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10.7.19 A Visit to a Friend

Dublin street

I remember in Irish class learning how to describe how you start the day. ‘When I get up in the morning I brush my teeth and put on my clothes and eat my breakfast …’. A language is learnt by associating it with everyday tasks that everyone can relate to. A similar thing happens in those guidebooks you buy for going on holiday. You get short and easy-to-read lists of essential words and phrases – how to order a pizza, how to call a doctor – which, while by no means the key to fluency, are just the kind of phrases that you need.

These two examples are what came to mind when I was teaching some unusual and very interesting Latin texts which, thanks to the work of Eleanor Dickey and others, have recently appeared in accessible editions and translations. They are conversation manuals used by ancient language learners, specifically Greek speakers in the eastern part of the Roman empire learning Latin as a second language. They date originally to between the second and fourth centuries AD. They work by putting lists of the same words in both language side by side in columns; simple dialogues are used to teach everyday language. Here is the first part of a morning scene, with Latin and English columns (but not Greek). 

Ante lucem vigilavi At dawn I woke up 
de somno, surrexi from sleep; I got up
de lecto, sedi. from bed; I sat down.
accepi pedules, I took socks,
calciamenta; shoes;
calciavi me. I put on my shoes
poposci aquam   I asked for water
ad faciem.   for my face
lavo primo manus   I first wash my hands
deinde faciem   then my face
lavi; I washed;
extersi    I dried myself.

(Dickey’s translation, slightly adapted)
I’m not sure we know exactly what pedules are, but I’ve put ‘socks’ (did the Romans wears socks? I don’t know). But you get the idea, how learning is helped by the fact that everyone can relate to getting up in the morning. Now here’s a bit of conversation between two friends who are going to visit someone they know who is ill. When they reach his insula, or apartment block, they’ll be told that he’s feeling better and has gone for a walk. They’re delighted at this news, of course, and leave a message for him to that effect. Anyway, here is the opening bit of the dialogue, with my English translation (as spoken by two Dubliners):

Si vis, veni mecum. Come with me if you like.
Ubi? Where?
Ad amicum nostrum Lucium. visitemus eum.   To our friend Luke’s: let’s go see him.
Quid enim habet?    What does he have?
Aegrotat. He’s sick.
A quando? Ah, since when?
Intra paucos dies incurrit. For the last couple of days.
Ubi manet? Where’s he stayin’?
Non longe. Not far.
Sis ambula. Go on so, lead the way.
Haec est, puto, domus eius. I think this is his place.
Haec est. Yep, this is it.

Two things about this passage. Firstly, I was so excited to find such down-to-earth Latin that at one point I went a bit too far. The Latin word ‘quando’ means ‘when’, and ‘a’ in this case means ‘from’ or ‘since’: ‘since when’. But I forgot this temporarily, made the ‘a’ an exclamation, and imagined our Dubliner saying, ‘Ah! since when?’ (I’ve left this in the translation, even though it’s not strictly right). The next thing is more revealing. When you learn Latin you normally find the verb manére in formal contexts, where it means ‘to wait’, ‘to remain’. ‘The general waited in camp for the soldiers to arrive.’ ‘How long shall we remain here?’. So when I was looking at these lines for the first time I stumbled a little on ‘ubi manet?’. But once you remember that this is a representation of colloquial and not literary Latin, the answer is obvious. ‘Stay’ is, of course, the meaning you want in everyday life, or perhaps ‘live’, both part of this verb’s range of meaning. No one says to their guest ‘how long will you be remaining for?’ Or at least most don’t, I suspect. So I’ve put ‘staying’ in the translation for manére. At any rate, here we have some rare and valuable representations of conversational Latin, of a kind that generations of people across different parts of Europe spoke for many centuries. And this kind of Latin is, for me, just as interesting and exciting as the famous texts of classical literature.

Note: This post is based on the work of Eleanor Dickey. For an accessible introduction to these texts see E. Dickey, Stories of Daily Life from the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), where you’ll find the morning routine on pp. 23–24 and the story of visiting Lucius (or Luke) on pages 66–68. For the Greek, Latin, and English texts side by side, you’ll need E. Dickey, The Colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana Volume 1 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012).