Notes to Latin StudentsLanguage Learning in General
Latin Course Material

Notes to Latin Students

GeneralReading vs. Listening
Why is Latin difficult?Natural Method
Ecclesiastical PronunciationLatin Grammar

There is no living society that speaks Latin; the transition to Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish) occurred more than 1000 years ago. Scholars commonly wrote and spoke Latin until a few hundred years ago, or even later in certain fields; for example, Sir Isaac Newton wrote his Principia Mathematica in Latin in 1687, and Catholic theologians continued to write in Latin up to the 20th century.

If you learn Latin today, pretty much the only use you’ll have for it is reading. It doesn’t open up opportunities for work, travel, or conversation unless within the narrow field of Latin itself – that is, if you become a Latin teacher. The majority of students of any subject are at a beginner level, and beginners won’t be conversing in Latin, so even if you teach Latin you won’t do much conversation.

Unless you have a good reason and a strong motivation for learning Latin, I suggest you choose a different language to study. Spanish is a good choice for native English speakers; it’s less complicated and more useful than Latin, and it can serve as a springboard to learning Latin more quickly and easily sometime in the future.

What would be a good reason to learn Latin? Basically there are two: the religious and the scholarly. You need at least one, but you can have both. The religious reason is to be able to pray and study in Latin; the scholarly reason is to gain access to original scholarly texts and to ancient Roman literature, or if you just want to know some Latin in order to be an educated person. But nowadays, the majority of scholarly people don’t know Latin, so you’ll fit right in if you don’t either.

You should know very clearly why you want to learn Latin, so that you don’t end up investing a lot of time and energy in something that you find useless. If your motivation is primarily religious, then understand that there are two things you’ll be able to use Latin for: (1) to understand and to pray the Mass, the Divine Office, and various other Latin prayers, (2) to read scholarly books on doctrine, morals, history, canon law, etc. in Latin. If you can’t see yourself spending significant time for the rest of your life doing one or both of those, then Latin isn’t going to do much for you.

If you’re not sure, try it for a few months and then re-evaluate. You don’t have to reach a high level to get some practical benefits, like understanding some well-known prayers and hymns used at Mass and Benediction. If you’re hesitant because you think learning a language is miserable and you’ll get nowhere, that is because people approach it the wrong way, as explained in language learning in general. With the right approach, the results are much better and you can even enjoy the process.

Reading vs. Listening

The best plan is to use reading and listening to develop a large vocabulary and a strong practical competence at reading comprehension. That is a huge success, far beyond what most students achieve after years of a grammar-centric curriculum. With that foundation, individual students may choose to work on speaking, writing, or detailed grammar if they wish to do so.

Reading is the best way to build your vocabulary. You can move at your own pace and look up unfamiliar words as you go. Seeing a word spelled out is crucial to learning it.

Listening is less important for learning Latin, as opposed to a modern language in which you’re learning to carry on a conversation. That’s not one of our goals in Latin. You mainly need to listen to enough Latin to get a good idea of the pronunciation. Listening is great for situations when reading isn’t practical, like when you’re driving or doing chores around the house. It’s hard to learn new things by listening, but it’s easy to solidify what you’ve already half-learned from your reading.

Why is Latin difficult?

For people who speak English only, Latin is difficult because the grammar is much more complicated. Nouns and pronouns have several different forms, called declensions or cases, plus they have a gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter). Adjectives must agree with nouns as to case and gender. Almost none of this complexity exists in English.

Latin verbs have a zillion different forms, depending on the tense, mood, and voice; most of this complexity is handled in English by adding words that go beside the verb, rather than changing the form of the verb itself. Thus in English we have only three or four different forms of the verb itself (for example: go, went, gone, going; speak, spoke, spoken, speaking; play, played, playing), while we have a zillion ways to add words that modify it (for example: will go, might go, would go, should go, has gone, had gone, will have gone, will have been going, is spoken to, might have been spoken to, etc.).

But not everything about Latin is forbidding. It uses the familiar Latin alphabet, the pronunciation is pretty straightforward, and about half of English vocabulary is related to Latin words. I’ve never learned an Oriental or a Slavic language, but I’m told that they are harder than Latin for a student who knows only English.

If you already know a Romance language (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian), then learning Latin is much easier because you’re already familiar with verb conjugations and with gendered nouns and pronouns. I was already at a solid intermediate level in Spanish when I began to study Latin, and it was enormously helpful.

The natural method recommended by Latin teachers

You might think that the comprehensible input method is modern and lazy, whereas you like things that are traditional and rigorous. The truth is, modern methods can be better or worse, and there is nothing inherently good about a method being rigorous if it’s burdensome or difficult. What we need are practical ways to achieve meaningful success, to get a good return on our investment of time and energy.

If you lean toward a “traditional” grammar-centric method of language learning, consider these remarks by Fr. William Most:

Most Latin teachers will readily admit that Latin is not taught with very great success today [late 1950s, early 1960s].  Even after as much as eight years of Latin, students often find it quite an effort to translate fifty lines of Cicero in an hour and even then, they will not always get the sense.  Things were not always thus: for about a thousand years after Latin ceased to be a native language, it was taught with far greater success, so that students, even those of very ordinary intelligence, actually learned to read, write, and speak the language fluently.  The methods used then were not very much like the method that has now come to be considered as “traditional”.  Actually, the so-called traditional methods today go back only to about the 16th century.  History shows a constant decline in the popularity of Latin and in the ability of students ever since that “traditional” method was introduced. (read more)

The point is, Fr. Most favors the natural method, in which exposure to the language itself is emphasized along with grammar. I think he’s right, and I think his own course doesn’t go far enough in that direction. Quite possibly he would agree.

Here’s another good essay in favor of the natural method from Dr. Sonnenschein, a scholar who wrote some beginner-level Latin stories.

Latin Grammar

As mentioned above (Why is Latin difficult?), Latin is a highly inflected language. Thus it is helpful for beginners to read something about Latin grammar, instead of trying to pick it up solely through extensive reading and listening. In my opinion, Joseph Allen’s grammar guide (web / pdf-P) is amazingly good. Beginners should read through it and consult it often as a reference, without trying to memorize it. It’s packed with crucial grammar info and Latin examples with interlinear English, which is perfect for beginners.

Ecclesiastical Pronunciation

There’s a lot of variation within what people call Ecclesiastical pronunciation, even in books that teach it. For example, the Latin word “et” can be pronounced like et in the English word yet, or like the English word eight. The letter “h” at the beginning of a Latin word (e.g. hic, hoc, herba, hora, honor) can be voiced or silent; the customary usage is a mixture of both, but some people try to make a rule that it’s always voiced or always silent and that doesn’t work very well. The Latin word “mihi” is often pronounced mee-kee which sounds ugly to my ear; I prefer mee-hee. One even finds differences in contemporary liturgical books that use accents to show pronunciation; for example, I have a breviary that says tótius , apparently with “ti” pronounced as in the Latin word “gratia,” and a Missal that says totíus, implying that “t” and “i” have distinct sounds. I much prefer the latter choice, in fact it never occurred to me that the former was possible until I saw it in Scanlon & Scanlon’s pronunciation guide! But words that end in -tium (e.g. timentium, custodientium) sound fine to me with “ti” pronounced as in “gratia.”

I have heard a lot of variations and some clear mistakes in online recordings that claim to use Ecclesiastical pronunciation. An example of a clear mistake is to pronounce the Latin consonant sound of I or J as an English h sound, as in the Spanish name José. That’s really bad.

The bottom line is, you can decide which of the various “Ecclesiastical” pronunciations you prefer. I have my preference and you can have yours. Just don’t choose any pronunciation that is clearly wrong, and if you’re in a group situation, don’t be the one person whose pronunciation is glaringly different.

Acúte áccent marks aren’t needed in Latin (nor in English) but may be added to show which syllable gets the stress. Mācrōns mark the long vowels in the classical pronunciation. If you’re using Ecclesiastical pronunciation you can ignore them.

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