Latin is a language

As dead as dead could be;

First it killed the Romans

Now it’s killing me.

Schoolchildren have for years enjoyed chanting these words. (Mind you, there are still many schools, including at least one of Winchester’s state schools, where Latin is popular and flourishing on the curriculum.)

Be that as it may, try out the schoolchild’s jingle on either of my two Latin groups and you’ll get short shrift. The members are very much alive and kicking and for them, and for me, the language is alive too.

One group has been with me for nearly a decade and is now working at a level that I would equate with A level. It is some years since we left behind the course book, with its arcane rules: ablative absolute, indirect statements, deponent verbs, the gerund and gerundive … so on ad infinitum. Now we are reading and translating Cicero’s brilliant speeches and letters, Livy’s description of Hannibal crossing the Alps to invade Rome, Caesar’s own account of his successes – and one or two failures – in Gaul; the frantic love poetry of Catullus, the gentle but perceptive lyric verse of Ovid and, of course, the grandeur of Virgil’s mighty epic, The Aeneid. How could anyone call this ‘dead language’?

The second group is at the other end of the learning curve. They are having to come to terms with the six ‘cases’ of nouns, including the vocative,used for the person or thing addressed. (Was it Churchill who asked ‘Why would anyone want to address a table?’) And then there are the four ‘conjugations’ of verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, et cetera. This initial stage is a struggle but the rewards are going to make it worth the effort. And fortunately our course book keeps us reminded/informed about the political and social events of the time as well as Rome’s myths and legends.

Like many U3A groups, I know, we’re having to use Zoom to communicate. Far from ideal, but, as we keep telling ourselves, better than nothing. As I write this, news is arriving of a possible break through with vaccine production........ Nil desperandum!


Alun Parry-Jones