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Living Latin Project to ‘Empower’ all to use Latin

19 June 2019 – Trinity’s Public Orator Professor Anna Chahoud speaks about the revival of Latin as a language to ‘empower’ rather than a language of the powerful, in an ambitious new online project recently launched at the Trinity Long Room Hub.

Presiding over Trinity’s commencements and graduation ceremonies in Latin, Professor Anna Chahoud holds the Chair of Latin (1870) at the Department of Classics. ‘The use of Latin in TCD is a tradition that goes back to the foundation in 1592’, she says. Although it has come to be associated with power and prestige, Professor Chahoud argues that graduates were traditionally addressed in Latin - a practice that continues today - because it was thought to be a universal language.

Professor Chahoud argues that Latin, ‘isn’t just the language of Virgil or Cicero or the great orators in Cambridge, Oxford and indeed, Trinity; it was the language that for at least 1600 years people spoke, in different forms and different registers, at every level of society.’

Now, Professor Chahoud and a team of colleagues and alumni in the Department of Classics have set out on an ambitious mission to democratise the language through the Living Latin Project.


Latin Today

‘Latin lives on in the language we speak’, says Professor Chahoud noting that while Latin is at the origin of the European romance languages, its use in specialised subjects such as law and the natural sciences is still prevalent today. ‘Latin enables you to identify an animal species, or to work out the details of a legal contract that you would otherwise miss’, Professor Chahoud comments, recalling a phrase of her colleague Dr Ashley Clements.

When she started the broad curriculum module and extra mural classes on Latin she was surprised by its popularity among the wider public and students across college, with a huge uptake from students in computer science and music.  One of Ireland’s oldest students is currently studying Latin as part of these extra mural classes. Mr Joe McGovern is a former Garda and at 92 has recently returned to education after a gap of 75 years, as recently reported by RTE News.   

Aside from the influence of popular culture (e.g. Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator or the HBO-BBC television series Rome), Professor Chahoud relays the many reasons why students and members of the public enrol in her Latin classes, including devising mottos for student clubs, tattoos, or a coming up with an inscription for a wedding ring. ‘Latin can encapsulate a very complex sentiment in three words. Mottos for universities tend to be in Latin also because it’s very concise.’

Today though, Professor Chahoud believes that the most immediate use of Latin is to become ‘empowered’ and ‘more confident and competent in using your own language.’ She argues that Latin gives you a wider understanding of your vocabulary and a deeper understanding of the formation of European culture. ‘Latin is still to an extent a ‘Living’ language in terms of ideas…in our languages and in our world views.’

From Love Poetry to Farming

The Living Latin Project has two main components; the first of these is an online, web-based app which gives the user full immersion into the world of Latin. Tabella is a series of 12 lessons and videos which can be easily accessed from a computer or phone. Rather than going through all the hard graft of learning the grammar from scratch, Professor Chahoud says that Tabella ‘allows you to see how the language works in context – you look at a simple poem, a line from the bible or an epigram, funny or funerary, and you start to see how the language works.’

Tabella includes a whole host of topics from farming to love poetry and even covers the Latin which we are already using in everyday language. Students can pick and choose and build their own learning experience based on their interests. Professor Chahoud says this interface was named ‘Tabella’, to hint at the transformation in the meaning of the word tablet in contemporary life. ‘The writing tablet was also the form of everyday writing in Roman antiquity. If you wrote a book – you wrote it on parchment or on papyrus, but if you’re writing a letter – if it’s a letter from Cicero to his friends, or even a semi-literate letter from a soldier in Roman Britain complaining that he’s being bullied or that somebody’s not doing their work, it was a writing tablet, a wooden tablet with wax on top.’

The second part of the project involves a blog called ‘Confabulations’, which seeks to engage readers in a conversation on the Latin language and its history. It will discuss the use of the language in everyday speech and how recent studies have recovered the language of the ordinary people. ‘How did women invite their sisters to their birthday parties in Roman Britain?’ These are some of the examples the blog might explore to bring the language to life in this online learning platform, Professor Chahoud explains.

The Future of Latin

Classics at Trinity College Dublin has a distinguished history and is one of the most highly ranked subject areas in Trinity and in Ireland at 13th place in the QS World University Rankings 2019.

The Department recently launched a new degree which enables students to commence both Latin and Greek at university, says Professor Chahoud explaining that the option to start both subjects from scratch at third level is not available anywhere in Ireland. This, at a time when Latin is being removed or has been removed for some time now from second level curricula. 

‘We’re trying to ‘decolonize’ the language’, Professor Chahoud concludes, referring to the words of Dr Charlie Kerrigan, a Department of Classics alumnus who is part of the team behind the Living Latin Project and the mind behind the Confabulations blog.  

The Department have a strong relationship with its alumni, who have also spearheaded the third part of the Living Latin Project – Line of Enquiry – a book that was launched in 2017 and is the literary element to the project. This initiative, by Classics alumnus Paul Corcoran, challenged 50 eminent classicists, along with distinguished Irish poets Michael Longley and Peter Fallon, with the difficult task of choosing their favourite line of classical literature (in Latin, Greek, or English) and explaining their choice in one short page. This will shortly be developed into its own website.

Living Latin Poster Display

Image: The Living Latin Project team at the launch in May 2019.

Tabella has been designed and developed by former Classics students Dr Kevin McGee and Dr Frank Lynam, who have generously given the project their expertise, respectively, as writer and filmmaker and as coder and software developer. Through the Tabella app, the Project is aiming to make up to 48 lessons available, and Professor Chahoud is reluctant for them to formalise this learning process just yet. ‘We don’t want to go down that route just now because [certification] makes it very formal. We want to see how the public responds to this.’

‘This is one of the most accessible and most tangible outputs of our research-led teaching. It speaks to the communal spirit of our Department and we are very proud of what we have achieved.’

‘Living Latin’ is an initiative of the Department of Classics at Trinity College Dublin. Members of the project team include Professor Anna Chahoud, Professor Brian McGing, Kevin McGee, Charlie Kerrigan, Frank Lynam and Paul Corcoran.

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