Some Thoughts on Syntax

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


1) The "rules" of Syntax are not rules but observations drawn from the common practice of Latin writings, there is much variation between the 3rd c. BC and the 4th c. AD, but the basic orientation is toward the Augustan and 1st c. AD timespan. Part of our sense of Latin grammar dates from the Roman schoolmasters and professors of the late Roman Empire, who devised systems suitable for their educational purposes. Much of their grammatical preferences lasted in the West until well into the 20th century, when modern Linguistics began to develop general systems of approach which would work with all languages. The current treatment of Latin grammar, morphology and syntax alike, is dreadfully out of date, and far inferior to methods used in teaching the modern languages in our schools and colleges.

This is offered as a preliminary advice for a person learning Latin inductively, that is, by reading and confirming his notions about grammar from actual texts, aided by only a basic outline such as this. When approaching Allen and Greenough, be prepared for a shock, the astonishing detail in such a treatment can be overwhelming. Least of all think that memorizing parts of such treatises will equip you in your effort to learn to read Latin fluently. On the other hand, as reference much later after you have progressed in reading, such detail will be invaluable if tedious.

2) By Inductive Method, we mean taking a connected, authentic piece of Latin text and approaching it analytically, after a very brief skirmish with "grammar", then letting the text, as you read it in the original without translation, teach you the structure of Latin from the inside out as it were. This method has been tried many times in many places, it works very well with interested persons who have good natural language abilities. (Without interest and talent, nobody should be studying Latin at all, that is obvious.)

If there are a few basic directions I can give you, they would be:

a) Vocabulary is the persistant villain, so look up words efficiently in an electronic dictionary such as the one available from:

Centaur Systems Ltd
Rob Latousek
407 N. Brearly St
Madison WI 53703-1603
Phone: 608-255-6979
This dictionary by the present writer, covers all the words you will ever see in any Latin literary text, some 15000 words in all. It finds a word with a brief but complete definition, in about two seconds, and comes in a Mac and a PC version. Dictionary thumbing has been the bane of Latin since the Renaissance, at last there is a better way.

Information about the Electronic Latin Dictionary is available from CentaurSystems.

b) Don't translate after determining the meaning of a word. Read aloud, since the ear is a critical factor in language learning, and the Romans always read aloud themselves. Often meaning will appear on repeated vocal readings, and the sound of Latin is an important part of the experience.

c) Read a lot, read fast, and don't be afraid of missing something. If you read enough, the errors will begins to be corrected automatically, just as you learned to read English literature without checking each grammatical structure and looking up all new words. Many people think Latin is to be puzzled out, many suspicious teachers think translation is the only way they can monitor the student's homework. Translating everything, reading slowly, and thinking in English rather than Latin is the sure way to get discouraged at your tortoise progress, and finally give it up.

The Loeb Library from Harvard University Press is still probably the most practical series of texts, Latin and facing English translation. It was started early in this century as a venture to bring fast reading to adults who had studied Latin in school but failing to enjoy it then, were interested in going back to Latin later in life. There is a strong temptation to look too frequently at the translation, just as there is a temptation toward chocolate and alcohol, but much Latin reading does need some help, and the Loebs are handy, if fairly expensive nowadays.

The OCT Oxford Classical Text series has a plain text with variant readings at the foot of each page, these are excellent editions but offer no commentary so they are really rough going for the beginner. On the other hand an OCT text of Vergil is something you can keep and use forever. OCT's were once cheap because Oxford published them at a loss since profits accrued from their Hymnals, but with the decline of religion in the UK, the OCT series became very expensive, although not out of line with new book prices in cloth binding.

The BT or Bibliotheca Teubneriana has been around for morfe than a century, less good paper than the OCT but amazingly wide range of Greek and Latin text editions, these can often be found in used bookshops and are well worth buying, even hoarding for future use.

After getting a good head start, what would be best to read? I feel the poets are the heart of Latin literature, Catullus is a good beginning and not too hard, Horace is harder but the poems are short and many are approachable, Ovid is great and much fun. But it is Vergil which is the center, the great master, the supreme artist with words, and Vergil is enough if you read nothing else, since there is a lifetime of lucubration in that one volume.

History is a natural subject for many, Livy starts off well, Tacitus is wonderful but real hard, hold him till later. For a start, Eutropius is simple and sort of pathetic, but good reading for a beginner. I find Caesar great as a terse stylist, military mastermind, and grand politician on the large screen, but you have to read him fast or you lose the sense of those campaigns. (We treated the Native Americans just as he taught us in his treatment of the Gauls; he subjected, we went a step further intending genocide. Caesar was read by every American army man for two centuries...the result for the Native Americans is well known!

There is an astonishing array of technical writers, whom the Classical scholars seem to ignore totally. Cato on agriculture is a genuine document from the early period, mean conservative S.O.B. as he was. Columella on agriculture backs up Virgil's Georgics with dirt-farming experience. Vitruvius' treatise De Architecture from 28 BC is detailed, comprehensive, and written in the ordinary Latin of an actual contractor. Discovered in the early Renaissance it had a remarkable afterlife in modern times as former of architectural taste for centuries. And then there are the medical writers, Scribonius Largus, and of course Celsus with special interest in surgery. And what about Law, the discovered text of Gaius describing the whole framework of Roman society in legal aspect, let along the preserved later Jurists?

Nobody should go without reading Petronius' Satyricon, fragmentary as it is, and for a more magical moment Apuleius' Golden Ass which is not fragmentary, a world of sheer mystery and magic.

* * *

My best wishes to all of you who undertake the study of Latin. Whether you are an undergraduate who is heading to Law School, an artist who is looking for high artistic achievement in another era and area, or someone who once did some Latin back in the school-days and would like to renew the acquaintance now, less for nostalgia than for the opening of new doors -- the study of Latin or any language which has a vital literary tradition is more than worthwhile as an investment of time. It can be challenging, absorbing and intellectually rewarding. And at the same time it can be something we often forget about: It can be fun!

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