead word. This is the indescribable and overwhelming joy that the Rusticatio and Alma Annula Mater gave us. Latin is in fact a language and you can in fact learn to speak it. You can go a week and scarcely have a thought in English.

We ate dinner in the raucous din of thirty wonderful people laughing and snorting out their Latin. We had real conversations about real topics---in fact topics that had nothing to do with Latin. That they were in Latin was a wonderful and, at times, inconspicuos coincidence.

I learned things about which I have never known in English. If you asked me about them now, I could answer you, but it would be the first time thinking about them in English.

For the first time in my life, I had the experience of thinking about something in a language other than English.

Et nunc

Pro dolore, nunc tempus est denuo anglice loqui. Vere, ut omnes, nolo redire ad vitam sine illa lingua viva, id est, latina. Horreo ne omnium linguae obliviscar.
Fortasse, obliviscar. Sed, nunc, haec cogitatio me consolatur: Non potest amitti id quod prius non habetur.

Ergo nunc decerno me iterum flammam vivae latinitatis accensurum esse, si umquam extinguetur. Scio posse fieri mihi loqui et discere latine. Vere scimus!

Gratias semper Almae Annulae Matri et omnibus qui Rusticationem Virginianam fovent! Maxime gratias!


Bondof said...

Hey, Scote, outstanding blog about what was truly an outstanding week. Thanks for putting this down so beautifully and humorously. I've sent the link to your blog to LOTS of Latin teachers. I want them to hear your story and about our experience.

Bob (Robertus) Patrick

Magistra Myers said...

Wow! This describes so well some of the feelings I had, after my first experience speaking Latin. I'm just sorry I couldn't be there with all of you at the Rusticatio!

Jacque (Iacoba) Myers

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks for sharing this. It's really insightful, and makes me wish I had the opportunity to go.

Scotus Barbarus said...

Thanks for commenting all.

Seumas, there is always next year. :)


Seumas Macdonald said...

It's the pacific ocean that is holding me back!