Would the Real Latin Please Stand Up? 2/2

Just a quick one today! I spoke in my last post about the need for real Latin in reading, but I left open the question of what actually counts as real Latin?

Well, there’s a reason for this.

It can be a pretty contentious topic, at least since the renaissance classicists held up Ciceronian Latin as the ‘purest’ form of Latin. Against the intentions of those who first put up Cicero as a model, mediaeval Latin was seen as a barbarism, a decay from ‘true Latin’, and Cicero was held as the ideal. His was always p[raised, after all…

But it just isn’t that easy.

After all, Cicero himself was writing in very different Latin fro the Latin of Plautus, for example, who was considered by the Romans to be something like our Charles Dickens. Not to mention Cicero was considered very ‘Attic’ in his Latin, meaning he used a lot of techniques borrowed from the Greeks.

And besides all this, any and every language evolves, changes with times, cultures, and, importantly, experiences. So Cicero would have used the word exercitio for ‘exercise’, but the word denotes the more abstract concept of ‘practice’, or ‘exercising’. A couple of hundred years late we find the word exercitium developing, denoting the actual exercise itself. Meaning if you were doing some exercises from a workbook, Ciceronian Latin wouldn’t have the exact word for that, but Imperial Latin would. Is this a decay, or a simple evolution?

In ancient Latin, you will also find the verb esse is dropped out of a perfect passive, as the sentence is understood without it. But because of the rules of learning Latin, I have never seen it dropped out of a neo-Latin work. Does this make it artificial? Not necessarily, it just means the conventions of Latin in our time are different.

The point of all this is that we can not look to a particular author nor a particular period as the sole arbiter of ‘real’ Latin.

For me, then, real Latin is simply that which has as its purpose the communication of the story or point of the text using the medium of Latin.

So I consider Peter Needham’s translation of the first two Harry Potter books to be real Latin, because the Latin is not written to demonstrate a point, nor is it written to be a 'graded reader for a beginner (in fact, some parts of it are really quite dense for a beginner). Instead, it is simply meant as a translation of the book into Latin, for the imaginary native speakers of Latin, just as the book was translated in to French for French native speakers, and so on.

Real Latin can be Plautus, Boethius, John of Salisbury, Erasmus, orations of John Victor Luce, and anyone else who wants to write and communicate in Latin. And yes, Cicero too.

The point is that real Latin doesn’t have to mean good Latin. You might hate the writing style of a Mills & Boon novel, and criticise as terrible. This is fair. But you can’t deny its status as English.

So read whatever real Latin interests you. Just be aware of the person, time, place, and culture of the author, as you would for any author (at least, I hope you would…).

Now go read what makes you happy!