Carpe Diem!

Posted on December 19th, 2007 by

Harry Mount, whose op-ed on learning Latin was featured in the New York Times here and was itself translated into Latin here, returns to virtual pages of the news.

From Slate:

Last year, a surprise best seller hit the British book market: a romp through Latin grammar, by a London journalist called Harry Mount. In Britain, the book was called Amo, Amas, Amat … and All That, after the first verb (to love) encountered in elementary Latin class. But in the American edition, the title has become Carpe Diem. The phrase was coined by Horace in Odes 1. 11, a poem that recommends instant kicks (bad strained wine, quickie sex), since time is fleeting and the future unknowable. In American culture, however, the phrase has taken on a life of its own; in Robin Williams’ famous speech from Dead Poets Society, seizing the day has something to do with self-fulfilment and the realization of the American dream.

The change of title tells us a lot about the different cultural positions of Latin in British and American society. Most educated British people can, it seems, be expected to know a smattering of “school-boy” Latin. The term is revealing, since under the British educational system, those who know Latin usually learned the language at an expensive school (often all-male). State schools in Britain rarely offer Latin. Unsurprisingly, then, knowing Latin in Britain is closely associated with being posh—a situation Mount’s book sets out to remedy, or at least modify. The time has come, it seems, to liberate the study of Latin from issues of social class.

In America, the cultural place of Latin is very different. It’s true that in the United States, as in Britain, some expensive high schools teach Latin. But so do Catholic high schools, which may be inexpensive or free. Moreover, a surprising number of American undergraduates begin the language from scratch in college, of their own free will. In this context, knowing Latin is not a marker of membership in a cultural elite, or no more so than any kind of college education. Some of those who voluntarily struggle through the conjugations and declensions of a long-dead language may be hoping for an easy way to fulfill a language requirement; after all, in Latin class, you generally don’t have to worry about perfecting your accent, and you don’t have to put in time at the language lab. But many choose to learn Latin because they are genuinely interested in learning how the Romans imagined the world. To describe American Latin students, we need to substitute the much more attractive category of “geeks” for Amis’ “wankers.”

There are good reasons for Americans to be interested in the ancient world. Over the last few years, there has been a deluge of American movies, television series, and novels based on antiquity: 300, Alexander, Troy, and Rome on HBO. It’s easy to see why these simplified versions of ancient history and classical mythology strike a chord in contemporary America. For obvious reasons, we are interested in stories about the growth and collapse of a great and greedy empire, or about a clash between Western and Eastern civilizations. We are fascinated by tales of war, especially those that present it as glorious, tragic, and a long time ago. Ancient history is always popular when people feel close to an apocalypse: It allows us to face, obliquely, the knowledge that our own culture too will end.

But culture is never independent of language. If you want to understand ancient Greece and Rome in more depth than you can get from 300, you need, ideally, to learn Latin and Greek. Although these languages are hard to learn well, it’s fairly easy to get a smattering of Latin, especially if you already know Spanish or Italian. And to know even a little bit of Latin helps you understand how European vernacular languages emerged from the language of the Romans—and hence, how the societies of modern Europe and America emerged from antiquity.


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