Latinistae Will Gather in Buffalo to Speak in Tongue

Release Date: June 12, 2008

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Latin speakers have few opportunities to get together with their peers for a good yak. That's because, dead or alive, Latin is taught to be read, not spoken.

But plenty of garrire et blaterare (babble and chat) will take place the weekend of June 27-29 at the Conventiculum Buffaloniense: The Buffalo Spoken Latin Workshop, sponsored by the University at Buffalo Department of Classics.

The workshop is aimed at Latin instructors and will focus on the teaching of spoken Latin but is open to anyone who wants to sit around and chew the pinguis.

The event will open at a dinner on June 27 at Byblos restaurant on 270 Campbell Road in Getzville and continue on the next two days in 120 Clemens Hall on the UB North (Amherst) Campus. Registration is $75 and includes meals, a reception and workshop materials.

The program schedule is online at http://www.classics.buffalo.edu/events/buffaloniense. Questions can be addressed to the UB Department of Classics at (716) 645-2154 or to the conventiculum organizer Neil Coffee, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics, at ncoffee@buffalo.edu.

Coffee says the classics department hopes to make it an annual event, one that will "fill a niche in the ecology of summer Latin language sessions."

In addition to Coffee, workshop moderators will be Scott Ettinger, a teacher at the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, N.Y., and winner of the 2003 American Philological Association Award for Excellence in the Pre-collegiate Teaching, and Matthew McGowan, assistant professor of classics at Fordham University.

Although such events have been held elsewhere, including the University of Kentucky and at Wanatchee Valley College in Washington State, Coffee says that, as far as he knows, this is the first time such an event has been held in Western New York, and the first time in modern memory one has been held in New York State.

"It's actually going to be a lot of fun," he says, "and participants will benefit from this just as French or German speakers benefit from speaking those languages together.

"Conversing in any language brings it to life, increases fluency and facilitates the reading of texts by increasing spontaneity with the language," he says, "and programs like this tend to have a particular flavor all their own."

The University of Massachusetts, Boston, holds a conventiculum every year. Two years ago it was a "Latin boot camp" on Nantucket where Latin speakers "built sand replicas of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine to scale," wrote the Boston Globe. They also played games like "20 Questions" and made up stories in Latin, activities teachers could employ in teaching the spoken language.

"Our conference is intended to be more accessible because it's shorter and has a definite program. We will introduce participants to spoken Latin and allow them to begin practice it, so, in that sense, it may be of interest to many people," he says.

"But we also will offer a forum for learning and discussing spoken Latin pedagogy. The workshop represents an ideal starting point for those who intend to participate in other active Latin seminars and informal discussion groups."

Although Latin is unlikely to spring into use again as the language of scholarship, religion and statesmanship, Coffee says there is a resurgence in interest Latin in the globalized world because it can serve as a neutral language without the cultural assumptions that come with other languages.

"It was the old language of diplomacy," he says, "and right into the early 20th century, diplomatic documents were compiled in Latin. In fact, some countries like Hungary produced its official documents in Latin until quite recently. The Finns also have a strong Latin tradition. One Finnish radio station presents the news in Latin every day and, of course, Finland is the source of the famous Elvis CDs in Latin."

But the resurgence of interest of which Coffee speaks has nothing to do with Elvis belting out "Nunc Hic Aut Numquam" and everything to do with the idea of a universal humanism that harkens back to the philosophical debates of the ancients.

"The very structure of Latin facilitates discussion of the abstract questions of human existence that animated the philosophical concerns of antiquity and the Renaissance," he says. "It has the vocabulary and conceptual framework used by thinkers like Cicero, Tacitus, Sallus, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Augustine and Boethius (who saw the end of the Roman Empire). They all had to work these issues out in Latin, and of course, every serious philosopher, scholar and scientist through the 18th century was writing up their research and thinking in Latin, so Latin literature offers a world of original humanistic thinking.

"Understanding the language provides access to the texts in a way far superior to that offered by translation."

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