Preface

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)

 

As you open this web file, you may well be wondering to yourself: "Why one more book of Latin Grammar...?" which is altogether not an unlegitimate question. Let me try to answer succinctly:

I have observed that in in our new global society there is a unfounded belief that if you describe each segment of a machine or a project or an operation in fine detail, the cumulation of many detailed statements will add up to an understanding of "the whole". I believe there is a logical error in this approach. The first sentence of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics emphasizes the importance (if not overall value) of the most general approach, which is something we often fail to recognize in our preference for the ultimate exactness in discrete analysis.

Latin "grammarbooks" are constructed as series of lessons, each incorporating a well-defined, small area to be learned before going on. It is not surprising that students who have gone through all the "lessons" usually have no sense of the linguistic outline of the language as a working system. But at the other end of the spectrum a Manual like that of Allen & Greenough, ed. D'Ooge l906 (out of print!) or even better the large Hale with its excellent examples (also OP) , offers a mass of micro-articles on every aspect of Latin grammar, but no way to see the forest for the trees

This Project has two purposes:

a) To deliver an "architectonic view" of the Latin linguistic system, with a sense of what the parts mean and where they fit into a working linguistic whole.

b) At the same time to present a rational explanation of the individual components as they are described (paradigms and all), in the belief that we know enough about practical linguistics at this time to revamp the Classical traditional-ese jargon and talk about Latin as a language-system which was quite satisfactory for well over a millennium of varied communications.

Students need to know fact and detail, and at the same time where it is all going to fit in, what the whole will look like. This is a problem in many of the modern science studies, where micro-detail can lose the overall sense of pattern. It is in this spirit that the present project on the Latin Language is undertaken, with the hope that those who have gone through the first stage of learning the basic forms and configuration, will now be able to review what they have studied in an enlightening fashion, and receive some mentoring advice on how to proceed toward a fast and effective reading knowledge of Latin. Latinists have for centuries pored over paragraphs with Biblical devotion, we now need technique for reading ancient books as live literature, and to do this we need some new tooling. Perhaps this Project will offer some of these tools.

* * *

The purpose of this monograph is to provide a clear and uncluttered description of the Latin language as it was used in ancient times. The author feels it is important to strip away as much of the descriptive technical jargon which has adhered to Latin as seems reasonable, and furthermore to describe every feature of the language simply, succinctly, and in plain English. Some amplification is necessary but the advancing student will find reference grammar books on every library list. All the variants, rules and exceptions, and examples of syntactic usage are important later, but for the beginner we want to set forth the outlines clearly. Neither the jargon of the ancient grammarians, nor the involved terminology of modern structuralists seem suitable for our purposes, so we will go it alone with a new map in a very old and venerable territory.

* * *

At the start, that important question: Why study Latin? Arguments pro and con are long and tedious, I shall try to dig down to bedrock as directly as possible?

I believe there are only two real reasons for learning Latin. First, there is a certain number of wor1d-class Classical writers and thinkers who wrote works which are absolutely untranslatable. Robert Frost once said that "poetry is what is lost in translation", one of those short truths which is inescapable. In the last thirty years we have developed, probably as a survival technique in our college Classics departments, courses of Classics in English Translation, so that now hundreds read Vergil in English for every one who reads him in the original. Some of the translators have been gifted writers, indeed. But there lurks in this process an inherent lie: Vergil in Latin is the real Vergil, even if read slowly and painfully, while the English is quite another kind of book, and incidentally a much weaker one. Having taught Vergil in Latin for many years, I alternately laugh and sigh when I look (briefly) into the translations. Some things are simply not convertible to another form and format, and the high Art of writing is one of these.

Second, there is another quite different reason: The social documentary approach. Terence said long ago that nothing human was uninteresting to him, and now that we have a in our historical studies a developed sense of social relevance, we find fascinating information about that elusive fellow --- Man --- in all ancient documents. The human condition two thousand years ago was similar to our world, but very different; and it is the varying formula for the degree of difference which makes social studies in ancient society fascinating. Everything from inscriptions on stone, Cicero's personal letters, the novelistic portrayal of Trimalchio at his insane dinner party, the rising of a new and very nervous Christian consciousness --- these are all fascinating parts of the rare material which comprises human history. Especially interesting now is the social history of the masses, the populus minutus as they were called by the Romans.

Now, if high art and social studies are the two good reasons for the study of Latin, then what are the bad or questionable ones?

"Latin teaches you English." It may do so, but if you want to study English, study English, and you will come out ahead. For sheer vocabulary Latin confers a lot, on the other hand wide reading in English and use of the dictionary teaches you English fast enough.

"Latin is first rate exercise for the mind, is strengthens your brain." Studying anything hard and well improves your concentration and your mental track record, but recall that the brain is made up of nerve connections, not muscles, and it does not grow like the body-builder's arms, by the lifting of dead weights.

"Latin is logical, and teaches you to think clearly." This was first proposed formally in the 16 th c. by the Spanish scholar Sanctius (Sanchez) in his book "Minerva, sive de Causis Linguae Latinae...." which belaboredly made its point by rewriting Latin grammar as a system of logic, and maintaining the argument by casuistic argumentation. Sanchez did a great deal of damage to Post Renaissance thought, and it was only with the coming of modern Linguistics in the last hundred years that we reclassified his work in our library catalogs under the category of Curious Linguistic Rubbish. But as archaeologists know, rubbish often has a longer life than art, and some people still unknowingly follow Minerva's thread.

"Latin is still basic learning, like the three R's, and in a day of applied studies, like cooking, driving, drug abuse awareness, and personality development, Latin as proven learning must be real and valuable." But this is just a reaction, a backward movement toward something less bad....and it is fortified by America's newest neurosis: NOSTALGIA. Nostalgia for old clothes, old trinkets, even old, poorly designed and made furniture, old anything for your closet of Collectibles. And you can put in good old Latin too, if it amuses you.

None of these bad reasons for studying Latin is completely without point, they were all convincing at some time for someone, but I believe they block the mind from seeing the two really important reasons for doing this serious and arduous course of study.

Let me recap for emphasis the valid reasons, which I believe, are:

l) The study of high art, carefully constructed prose and brilliant poetry from the ancient world.

2) The detailed study of Man and his thin web of recent history, on the personal rather than political level, in terms of the web of History.

If you concentrate on these aspects of Latin study, you will find rich rewards, which I believe will remunerate you for the hard work you will have to put in to get a decent reading knowledge of the Latin language.



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