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Viget Lingua Latina Apud UB

Latin is thriving at UB

Published: March 11, 2004

Reporter Assistant Editor

Latin is no longer the "exquisite corpse," or cadavre exquis, of a decade or so ago. Just ask the informal UB Latin group GREX, devoted to learning and speaking the ancient language.

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» Hear Neil Coffee, assistant professor of classics, read a passage from the "Aeneid."

In fact, if you pause long enough in the Ellicott Food Court on a Friday afternoon, you'll quickly agree—after listening to a couple of members of GREX (Latin for group) recite passages of Virgil's "Aeneid" by memory—that you'll wish you knew even a little Latin. Reading the epic in translation in no way compares to hearing it read in Latin—whether or not one actually knows the language, it's simply that beautiful. The language of the Caesars and the raw, radical, love poet Catullus vibrates and crackles with life in the mouths of these passionate Latinists.


Classics professor Neil Coffee (left) and GREX members (from left) Nisha De Souza, Shane Meyer and Bradley Maleh meet on Friday afternoons in the Ellicott Complex Food Court to learn about and speak Latin. Coffee says Latin is experiencing a renaissance in many public high schools and is an integral part of higher education.

Latin is lyrical—nearly every syllable is enunciated—and powerful—consonants aren't given short shrift as in French, in which many are softened or ignored altogether. And according to one member of GREX, ancient Romans paid more attention to the sounds of words and their alliterative possibilities than we native English speakers do.

"Roman writers were more attuned to the sounds of words than we are. They would carefully arrange words to create certain sounds—alliteration is a big component of the language—and they had theories about the harsh sounds of certain letters like 't' and 'q' so if they wanted to communicate a bitter sentiment, they would use a lot of words with 'ts and 'qs'" says Bradley Maleh, a classics major.

They also employed onomatopoeia to convey the sound and rhythm of a trumpet blast—at tuba terribili sonitu taratantara dixit ("and then the bugle with a fearful cry blew 'taratantara,'" from Ennius' "Annals"), or the fury and speed of thundering hooves of a horse running across a field—quadripedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum ("their hooves shook the damp plain with a four-footed roar," from Virgil's "Aeneid"), notes Maleh and Neil Coffee, assistant professor of classics and the group's leader.

One recent afternoon, three enthusiastic students and Coffee were playing a "guess who" game in which the students were given cards with the name and brief biography of a famous Roman. By asking and answering questions in Latin, the students reveal the identification of the secret person. The energy of the group on this bitter February day is playful and warm, the undulating tones of Latin welcoming.

Coffee, who began speaking Latin as a graduate student at the University of Chicago and led a similar group there for four years, gently and humorously guides the students, all of whom speak Latin with some ease, through the exercises. The group meets often throughout the semester to read and discuss short passages and dialogues, many with contemporary situations—much like those in modern language exercises—that include topics on making introductions, travel and domestic concerns.

GREX consists of a mixture of graduate and undergraduate students, most of whom are currently studying Latin. The primary reasons for speaking Latin, note Coffee and the students, are pleasure in the language, intellectual curiosity and the chance to better understand another fascinating culture.

"Speaking Latin gives one a greater appreciation of the sound and the structure of the language, and also helps to fix vocabulary and grammatical structures in one's memory. Latin study itself, whether pursued through speaking and listening or just through reading and writing, provides an entry for the student into the wealth of western cultural traditions in which Latin authors participated. These traditions, which see continuous change and development from the ancient world to the present, include the practices of poetry, drama, oratory, philosophy, medicine, law and theology," explains Coffee.

In very practical terms, he adds, the study of Latin also can improve a student's use of English. Clearly, learning Latin can expand a student's vocabulary, but it also can provide alternative models for how to express one's thoughts in language, he notes.

Latin seems to suffer more in translation, Maleh notes, than Greek or some other modern languages, so learning it necessarily makes the culture that much more vivid. Maleh, who has been listening to the "Aeneid" in Latin on the Internet, says he would meet with the group every day if he could.

"It's a treat, but it's social too—I think it deepens my understanding of the language," he adds.

Everyone agrees that while English grammar does differ from Latin, much of it is the same, although learning Latin perhaps requires a higher level of discipline and precision that, over time, develops speakers who are as articulate in Latin as they are their native language.

"Teachers of classical languages, as no doubt of other languages, commonly find themselves introducing students to English grammar at the same time that they are presenting the grammar of Greek or Latin. Classical language instructors may, in a sense, have an easier time here because students expect them to focus on grammar so that they can spend more time explaining similarities and differences between the classical language and English," says Coffee.

Nisha De Souza's zeal for learning Latin is palpable. Both Maleh and De Souza, a junior studying Mediterranean architecture, studied Latin in high school. De Souza believes that today one learns the language essentially in a vacuum, primarily through reading and writing. Because there are so few opportunities to speak the language, she relishes her time with the group and getting to know other classics majors.

Latin is "really unusual, unique and interesting," says De Souza. "You realize how unstructured English is after studying Latin and Greek, but it also really improves your grasp of the English language, too. With learning a language, you really need to know the components of your own language before you can start learning another language, so in that way I think it really improves your language ability and your reading and writing ability," she explains.

Latin is experiencing a renaissance in many public high schools in the country and Coffee believes it is an integral part of higher education. "It gives direct access to a number of cultural areas central to understanding the history of western traditions and to the answers these previous generations formed to many questions our culture still faces.

"What continues to surprise me in my studies and research is something mentioned by Shane (Meyer, a GREX member), namely the extent to which many ideas and perspectives, which we consider products of modern thinking, have important antecedents in the classical world—antecedents which are sometimes more elaborate or nuanced than our own," says Coffee.

"A current example of this would be the question of just war. In the wake of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, there was much discussion of the criteria for going to war. One part of this inquiry involves reconsideration of the tradition of what constitutes a just war, the theory for which was first fully formulated by Christian thinkers writing in Latin, but has its origins in Cicero's treatise on the ideal republic and the tradition of Greek political philosophy before him. In searching for a way to describe the decision made by the U.S., contemporary academics and theorists turned to the very concepts that Cicero and Greek philosophers before him had set out," Coffee says.

And take the notion of "spin," which many Americans tend to think of as a recent invention, says Coffee, even if the average politician hasn't changed too much over time. "The Greeks and Romans had refined the art of rhetoric, for good and ill, to an extremely high level, and had an extensive critical vocabulary for oratory which, though now the preserve of scholars, was in those days at least somewhat familiar to all those with some education."

Shane Meyer, a senior majoring in classics, was surprised by the personal and radical nature of Catullus' poetry, which he believes makes many of his favorite modern poets, like Frank O'Hara, seem less revolutionary. "You also see them (contemporary poets) having the same arguments over what poetry should be as the ancients," says Meyer.

Studying and speaking Latin releases a certain kind of creative pressure, assert Coffee and Meyer.

"It's good to read to learn from these great authors, but it's also good to play around with the language and make it your own," Coffee says. "Latin's inherent architecture gives you the sense that you're really building something elegant when you speak it, and reminds you of how much fun you can have with a language, ancient or modern."