Did you take Latin in high school? I did.
Latin I was a great solace.There was comfort in the clear structure of the sentences and the rules for regular verbs. The passages chosen for us would-be scholars to translate were straight forward and factual. I reveled in memorizing vocabulary words. I wrote and rewrote conjugations until I had them down pat. It was easy to be right.
These beginning forays into Latin were a stark contrast with the sad silence permeating my family life. Words not spoken — even in the mother tongue — can never be understood.
By the time I started my second year of high school Latin, the atmosphere at home had pretty much engulfed me. I didn’t keep up with my assignments and my attempts at translation shared an opaque quality with the conversations in our kitchen. Only my stellar Latin II project –a family tree of Roman gods — saved my grade. I passed.
A year or so later I headed off to college where I discover that a liberal arts degree required language credits. I ambitiously signed up for Russian, seduced by the sinuous curves of the Cyrillic alphabet. I immersed myself in mastering the handwriting. Since I was also taking a lettering course in the art department, I had calligraphy pens, ink, and tracing paper on hand and I traced that exotic script over and over. Too bad I didn’t dedicate even half as much time to mastering the vocabulary assignments. I limped through the oral exam and quit after one quarter, convinced I was incapable of pronouncing foreign words.*
I wasn’t confident of English pronunciations either. Like the little girl reading out loud in my second grade class who said is-land for island, my pronunciation was often a product of my reading. We adults know that you can’t depend on a written English for reliable clues to the spoken English word.
But what to do about that language requirement now that I’d dropped Russian?
One beautiful spring day, I joined a group sitting on the grass under the budding trees on the college green. A handsome young man was bragging that he knew an easy way to complete the language requirement. You could take classical Greek and never face an oral exam. The pre-req was two years of high school Latin.
So I signed up. (The handsome young man did not.)
Classical Greek had the clarity of sentence structure I found in beginning Latin, but our assigned texts had more substance and nuance than I’d ever seen in my high school text book. Some Greek words carried meanings that no single English word embodied. A translation might be accurate and still be a bad translation. After a few hours studying Greek, my dreams tumbled with verb declensions and vocabulary lists.
I felt a flush of triumph when Greek phrases appeared in English literature. (English writers of previous centuries did that once.) I understood those squiggles! I might need my English-Greek dictionary, but I could puzzle it out! My personal relationships were still indecipherable but these Giants of Literature couldn’t hide anything from me!
And now? Latin and Greek are both pretty much Greek to me. I fantasize about giving classical Greek or Latin another try. There are classes on line and lots of colleges close by. (There are probably classes in understanding family members and other humans, too, but life has taught me enough to comprehend most situations and when to let the others go.)
But there’s only so many hours in the day and I’ve already taken up the study of a second language. On a piano. I’ve been at it a few years and I’m slow. Piano music is no longer a mystery to me and — with practice — I can play simple music, with occasional stumbles. Currently I’m attempting to play a little trill as a graceful ornament instead of an audible cringe.
I may never be fluent, but I have hopes.
*I read somewhere that “recent studies” say it helps to be a little bit drunk while learning a new language. (But I’m not good at drinking either — no tolerance — so I guess that won’t work for me. Let me know if it works for you.)