Musings on learning Latin

Joannes Sulpitius Verulanus, De arte grammatica, sive, De octo partibus orationis, Venice: Joannes Tacuinus, c. 1495. Newberry Inc. 5438.4.

Francesco Venturini, Rudimenta grammatices, Florence, 1482. Newberry Inc. 6141.

Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica. Basel: Michael Furter, 1517. Newberry Wing ZP 538 .F985.

Sitting on the commuter train on the way to work one day, I overheard two women chatting in the seat behind me. “Her son is taking Latin in college! I mean, I could sort of see it if it were Spanish, or something useful. But why waste your time with a dead language?” Her companion clucked in agreement.

I forbore turning around and leaning over the seat to mount a defense of Latin. But the exchange got me thinking. For me studying Latin, starting later in life than is perhaps usual, has proved the gateway to my study of medieval history, of medieval manuscripts and codicology, of paleography, and indeed to my current career. As a major component of my position as interim director of the Center for Renaissance Studies, I design and administer programs in medieval, Renaissance, and early modern studies, programs intended to engage a variety of audiences: scholars, students, and the interested general public. Directly or indirectly, Latinity permeates these programs, through Latin sources or through questions of reception, transmission, revival, or reinterpretation of texts.

But beyond providing a necessary skill, only when I studied Latin did I truly begin to perceive the very bones of language, how language functions. Previously I had studied Spanish (useful!) and French, and as a writer had scrutinized my native English as well. But assimilating the precision, complexity, and rigor of Latin has made both my thinking and writing clearer and even, in my best moments, more graceful.

Thinking about learning Latin has moved me to post a few images from early printed Latin grammars in the Newberry collection. They demonstrate the reinvigorated importance of Latin language and literature during the Renaissance. Click on the images to see a pop-up enlargement.

Posted by Karen Christianson.