Not for Classicists: Ann Patty’s Living with a Dead Language

living with a dead language Ann patty 41FjSV93iyL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

I am militantly outspoken.  And that’s why I seldom request review copies.

But I could not resist a review copy of a new book with the title Living With a Dead Language:  My Romance with Latin. I am a classicist and former Latin teacher.

Unfortunately, this account of a former editor’s study of Latin is riddled with errors.  (I  pray someone caught them before the publication date,  June 14.).

I felt my blood pressure go up as I read this poorly-edited book (there are more Latin errors than I used to see on my average students’ exams) and finally flung it aside.  Should I write about it or ignore it?  This is not a review but a heads-up:  you would be more likely to want to read Latin if you read Vigil’s Aeneid, a stunning epic poem, or Gilbert Highet’s beautifully-written, scholarly Poets in a Landscape, an eloquent book about the relationship of Catullus, Virgil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal to the Italian landscape.

So what is the point of this new Latin memoir?  The author, Ann Patty, an editor who discovered the best-selling writer V. C. Andrews (whom I haven’t read) and acquired the rights for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi  (which I have read), was a savvy figure in her field:  she even had her own imprint.   After she was forced to retire (she says 100 people were laid off in a single day)  the days seemed very long.  So she decided to audit Latin classes at Vassar and Bard.

It’s an interesting concept for a book:  it’s a pity it’s so poorly executed.  Well, Patty enjoyed Latin, though at first she wasn’t very good at it.  She got a 6 out of 10 on her first quiz and an 85 on her first test.  When a student offered a tip that flashcards were the key to learning a language,  the willful Patty bought index cards but devised her own system. And I gathered that is typical of Patty.

Always being a thrifty sort, I did not make them, as Camilla did, one word per card, Latin on one side, English on the to her, but rather squashed three words with translations on each card.  I left the back blank, figuring I would need it later.

Such inefficiency!  Tsk, tsk.  The point is to look at the English side of the card, say the Latin to yourself and/or write it down, then check the answer and spelling on the flip side. Later, you repeat the cards with Latin to English.

But that is nought compared to the errors in her exegesis of Latin grammar.

I’ll spare you a course in Latin, but just a few things:

Patty does not understand what is meant by the “mood” of a Latin verb.  She says there are three.  No,  there are four.

The four moods of the Latin verb (a verb is a word that describes an action or state of being) are:

1. the indicative –  states a fact.  EXAMPLE:  “She runs, she praises, she sings, she dances, etc.”

2. the subjunctive:  states a possibility.  EX.: “He may run, might run, would run, etc.”

3. the infinitive:  states the action of the verb without a subject. EX.: “To run, to praise, to sing, to dance, etc.”

4. the imperative:  a command.  EX.: “Run!” “Sing!”  “Dance!”

Patty claims there are only three Latin verb moods, but then hedges her bets with five add-ons:  she identifies  “indicative, subjunctive, imperative, plus the infinitive, participle, gerund, gerundive, and supine.” The last four are not verbs or moods of verbs:  the  participle and gerundive are verbal adjectives, and the gerund and supine are nouns.

All right, that’s enough grammar for you guys today!  But the editors needed a classicist to  proofread it.  She does say in the acknowledgements that “the Latin teacher Curtis Dozier: saved the  book from being a a mess of errors,”  but it is unclear whether he read the book, because she  also refers to him as summum magistrum (accusative case) rather than summus magister (the correct nominative case).

I don’t know whether she’s more naive or pompous.  Bits of autobiography are mixed haphazardly into the narrative.  Her observations on Roman literature are so pedestrian I was embarrassed.  I am shocked (yes, I’m a schoolmarm) that she uses SparkNotes to help her with Catullus.  And her tedious sections on etymology need editing, though I gather this is what interests her.

In short, this book needed much more work.  David Denby’s stunning Great Books, an account of his return to Columbia to study literary and philosophical masterpieces in core humanities classes, would have been a good model.

If any of you read it, please let me know what you think.  Perhaps if you don’t know Latin…?

Quo Vadis?

wheelock7_frontcoverA few years ago, I taught an adult education Latin class.  The group was eclectic.

Some had taken Latin in high school. Some wanted to take it “before they died.”   Others  were there to meet people.  One week a young woman popped in who clearly was the lonely new Latin teacher from the suburban public school.  Her tattered Wheelock (the textbook) had obviously seen much use, but she declined to participate:  “I’ve never been much good at sight-reading,” she said.  Perhaps she was self-conscious; at any rate, she never came back.  Essentially we were too ancient for her.  It must have shocked her to come into the classroom and see not her peers, but a group of people with gray hair.  (And she quit her job at the end of the year.  I was not surprised.)

Adult ed classes have a dynamic all their own. It is not college.  It is after-work school.  It is, We’re out of the house; let’s make the most of it!  This group was very friendly.  They liked to chat.  They liked digressions.  Some of them had no idea of English grammar at all. My plan to cover two chapters a week of Wheelock proved untenable.

I soon realized what was going through my students’ heads was rarely going through mine.

Some were very religious and remembered the Latin Mass.  When a student asked what “Quo vadis?” meant, I gamely translated it, “Where are you going?” and knew it was a title of a historical novel and a movie.  I did not, however, realize there was a scene where the disciple Peter asks Jesus the”Quo vadis?” question.   Fortunately the ensuing critique of Peter Ustinov’s and Deborah Kerr’s acting did not take a theological turn.

Then there were the amateur military historians.   “Ah, yes, good old Vercingetorix,” I would say absent-mindedly as they chatted about the Helvetii.  Though bored by maps of battles, I was perfectly happy to translate Caesar for them after class.

I’m a nice woman who likes Latin poetry.  If you’re going to read Latin in translation, I assure you that Virgil, Catullus, and Ovid are more fun to read than Caesar.

One can’t read much poetry when a Latin class meets for only two hours once a week, though. One has to teach the language.   “I can’t get my head around the ablative,” they would say.  “Oh, yes, you can,” I would say right back at them.  We covered some basic grammar and vocabulary, and  translated  passages from Virgil with the help of reams of worksheets I spent hours making.

Some of us went on together for a couple of years.  The sad thing about teaching older people is that you lose them.  Two got very sick.  One had a heart attack in the classroom.  (The EMS squad was great and rescued him.)  Another died.

Sometimes I think I should offer the class again, because Latin programs have folded like dominoes in the U.S.  State universities still offer classics, and a good thing, too, because without us hoi polloi state university classics graduates, who would teach the students at eastern private schools that blessedly still offer Latin (and Greek)?  The oligarchy would not thrive.

Teaching Ovid in the Big Glasses era. (Yes, I allowed them to put their feet up...but only if they did their homework!)

At an Ovid gig in the Big Glasses era.

Many years ago my friends and I got our M.A.’s in classics and almost died of boredom teaching conjugations, declensions, and, yes, even Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil in private schools.  It wasn’t the students:  it was a question of over-work and endless repetition.

I know lot of silly mnemonics from teaching:

bo bi bi, bi bi bu, future sign in 1 and 2

I was big on chanting conjugation endings.

-o, -s, -t,
-mus, -tis, -nt

Chant, repeat, learn.

Most of us lasted a couple of years.  I taught for five, not counting various part-time and substitution gigs.  The money was terrible at private schools, we had four preparations, and taught five 50-minute classes five days a week.  At the public schools, one was required to know very little Latin–only three college Latin classes were required in one state–but many education classes were required. No one who actually knew Latin seemed qualified to teach in public schools.  You could have a Ph.D. in classics, but you could not get the good-paying public school job.  (No wonder the Latin programs in public schools have folded.)

According to the The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, approximately one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years.  Of course these statistics apply to the public schools, but the turnover is also very high at independent schools.  Certainly these stats sound right as far as the small group I know.  Only one old friend is still teaching Latin.

So many talented teachers simply can’t hack it.

Occasionally one reads about a Latin renaissance in the U.S., but it usually amounts to very little.  A school here or there adds a program.  Yet Latin is essential. It is the template for our literature.   One studies Latin to read the poets.  Or to learn about oneself, because that kind of discipline takes you into a zen state that almost makes you feel as though you’re in ancient Rome.  (Oh, and, by the way, more than 60% of English words come from Latin.)

If one is to judge from the TLS, there is a classics renaissance in England.  Mary Beard, classicist, Cambridge professor, and author of a new book, Confronting the Classics:  Traditions, Adventures and Innovations, writes a blog for the TLS, A Don’s Life.  She frequently mentions various Latin programs in the UK:  recently she and Peter Stothard, author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra (whom I interviewed here), gave a presentation on “How to Read a Latin Poem” at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

Can you imagine such a presentation being given at, say, the Iowa City Book Festival?  Or The New Yorker Book Festival, for that matter?

I cannot.

And that is probably why the very nice and doubtless psychic classics professor said all those years ago, “The future is going to need the Ms. Mirabiles.”

Colin Farrell’s Latin

I planned to do some research in the Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Library.

The library was eerie, the first floor under construction with plastic sheets for walls and wires popping out everywhere.

The Special Collections rooms on the third floor were closed.  It hadn’t occurred to me that they would be closed on Saturday.

It was raining so hard that I didn’t feel up to leaving the library right away.

I lounged around on the fourth floor with some classical journals.  I read a few articles and reviews.  And then I came across an article that all of you will want to read, because it is very, very funny: Monica S. Cyrino’s “I Was Colin Farrell’s Latin Teacher” (Classical Journal, Feb./March 2012, Vol. 107/No. 3).

Monica S. Cyrino, a classics professor at the University of New Mexico with an interest in film, received an e-mail from a producer asking her to write a few lines of Latin dialogue for Colin Farrell.  He was playing a vampire in  a remake of the movie, Fright Night. (The film was being shot in New Mexico because of the state’s tax breaks.)

Colin Farrell in Fright NIght

Colin Farrell in Fright Night (2011)

Farrell, who is a bibliophile (one of Cyrino’s students spotted him buying poetry books at a Barnes and Noble), thought his seduction lines would be sexier in Latin.  As he dropped onto a dance floor and whisked away a teenage girl, he was supposed to say:  “You just need a taste.  You’ll see.  It can be like a dream.”

Cyrino translates the Latin with a graduate students, and is invited onto the set to meet Farrell, but there is a lot of hanging around, and since Farrell, his stand-in, and his stunt double all wear black jeans and a black shirt, it is difficult to tell one from another.

She has just reached into a cooler to get a bottle of Evian when Joy Ellison, his vocal coach, brings Farrell over to meet her.  “Nice to meet you, love!”

My hand was still stuck in the cooler.  I yanked it out and held it in front of me, dripping wet and frozen, and for a minute I was in a state of acute aporia.  Should I wipe my soaking hand on the $300 cashmere top that I had so insouciantly donned for the day?  Or should I give my cold, wet hand to Alexander the Great?

Colin Farrell, Alexander

Colin Farrell, Alexander

Colin laughingly shakes her hand.

“You’re on set all day, right, love?  Will you be here later so we can talk about the Latin scene?”

Later they go over the sexy Latin together, and he asks her if they can reverse the last two words, so the line ends with the word somnia (dreams):  Solum necesse est sapias.  Percipies.  Par ac somnia.

“It doesn’t change the meaning, now does it, love?”

And she immediately thinks he knows Latin, because how else would he know that?

“Nah, love…They stopped Latin and corporal punishment the year before I came up…and ya see how I turned out?”

All right, now here’s what I’m thinking.  He’s teasing her!  Because, honestly, if he doesn’t know any Latin, why would he want Latin in a vampire movie? How would he know about the Latin word order?

Doesn’t this sound like a dream?

(The Latin lines were cut from the film.)