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24.6.20 Living Latin

living latin

In his best-selling book A People’s History of the United States, the historian Howard Zinn makes an important distinction. History, he writes, is first and foremost a questions of facts, but it is just as much a question of emphasis, of which facts the historian decides to bring to the front, and which to send to the back. Zinn takes the spotlight off the great men (so-called) of U.S. history – from Columbus to Kissinger – and puts it onto the indigenous, African American, and working communities that suffered and at times resisted the chaos created by history’s usual suspects. The point is not to praise and blame in some simplistic fashion, but to realize that to privilege the ruling point of view is to side with it, and that to ignore the struggles of ordinary people risks missing the lessons those struggles might contain for today.

In these confabulations I’ve been trying to do something similar with the history of Latin. The general picture (if any!) most people have of Latin is, I imagine, something like this. It’s a language of ancient toga-wearing Romans, of Hannibal crossing the Alps and Caesar crossing the Rubicon, of legions and their battles; of inscriptions on old buildings, of legal and medical terminology, and a good source for mottos; an old and somewhat dusty language that no longer dominates education as it once did. And Latin is all of those things. But it was also, once, a language of ordinary people, used for all the things that we still use language for, a language of birthday letters, of violets and roses, and of workers and weavers; of storytellers and musicians. And you don’t need to idealize these speakers – we know so little about them – to imagine and appreciate their role in Latin’s history.

Its literature has always been the most famous part of Latin, and the ability of authors like Catullus and Virgil to draw in new readers again and again is an amazing testament to their creativity. But the literature can be re-imagined too, I think, in light of ordinary Latin. To me at any rate it now appears less as a series of brilliant and slightly intimidating artefacts and more as one branch of a living, spoken language. More than that, I’ve tried to show that its influence was never just confined to ancient Rome, but instead takes in a whole range of popular and plural traditions in which artists, authors, and readers are continually reinventing their source materials according to their own interests and concerns. Whether in the work of Willa Cather or Seamus Heaney, Phyllis Wheatley or Eavan Boland, Billie Holiday or Hozier, in the star signs or the hedge schools, the whole seems to me greater than the sum of its parts.

The final thing that this ordinary Latin can do is to help us make connections. That’s because if you emphasize the spoken language over the academic language, and the speakers over the scholars, you realize that to think of Latin as dead is to miss the point: it changed, and in its changed form is still living today.

These last few months I’ve been listening to music from Latin America, to the songs of Mon Laferte (from Chile) and Natalia Lafourcade (from Mexico). Two singer-songwriters who, backed by teams of excellent musicians, have been delving into and reimagining the musical traditions of Latin America on their own terms. And it’s been so exciting for me to discover that this very danceable music, so full of life, is being sung in my language. Much of the Spanish is beyond me, but I can get enough of the lyrics to see that what I’m listening to is a changed version of Latin. It’s the difference, I suppose, between being told something – the Romance languages come from Latin – and learning it for yourself, and I’m very grateful for the lesson. What I’ve learnt, and it’s only a personal view, is that living Latin doesn’t mean trying to speak like Cicero or to bring ancient Rome back to life, it means embracing all the variety, all the change, and all the creativity that marks the history of a language that is both very old, and very new.

Note: In this post I’ve drawn from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980 edition, London and New York). If you’d like to listen to something from Mon Laferte and Natalia Lafourcade, you can do so here and here.