Why I Loved Latin at Twelve

1074093_10151552031287683_1515421453_oOreille-de-Géant is better than Greater Burdock, but neither measures up to the mesmerizing musicality of Arctium lappa. Eastern Milksnake is better than Couleuvre Tachetée, but neither measures up to the evocative elegance of Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum. Ouaouaron is better than American Bullfrog, but neither measures up to the capacious cadence of Lithobates catesbeianus.

Silver Spotted Skipper is better than Hespérie à Taches Argentées, but neither measures up to the simple splendor of Epargyreus clarus. Vulcain is better than Red Admiral, but neither measures up to the delicate delights of Vanessa atalanta. Spring Azure vs. Azur Printanier, Summer Azure vs. Azur Estival—alas, sometimes it’s hard to choose—but clearly neither measures up to the etymological chutzpah of Celestrina ladon and Celestrina neglecta.

Growing up here in Québec, where the politics of language can be so divisive, learning the Latin names of the plants and animals around me—when I was 12-years-old—was like finding a passport to a country without borders, a country without language police, neighborhood bullies, and the Office Québécois de la Langue Française, a country where I was no longer one of those maudits anglais, a country where I was free to be fully human, fully Homo sapiens sapiens.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

3 thoughts on “Why I Loved Latin at Twelve

  1. Érable à Giguère has a more mellifluous ring to it than Manitoba Maple (but then poubelle and ordure sound better than trash and junk/garbage), but acer negundo has a gravity and dignity greater than both. (I have the late Bronwyn Chester, She Who Loved Trees, and who loved sharing her knowledge, to thank for my knowledge of those names.)

    At twelve I was at the height of my Latin studies (at thirteen, graduating from grade 8, junior high, I won the Latin Prize, which turned out to be a history book with an inscription seal pasted into it); I continued with it only a little ways into high school. But without your context of a) a connection to a love of biological lore in the real world, and b) being buffeted by the language wars, it was never more than an intellectual puzzle-solving that could soon be supplanted by others. It lacked a deep emotional hook; it wasn’t one of those things (like music) which are as much balm as they are about skill honing, and thus I quickly forgot it, and if you asked me to translate even a simple Latin text now, I couldn’t even begin. It did leave indirect effects in my ability to understand new Latinate English words I’ve run across over the years (although the contextual learning in which one engages simply through reading a lot has as much to do with that), and to a certain degree my ability to make educated guesses about the meanings of French and other Romance language words in print, though of course meaning drift over the centuries is a treacherous current to be navigated: just look at the sense and tone difference between French “demander” and English “demand”, where the former is a mild, neutral “ask” and the latter an insistent, even angry imperative.

    I moved on to study German in high school: it was the sound of my early childhood, and thus there was a Proustian bond perhaps not as distinct as his madeleines were for his remembrances, but still a reason to retain some of it, even if I had little opportunity to practice other than with my fluent dad (a natural at languages) and less fluent mom (sie hat gesagt sie sprecht “Shop-Deutsch”, much as I now speak Shop-French), and when we went back to visit when I was 19 and I used it in Bavaria and Switzerland.

    It’s another illustration of the importance of emotional engagement in learning. If it’s not connected in some intimate way, whether trivial or profound, to our lives, it won’t stick.


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