To NOT Know Latin

(Found in The Relation of Latin to Practical Life by Frances Ellis Sabin, 1913)

WHAT IT MEANS NOT TO KNOW LATIN

“But to have had no Latin at all practically means that you do not know the logic or understand the categories of general grammar and those forms of language which are at the same time forms of thought; that you do not know and cannot safely learn from a lexicon the essential and root meanings of English vocables, and can therefore neither use them with a consciousness of their prime sensuous force nor guard yourself against mixed metaphor; that you are mystified by the variations of meanings in like Latin derivations in Shakespeare, the Romance languages, and modern English; that you have no historic feeling for the structure of the period which modem prose inherited from Isocrates through Cicero; that the difficulty of learning French or Italian is tripled for you, and the possibility of really understanding them forever precluded; that you have no key to the terminology of science and philosophy, to law and international law Latin, and Latin maxims, druggists’ Latin, botanists’ Latin, physicians’ Latin; that you cannot even guess the meaning of the countless technical phrases, familiar quotations, proverbs, maxims, and compendious Latin formulae that are so essential a part of the dialect of educated men that the fiercest adversaries of the classics besprinkle their pages with misprints of them; that you cannot study the early history of modem science and philosophy, or read their masterpieces in the original texts; that Rome is as remote for you as China; that Virgil, Horace, and Cicero are mere names; that French literature is a panorama without perspective, a series of unintelligible allusions; that travel in Italy loses half its charm; that you cannot decipher an inscription on the Appian way, in the Catacombs, in Westminster Abbey, on Boston Common, or on the terrace of Quebec, or verify a quotation from St. Augustine, the Vulgate, the Mass, Bacon, Descartes, Grotius’ On War and Peace, or Spinoza’s Ethics, to say nothing of consulting the older documents of English law and institutions, the sources of the civil law, on which the laws of Europe and Louisiana are based, the Monumenta Rerum Germanicarum, or Migne’s patrologia, or reading a bull of the Pope or a telegram of the German emperor; that, not to go back to Milton and the Elizabethans who are unintelligible without Latin, you cannot make out the texts from which Addison’s Spectator discourses, you do not know half the time what Johnson and Boswell are talking about; that Pope and all of the characteristic writers of the so-called Golden Age are sealed books to you ; that you are ill at ease and feel yourself an outsider in reading the correspondence of Tennyson and Fitzgerald, or that of almost any educated Englishman of the nineteenth century, and even in reading Thackeray’s novels; that half of Charles Lamb’s puns lose their point; and that when “Punch” alludes to the pathetic scene in which Colonel Newcome cried “absit omen!” for the last time, you don’t see the joke.

— Dr. Paul Shorey, University of Chicago, in The Case for the Classics, “School Review,” November, 1910.

2 thoughts on “To NOT Know Latin

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    1. It’s never too late! Linney’s Latin and then tomorrow’s book reviewed are what you need! To be continued…

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