As someone classically-inclined yet linguistically-inept, it pains me to admit that my grasp on the Latin language is not firm. Approaching it, my fingers are but sieves, blunt and busy utensils through whose spaces those ancient words flow. I should say, though, that the failure of my possession of this subtle and consequential tongue isn’t for my lack of trying to hold it. It simply is, for me, that which was Proteus before Menelaus; elusive, frustrating, and incapable of being caught. I can hold it, maybe for a moment, but only for the use of a conversational quip or a rare and brilliant apercu. Just as quickly, Latin—for me—is gone. Just as quickly I’m rendered mute, stabbing at my memory to mimic Horace or Montaigne.
Perhaps even worse, it’s no longer taught, not even its very rudiments, in the languishing halls of our once fine public schools. To the modern reader and ear, Latin has been deemed too esoteric to warrant its instruction. It’s now deemed far too impractical, affected, and, for those reasons, moribund to be deserving of a semester’s constrained and vital time. But only the truly learned will acknowledge Latin as a friendly, albeit foreign tongue with which they’re at least peripherally familiar.
And who among us, in this supposedly enlightened age, wouldn’t want to be considered learned? Who, living on this side of omniscience, wouldn’t want in her possession every morsel of knowledge available to touch? Who wouldn’t desire to know each iota of fact, every truth concealed, every discovery and hypothesis onto which a brain’s restive avariciousness can latch? Or is it the case that one wants only to seem so, not truly to be learned? Once the sole aim toward which all people, of all mental capacities, endeavored, it’s become an attainment, as of late, of which we’d all rather fall complacently short.
Mediocrity, in the concern of the intellectual pursuit, has a greatly increased currency today.
Latin, thus, is left forlorn—as so many other essential subjects are. But our focus here is on that progenitor to the Italian, the French, the Provencal, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the oft-forgotten Romanian languages. Instruction in Latin, in this ancient language from which—alongside its Greek parent and predecessor—all these European languages and their various colloquial dialects have sprung is almost entirely absent from all general curricula to which we commit our studies. We are, it seems, a vulgar people basking in the contentment of a vulgar tongue.
And so, evasive of my seeking grasp and the deficiencies of my thought, Latin remains absent from me. And I remain a man in whose mouth vulgarity is little kept in check. I’d very much like to become a master of that ancient Roman tongue—that forceful and virile and direct manner of speech in whose stolid presence our own circumlocutions look so aimless and weak. I want to be a proud polyglot of yesterday’s and today’s linguas franca, a pedantic student of every term, a man for whom no modern etymology might prove too obscure in the arcane illuminations of his mind. I’d like to be able to mold and manipulate words, to feel and contort phrases, to discharge at my wit a language that spans hundreds of centuries and thousands of thoughts.
Yet I must humble myself and affix to my learning a far narrower allotment of time. Daily is my struggle not only to refine the waning eloquence of my own native tongue (a daunting task in and of itself), but to acquire—by compulsion of environment and social and occupational need—that verbal inheritance from those once grand kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. Spanish, rather than Latin, is, admittedly, the more exigent linguistic demand on my studies. It’s the daily practice toward which my oral efforts turn. Bilingualism, with all of its ambidextrous and mellifluous glee, all of its continental American application for what will be endless, multi-ethnic years to come, is the end toward which all my idle thoughts and structured studies are directed. I’m committed, as annually I am, to the acquisition of more than one tongue—Spanish being my sole hope and alternative to English.
Unfortunately, in the midst of this often-abortive pursuit (my Spanish-speaking goals are either too lofty, or, more probably, my own exertions too lazy for their realization), little time for the learning of Latin has allowed itself to seep in. Without Latin, Spanish is only a partial saturation; the former is the baptismal and life-giving water without which the body dies. Yet that Roman language, remarkably undismayed by the coldness of my neglect in preference to its Iberian offshoot, hasn’t abandoned me as I’ve turned away from it. With noble defiance and triumphant conceit, it abides.
Latin permeates, indeed perpetuates and strengthens, our speech—whether we know it or not and whether we’re English-speaking or not. For most everyone west of the Caspian Sea, the language is the preamble of our common culture, the peroration of our divergent life. It is a thread by which we’re all tied, a bond by which we’re all connected, and a home to which we can all, from time to time, return. We ought to take a moment to acknowledge the robust, resilient, and yes—eloquent fibers of this cord and the flames of this hearth in which we find collective and continuous pleasure and warmth.
Some Latinisms are more common than others. Among these, we glance unthinkingly across such familiar words as data, bonus, ego, ergo, digit, per se, and per capita. To our modern ears, largely dumb to the echoes of our etymological past, words like these feel purely and originally English. However fond we might be of professing ownership over that which we find and of which we make good use, these words must be considered, to abuse an idiom, as American as is apple pie. In a way, they most certainly are, if those who put these words to their best and most conversant use are to be called their truest possessors. In that case, these words must be ours, and no one else’s.
English is, for all its tendency toward universal observance and its peremptory demand for international use, a fundamentally welcoming language. Its hegemony, its dominance, conceal from view the unique heterogeneity on which it’s based, by which it’s always made new. It may be hegemonic in appearance, but it’s actually quite demotic in use. At times, it’s even indiscriminate in the way it constructs itself and adapts with the time. At its best, it’s as acquisitive as it is inventive—taking from all other cultures in equal proportion to that which it makes up on its own. It recognizes its own gaps, refuses to accept these inadequacies, scans the globe for their fulfillments, and accrues with hunger a patchwork of foreign predicates, nouns, feelings, and dreams. It discovers, and often appropriates, that which it lacks. It’s a smorgasbord of an international dietary diction, a various platter of a hot and living verbal stew into whose bubbling pot every finger on earth can dip and have a taste.
We can dip still deeper into the depths of the pool of Latin, that language which is, at once, the hearty stock and muscular meat of our savory linguistic meal. Never can we thank its every nutritive contribution, even if we—as voracious in our learning as we are unslakable in our thirst—proceed to drink it to its dregs.
In both scholarly and lay contexts, many Latinisms arrive to us in small packages. We number here such famous and, for being so famous, quotidian abbreviations as AD—a measurement of two millennia and nineteen years; A.M.—a measurement of twelve hours and countless caffeinated drinks; and C.V.—a measurement, though often inflated, of one’s hard-won prestige and success. Added to these are the equally recognizable e.g., i.e., et al., and etc. Later in the day of our dialogue, we speak of the P.M., as later in the dusk of our life, we think of ourselves post-mortem.
Many more, indeed countless other abbreviations soon follow these select but common few. Physicians and medical practitioners know best their PRN drugs, their Ph.D superiors, and the M.D. fellows by whom they’re surrounded. The nurses, with stoic resolve and quiet aptitude, know the constant stat orders by which they’re to be assailed. Lawyers, appending to their proud names the two letters J.D., speak of pro rata, pro bono, and habeas corpus, and often drift, as faceless specters haunting the diseased corridors of a hospital’s vulnerable wing, wherever men and women of the medical trade walk.
Emerging from that miasma of professional talk, there are numerous other Latinisms that can be deemed distinctly “lay”. Most of us have sprinkled them in our speech; some of us are cognizant of their daily presence; all of us know them by heart. Awash in the positivity of the morning, beaming with the auspicious promise of the dawn’s early light, we’ve all said to ourselves with the rise of the sun, carpe diem—Seize the day! We tinge our ambition with the sadness of a suicide as we recall the voice of Robin Williams shouting, as the mesmerizing teacher in his Dead Poets Society, these very same words. To this day, we cherish the character and mourn the actor, taking from both a haunting inducement to make of this day what we will. From his mouth to our own will, it’s the daily exhortation to conquest with which one stirs herself awake.
As that same sun sets, in triumphant review of its brief but blazing celestial course, its daily solar jaunt, a victorious veni, vidi, vici might not be mistakenly heard. The coming, perceiving, and the conquering of this earthly life is what, if we’re to adopt a truly Caesarian approach, a life well and fully-lived is really all about. And still descending, that radiant Phoebus now lost to the shade of the night, we’re reminded that we too, at an hour yet unannounced, must cease to exist. Our restive soul will leave this fragile body behind and we’ll enter, without hope of egress, the realm of the dark. In stoic cogitation of the abyss or the heaven that's to come, we utter to ourselves with rueful redundancy, memento mori—a remembrance of the inevitability of death.
Being that we are human, our mortality is in-built—an ominous consideration for which that same Caesar, who allegedly was, at least in his own thinking, quite nearly divine, had little patience. To him, the famous Terence line, homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (“I am human, and thus, nothing human is alien to me”) simply couldn’t apply. He was no mere human, and thus felt no human effect. Everything mortal, then, was alien to him. Yet, in the end, his semi-divinity—this unique aspect of his imagination around which his later mythology was to be built—failed his fragile biology, his usurped regality. Until his (forewarned) flesh encountered the sharp end of Brutus’s knife, he was god, tyrant, king, but not man merely. Vivat rex and Sic semper tyrannis held the tension of his reign, held the passions of the Roman royalists and republicans alike, but to him, there could be levied no ad hominem attack. There was, after all, no man, but only an Olympian at which to aim.
So yes, we all must die. Memento mori tells us so. But this moribund reality ought not to be an impediment to life—to the enjoyment of our dwindling days. Should you have been so lucky to have engaged within their course, within their twenty-four fickle hours in the activity of coitus—be it interruptus or of the consummative kind—you’d have a Latin legacy to thank.
Nine months hence, assuming the fertility of the womb and the vitality of the seed, you might receive for your effort the dedicatory title of optimus parentibus—an homage to “excellent parents” that every literate and grateful Latin boy or girl knows. Should you prove, in cruel time, to be a parent absentee, your stripling of a youth would require for his safeguarding a chaperone in loco parentis—someone in the your, the parent’s, place.
This excursion into Latin, I fear, has lasted far too long. My reach, it seems, has exceeded my feeble grasp. Yes, my hold on this language, feeling with the passage of these paragraphs neither firmer nor more resolute, must retreat from its original task. Latin, a possession of all, is now yours to pursue. Exhausted of both patience and knowledge, I leave without mention the dolce et decorum, the non-sequitur, the mea culpa, and the now politically notorious quid pro quo with which we’ve all become distressingly fluent. I overlook ad hoc, de jure, and de facto and so many other, useful terms with which to garnish our oratorical entrées.
A nota bene, however, with which to depart: Latin, at its worst, slips into jargon. It becomes pretentious, exclusive, and obscure. Should it descend farther still, it risks sesquipedality. Nowadays, it might be best if used only briefly and sparingly, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be learned. Learn it we must. Immanuel Kant, not a Latin but a Scottish-descended German sage, said it best: Sapere aude. Let this be your stimulus to embark upon the language's pursuit and wisdom's lofty end. Whether you capture it or not, you’ll be glad for the attempt.