“Did the Romans really speak like this?”
By David Daintree*
Now let’s consider Latin as a spoken language. I must begin, though, with a sort of disclaimer. I was brought up (like most of my readers, I imagine) in the Anglo-Celtic educational tradition that has not generally used Latin as a means of spoken communication for nearly two centuries. Other speech communities – the Vatican, of course, and some of the smaller European states – have done better than we in maintaining spoken Latin, but we have let it slide. For us Latin has been a written language only. We have lost the continuity of the oral tradition.
When I used to teach Latin in school years ago, I was often asked by appalled students, ‘Sir, did the Romans really speak like this?’ I sympathized with their scepticism. Then over thirty years ago I saw Don Dunstan splendidly declaim one of Cicero’s invectives against Catiline, demonstrating vividly that the power of any highly-developed literary language can only be made truly manifest in speech. Later again, in 1998, I attended a conference in Italy at which everything, even the conversation in the coffee breaks, was in Latin. Finally, for me, theory had been confirmed by practice: spoken Latin, I now saw for myself, is both expressive and logical. It makes dramatic sense to begin a sentence with an accusative if we need to emphasize the object of the verb. Even in English this can still be done with our few remaining accusative forms, though it sounds a bit old-fashioned now: Whom do you seek? Him I prefer. Arms and the Man I sing!
Far down the track
No one human language is more difficult to learn than any other. You may want to argue that point, but think about it: a four-year old Finnish boy communicates just as easily with his Mum as a four-year old in any other speech community. But the Finnish boy and the Anglophone boy follow very different and divergent paths as they grow and learn, ending up poles apart. The Fin learns to wield a range of agglutinative endings and declensions, while the English-speaker masters an apparently simpler system in which the words scarcely change at all, but word order does almost all the work in conveying the meaning. So from their final adult destinations, each man’s language looks fiendishly difficult to the other. And this is why Latin is so hard for us, because we have wandered so far down a different linguistic track. There is no easy cross-country route.
The Renaissance and the soi-disant enlightened centuries that followed, especially perhaps the nineteenth, did Latin studies a great disservice by transferring the emphasis in language training from elocutio to eruditio, from speech and communication to painstaking analysis of text. Even as late as Dr Johnson’s time, Latin was an acceptable lingua franca, a sort of ‘scholars’ vernacular’, a means of practical communication between the literati of different nations. The nineteenth century’s prissy insistence on classical correctness and its refusal to see merit in the ‘decadent’ Latin of later ages, brought the Great Tradition to the brink of collapse. From then on when Latin was spoken aloud it was read in the local accent, without the slightest care to recover the music of the original.
Language is really nothing about writing, and everything about sound.
Until the late nineteenth century, that is, when scholars tried to recover the authentic sounds of spoken Latin by trawling through the copious evidence from contemporary sources: the internal evidence of the words themselves, and the written descriptions of the sounds of speech from scholars from Cicero to St Augustine. So the ‘reformed pronunciation’ emerged from the mists of time, to the scornful amusement of stick-in-the-mud academics who thought that Latin should be spoken just like the vernacular. We still enjoy our jokes about “weeny weedy weeky”, and “Yoolius Kye-sar”, don’t we?
To conclude, the existing situation is very complex. Generally scholars around the world read classical Latin in the reformed pronunciation, and many make a fair fist, I believe, of recovering the actual sounds of the language. But the Italians (and with them the Church, and its members world-wide) have chosen to believe that those sound changes that accompanied the metamorphosis from Latin to Italian occurred early enough to justify reading even classical Latin in accordance with Italian pronunciation rules. I do not believe that, but accept it with patience: at least it sounds good. Thirdly, there are those who insist on pronouncing Latin like their own vernacular, with some extraordinarily implausible (and ugly) consequences. All this augurs ill for the long-term viability of Latin as a spoken tongue.
I end with just one observation. Language is really nothing about writing, and everything about sound. Writing is merely a form of notation, and most writing systems are very imperfect. A literature that is merely read and never spoken is like a zoo full of stuffed animals, pleasant to contemplate, perhaps, but quite lifeless. Whatever accent you care to use, remember that your poem was written by a poet, and that it was meant to thrill you by its sound.