I have been teaching Latin as a trade now for 10 years and I have always had an eye on how I could best improve my practice. In fact, I have always been troubled by the fact that most do not speak the language and treat speaking it like some sort of enormous accomplishment. That should be the underlining goal of any study of a language, let alone Latin.
The reason why I am such a proponent for its active training, rather than a reliance on its passive observation, is that it would actually make using Latin so much easier. If students had a working understanding of the vocabulary then its grammar would be more accessible. If we have a solid grounding of both of those elements, then reading, writing, and speaking with the language becomes more available. We could even possibly get to a point where there would be a resurrection of Latin artistic development, perhaps even new works of literature that go beyond just a simple treatment of the language or translation of titles for the enjoyment of a few.
It is estimated that there are some 4,000 or so fluent Latin speakers on the planet at the moment – a staggering fact considering that there has never been a moment in human history for the past 2,500 years or so when Latin was not being spoken.
Yet, getting back to using the language and growing it does not have to be such a large hurdle. Yes, Latin is a complex language but it is a language that has been used (and continues to be used) by people from all walks of life. Today, it is relegated to a restricted context, but the language remains flexible enough to expand – take a look at “living” Latin and Neo-Latin.
In fact, I think that Latin poetry could be a way for us to climb back in and make the beauty of the language just as relevant as ever. Forgive me for being a recent convert, but I am starting to see the light.
My avoidance of Latin poetry with my students was mostly due to my own shortcomings. As a result of my teaching and growing my practice, I now think that this is a severe oversight. And there are allies to this cause.
I have found a couple of websites that could assist in pushing for this change. Dickinson College has a blog, Latin Poetry Podcast, curated by professor Christopher Francese who does a fantastic job of examining various short Latin poetic passages. The site is still up, but does not have any new entries appearing since July 2015. His podcasts are available for download, and he models proper pronunciation of the language, which could serve as models even for teachers who are a little rusty in their scansion (like myself).
Looking over Francese’s blog, I came across Lance Piantaggini, also known as MagisterP, who has put together a rather ambitious notion of “rhythmic fluency”. In looking over his writings, I have ascertained that he, like myself, is frustrated with the artifice of scansion as it pertains to Latin poetry. I liken it to an autopsy, whereby we come to examine the body and talk about its shape and nothing more. Because we (royal we!) don’t typically teach Latin as a language to be actively used, then we must rely on instrumentation in order to reconstruct not only how it sounded (thus scansion) but also what it may mean (translation i.e. interpretation).
The problem is that Latin poetry had its own rhythm and pulse which was immediately grasped and understood by its audience. Much as today with regard to hip hop or other forms of lyrical artistry, there are rules that are followed and broken. As a musician, I have always felt that it is the rhythm that gives us a foundation from which we could work form. Learning to play guitar, I was always struck how guitarists found the right notes in their leads. It turns out, there is a template that you can follow, at least for playing and improvising. Yes, there is a key that you play music in and all of the notes correspond to that signature, but when to play what note and how is a part of this training. If you know the landscape of the guitar, then playing a lead part in any song becomes a matter of positioning. You then just allow yourself to find expression through the notes and these are as unique as a finger print – listen to Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or B.B. King. Sure, you can study the way they played and mimic it through practice, but can you produce new works that would be attributed to them? And, if you could, why wouldn’t you just find your own voice?
The point is, in order to improvise you have to have the technical training as well as the intuition and feel to know when to play. Latin poetry, being a lyrical performance tied to time, is the same. Words fall within a certain measure or beat, and in order to really understand it there is a bit of a requirement that you can perform it, too. This will lead to appreciation – a true appreciation of Latin poetry as an art and not just a means by which some ideas are communicated.
Piantaggini refers to this as “rhythmic fluency“. The concept of fluency is vital and can serve as a way for us to not only evaluate our students and assess their development, but give us a goal to strive towards with our programs and individual practices. I found this neatly defined in the TPR circles and theorize that a fluency “circle” should be developed as a metric to help students actively use the language.
Piantaggini’s ideas mesh well here because he recognizes that if students have been given the proper training (speaking it and not just translating it) then they would have an ear and feel for the language that will allow them to bypass the need for scansion in the first place. At the very least, the awkward practice of scansion could be minimalized. Also, Piantaggini confirms that this is the best argument for making use of those pesky macrons that appear in (some!) Latin texts. Of course, this opens up a whole ‘nother set of arguments about the pronunciation of Latin and its use of macrons, but that is for another time.
The point is, if students practice speaking the language and developing their pronunciations and ears for the language, then Latin poetry needs not be a frightening proposition for them and their course of study. If we are to follow Father Reginald Foster’s lead here, the Latin poets also provide a model for how we should be using the language and, dare I say it out loud, we have an incentive to write our own poetry. What could be more beautiful?
Piantaggini makes his case for what is rhythmic fluency on his site. I refer everyone to examine his work as he records his percussion (he is a drummer) to recreate some of the beats that would fit, say, dactylic hexameter. I would advise that anyone approaching to look at his work brushes up on terminology (caesura, ictus, etc.). I am going to take a look and try to make sense of it all but the basic premise of his work is that if we can recover the actual rhythm, then there is little need for scansion as the Latin words naturally would fit the time measures as per the intent of the poets. Start with this article “Magister P” wrote to help get a sense of how to begin and some of the benefits of working towards and developing rhythmic fluency in your program.
Again, I return to this in my own experience. I had an inkling of this same idea as a self-trained guitarist (yes, played in various bands growing up!) and musician and always felt that we were coming at this backwards. It is like trying to reconstruct every cut of the Parthenon instead of realizing that things where sculpted to fit in the first place. If we can develop an ear for Latin, and feel the rhythm, then Latin poetry won’t be so allusive to our younger/less experienced students. If that be the case, then we can really excite them by looking at Latin poetry as a subject in of itself, to communicate universal ideas and not simply ways to torture our students about grammar.