Advice on Learning Latin

by Sean Gabb

Aside from my various books – more of which will come out this month and next – I get most of my living nowadays from teaching Greek and Latin. I do this as a private tutor, and sometimes as an informal member of staff at various places of education. Because demand for my services in any one place is limited, there is no point in my becoming a formal member of staff. Instead, I go out to see students in their homes or in classrooms, or in university libraries, or I hold court in the kitchen of my own house. I do the teaching and then get on with other business.

I might like a formal university or school position. However, because most positions available seem to be in North or South-West London, and because I live in Deal, and have no present wish to move, I am content with present arrangements – even if I am always looking for more students. The arrangements suit me for three reasons.

First, I have been obsessed by the Ancient World since I was eight, and I enjoy teaching any subject connected with it. I particularly enjoy teaching its languages. I am, indeed, very good at teaching them. I have a talent for sitting down with a student, or a small group of students, and finding the right individual approach. Rather than speak at length on this, I refer you to the Testimonials page of my teaching website. These are a small selection of the grateful comments I receive. I have no doubt my students find me bumbling and pedantic, and my frequent digressions on philology and obscure points of history, and my tendency to climatic determinsism, may not always be relevant. Even so, I deliver the goods, and have the testimonials to prove it.

Second, I am not aware of any competition for my services. The number of those able to teach the classical languages falls every year. I believe there has been an increase in demand during the present century – that, or supply is now declining faster than demand. In either case, I am reasonably able to set my own terms of work. In an age of targets and micro-management, I am in a lucky position.

Third, and following from the above, any person or institution in want of my services has little choice but to do business with me. I am a free market libertarian and a bit of a High Tory. Either position would put me out of sorts with the current order of things. Taken together, they make me an object of suspicion and dislike within almost every institution I know. I get on well with many Conservatives. I get on surprisingly well with socialists who want to improve the lot of the working classes by nationalising the means of production. Not so with the vast middle ground of technocratic Blairites, or with the cultural Marxists.

Last year, I was called to interview in a university for a creative writing post. I found myself in a room filled with women who looked like men and with girlie-men in fashionably tatty suits. Their eyes widened as I unpacked a small suitcase of my published novels. But they asked a few bored questions about the techniques of writing fiction, before moving to what they plainly believed would throw me. Because I had read Gramsci and Althusser and Foucault and Lacan and Derrida, and others of that kind, I dealt in full with their questions. But they could smell me. I was not, nor ever would be, one of them. They gave the job to a woman who had published one volume of poetry that neither scans nor rhymes, and that I could probably have made up in half an hour.

When I asked for feedback, I was sent this after a month of waiting:

The panel (following your very impressive presentation to the school) felt that your vision and suggested methodology for teaching creative writing, plus experience, at this level, along with your critical awareness, were not fully compatible with the vision we have for the course and its positioning.

A pity. I much fancied a job that paid £45,000 a year for six hours a week of actual teaching. But the wonder is that I was ever called for interview. Another wonder, I suppose, is that the brush-off was in grammatical English.

Where the classical languages are concerned, I am like a plumber. If your toilet is blocked, you do not ask the man you call out if he votes Conservative or Labour. You do not ask how he voted in the European Referendum. You do not grill him on the Divinity of Christ, for or against, and do not take against him if he likes Abba, or if he is about to change sex, or if he makes unkind jokes about “shirt-lifters.” All you want is your toilet to flush, and not too many footprints on the Azerbaijani rug you forgot to roll away before opening the door. Make the necessary changes, and I am the equivalent of a plumber. I do the job, and I do it well.

I turn now to the question of how, with or without my help, to learn the classical languages; and, if I choose to concentrate on Latin, what I have to say applies also to Greek. A few years ago, before I had my present experience of teaching in schools, I published a book on how to learn Greek or Latin or both. My advice then was to forget course books or books of simplified reading, and to go, a verse at a time, though a parallel text of The Acts of the Apostles. I still believe this is a good method of learning, and something like this approach was taken during Antiquity and until about the end of the sixteenth century. But it is not suited to all students. I am using it at the moment with someone who has A Level Latin and who wants to learn Greek. It seems to work. But it can be a slow and intensive grind, and I have come to a better opinion of the course books I used to reject.

For anyone who wants a good knowledge of Latin, there are two main difficulties – the second encountered somewhat after the first.

The first is that Latin has a lot of grammar, and this can be confusing. There are five declensions of nouns, each with five or six cases in both singular and plural. Indeed, the second declension has masculine and neuter forms, which are different, and the third declension has a variety of irregularities and different forms. Adjectives and participles also decline, and must agree with nouns in gender, case and number. There are four or five conjugations of regular verbs. Each regular verb has thirty-six parts in its indicative active, and thirty six in its indicative passive. Each of these voices has another twenty-four parts in its subjunctive mood. There are more irregular verbs than I have tried to count.

Many of these parts are identical. Dominae can mean “of the woman,” “to or for the woman,” or “women.” Am-emus means “we might love,” or “let us love.” Mon-emus means “We advise.” Reg-emus means “we shall rule.” Monu-erimus means both “we shall have advised” and “we might have advised.” You sort through these verbs by learning that amo is first conjugation, that moneo is second, and that rego is third. Confusion between future perfect indicative active and perfect subjunctive active is avoided by learning to recognise context.

The second main difficulty is that the Romans did not always like simple sentences. They had no fixed order of words, and they made all the use they could of participles; and they had a taste for periodic sentences, in which one main verb and subject are supported by a mass of complements and subordinate clauses.

Let me give an example of this in English, from Book II of Paradise Lost:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of ORMUS and of IND,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings BARBARIC Pearl & Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais’d
To that bad eminence; and from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain Warr with Heav’n, and by success untaught
His proud imaginations thus displaid.

Milton can be a difficult writer for native speakers of English. But his effort to write English as if it were Latin was restrained by our lack of inflexion. The Roman authors had no restraint.

Take this, from the Book III of Lucretius:

E tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen
qui primus potuisti inlustrans commoda vitae,
te sequor, o Graiae gentis decus, inque tuis nunc
ficta pedum pono pressis vestigia signis,
non ita certandi cupidus quam propter amorem
quod te imitari aveo; quid enim contendat hirundo
cycnis, aut quid nam tremulis facere artubus haedi
consimile in cursu possint et fortis equi vis?

You can look up every word of this in a dictionary, and still be no closer to knowing what it means. The meaning emerges from the grammatical relationship of the words to each other.

Now, there is a method for decoding periods. To show this, I will use the Milton.

  1. Read to the full stop. Do not try to understand all that is happening. Instead, get the idea that Satan is doing well.
  2. Read again, this time stopping at the first semi-colon. You probably have a clause that makes sense in its own right. The later clauses need the first for making sense. But the first usually stands alone.
  3. Put a mental line through anything that looks like a subordinate clause. These are generally introduced by relative pronouns – “which,” “where,” and so forth.
  4. Put a mental line though anything that looks like a parallel clause. These are generally introduced by conjunctions – “and,” “or,” and so forth.
  5. Look at what is left, and look for the main verb. Here, it is “sat.”
  6. Look for the subject. Here, it is “Satan.”
  7. Look for adjectives and complements that go with the subject. Here, they are “High on a throne of royal state,” and “exalted,” and “by merit raised to that bad eminence.

We therefore have the main idea of the first clause that Satan is sitting high on a throne of royal state, and has been raised by merit to that bad eminence. The subordinate clauses should now make sense. The throne far outshines the wealth or Hormuz and of India – why these places are chosen for comparison may need a commentary to be explained. Or it outshines those other places in the East, where the barbarian kings have pearls and gold poured over them. In Latin, you would know at once whether “barbaric” is an adjective of “kings” or of “pearl and gold.” In English, your guess may be as good as mine.

But I describe a difficulty and a solution not relevant for beginners. The first difficulty is the most important – how to determine the grammatical parts. There are two solutions. The first is to memorise the declensions and conjugations. This is not as hard as it sounds. You go ahead and memorise them. Many years ago, I had to learn Slovak. I had the advantage of living there, and of having an urgent need to learn the language. I mostly learnt it by using it. But I began by memorising all the paradigms of verbs and all the declensions. This took one afternoon. The hardest part of the job was rewriting the declensions I found in my grammar, so they followed the order you find in Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer – nominative-accusative-genitive-dative-locative-instrumental. Bearing in mind I was able within three weeks to chair meetings in Slovak, it was a good use of one afternoon.

But most students do not like memorising. Anyone can do it, but hardly anyone will do it. So the second solution is to  read the grammatical tables, and to be aware of what they say and of any duplications and other ambiguities they show.

Do not, by the way, trouble me or any other teacher with questions that start with the adverb “why.” If you are a beginner, it is enough to be told that something is so. Fero means “I carry.” Tuli means “I have carried.” Latum means “carried.” Learn that, or learn to be aware of it. Do not ask for reasons. If you have progressed any distance, you will know the answers for yourself. The grammar of Classical Latin is a snapshot of the language taken during the first century before Christ. It is somewhere between the extreme complexity of its Indo-European ancestor and the simplicity of its Italian daughter. Had the snapshot been taken before the First Punic War, Classical Latin would have had locative and instrumental cases, and perhaps a definite article. Taken after the death of Commodus, it would not have genitive or dative cases, though it might have the embryo of a restored definite article. Taken when it was, the snapshot shows a weakening of the inflected forms prior to their collapse.

For the rest, every language has irregularities. A counterpart in English of fero-tuli-latum is “I go,” “I went,” “I have gone.” At some time in the distant past, two verbs have been jammed together in different tenses. Children learn the messy result without thinking about it. Intelligent foreigners learn it without asking questions. As said, by the time it is worth asking why, the answer suggests itself.

But I digress. You do not memorise the grammar. Instead, you learn where to find it, and you refer to the tables as often as it takes for them to soak into your mind.

How to get those tables to soak in? When in Slovakia, I was immersed in the language. I learnt much without noticing. With the classical languages, the best alternative is what is called extensive reading. You do not begin by attacking Lucretius. You find a book of easy readings. My current favourite is John Taylor’s Latin Stories. I discovered this when I taught my first GCSE class. It is a clever book. The stories are actually interesting – mostly retellings of Greek myths or episodes from ancient history. The difficulty of each passage is carefully-graded. Every few pages, new grammar is introduced, and this is then drilled into the student. Most sentences are short. Every so often, there is a longer and more complex sentence that gives students an opportunity to practise a simplified version of the parsing rules I give above.

The purpose of this book, and of others like it, is not for each chapter to be read and then left alone. The purpose is for a comparative beginner to decode each sentence, and get the meaning of a passage – and then to read it again, and again, and again. You learn vocabulary not by memorising lists of words, but by fixing the meaning of a word within particular known sentences. Once you no longer need to look up every fifth word in a passage, you are able to appreciate overall matters of style and construction. This is the equivalent of immersion.

A further point is that you do not know Latin if every time you see navis, the word “ship” comes into your mind. You are beginning to know Latin when you see navis and you imagine a ship. You get here by reading and rereading texts where all the work of decoding has been already done.

When you do eventually turn to the classics, you will feel as if you have been lifted from a heated swimming pool and thrown into the Channel. You can read every page of Latin Stories ten or twenty times. Even so, Lucretius will not be an easy read. But, you will be aware of what needs to be done. You strip out the secondary parts of a sentence and hunt for the main verb in what remains. You never entirely stop doing this. But it does grow less frequent with practice. You can say that you know Latin when you are able to read a passage of Cicero or Vergil with as much conscious attention to grammar as an educated native speaker of English pays to the grammar of John Milton.

Oh – and what I say about extensive reading is not confined to learners. If you read Book VI of the Aeneid, you do not throw it aside like a read Sunday newspaper. You read it again, even if not perhaps at once. Any difficulties you may have noticed on first reading will have been settled. So you read it again as you might listen to a favourite piece of music. Doubtless, other difficulties will arise. But you settle those as well. The classics are classics because they repay continued attention. I have read Gibbon three times so far. When I was much younger, I may have read each of Macaulay’s Essays a dozen times. When I was a boy, I read The Ancient Mariner so often, I can still recite it from memory. It is the same with A Shropshire Lad and the first two books of Paradise Lost. You may call that a sign of autism. If so, I can think of less pleasurable disorders.

Or, if you have enough of the Roman classics, there is another millennium of good literature. I like dipping at random into Paul the Deacon, and Liutprand of Cremona, and the Gesta Francorum. I have not read much Erasmus, but he is on my list of authors to download from Google Books. If you want to call yourself a Latinist, you should aim to read five thousand words a week.

Why anyone should put so much effort into learning one or two dead languages is a question I do not propose to discuss. I have discussed it at length elsewhere. All I will say is that, if you are ignorant of at least Latin, you are deaf to some of the finest products of the human mind; you are missing a whole dimension in English literature; you are imperfectly aware of where we stand in the progress of our civilisation. You are at best a mannered barbarian. You probably do not know the grammar and the potential of your own language.

So come and be my student. Or send someone else. No one was ever hurt by knowing the meaning of silent enim leges inter arma. It certainly pays my bills in what would otherwise be a mildly hostile world.


  1. What a splendid piece. I was fortunate to be taught Latin by a very good and imaginative teacher. We leaned “amo, amas, amat” and “mensa, mensa, mensam” by rote, and it stuck. At the end of my second year at grammar school we had a Latin test. I was revising for it, and found myself thinking that I had nothing to revise, as I knew it all. I sat the test and got 100%. Sadly that has never happened since!
    One of my favourite Latin words is ‘secundus’. Apart from its obvious meaning, it can also mean ‘according to’, or ‘favourable’. ‘Following the scriptures’, in the sense of ‘according to..’ is a fairly obvious cliche of the Latin Mass, but the second is a seafaring term; if the ship goes first and the wind comes second, you have a following wind, in other words a ‘favourable’ wind.
    You say; “In Latin, you would know at once whether “barbaric” is an adjective of “kings” or of “pearl and gold.” In English, your guess may be as good as mine.”. My guess is I have yet to see a pearl with a beard.

  2. [quote]The panel (following your very impressive presentation to the school) felt that your vision and suggested methodology for teaching creative writing, plus experience, at this level, along with your critical awareness, were not fully compatible with the vision we have for the course and its positioning.[/quote]

    I consider myself reasonably adept in English usage, but I am not at all sure I understand this sentence. My best attempt at a translation would be that they are saying they disagree with your teaching methods, think you lack the necessary level of experience that they are looking for, and that you lack sufficient knowledge of literary criticism. What literary criticism has to do with teaching creative writing is anybody’s guess, but maybe they have in mind something along the lines of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Critic as Artist’, and that may explain their eventual choice for the post.

    Had you secured the post, I can imagine a scene in a concrete block somewhere in the south of England in which, much like the fictional Howard Kirk, you are sat with your students round a plastic coffee table discussing how racist Joseph Conrad was and why they need to be careful with King Solomon’s Mines. The concern of course would be that you might ‘go native’, buy yourself a pair of Kingsman tortoiseshell glasses and start wearing tight jeans and a black pullover while musing aloud in the cafeteria about Derrida’s writings on différance and whether he was right that Saussure’s ‘sign of a sign’ is transcendental pap.

    Putting aside what they say, I think what they mean is that they do not like you and your views and want somebody who thinks the same way they do. I probably would have replied with a link to Orwell’s timeless essay, Politics and the English Language. In particular, I would have drawn their attention to the following wisdom from Orwell:

    [quote]”Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.”[unquote]

    [quote]”The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”[unquote]”

    Appropos, I doubt Orwell’s linguistic patriotism in that essay was meant to imply a rejection of Latin and Greek influences. The essay is not a critique of the language itself, but a guide to good communication in just the type of situation examined in the article.

    • I doubt I’d have gone native. I was simply spared an ordeal that might have left me rather bitter. But I did give a lush presentation.

      • You could probably beat them at their own game and launch your own creative writing courses online or perhaps run classes on skype. Being a bit simple, I innocently thought creative writing was simply about encouraging people to write their own stories and poems. Nothing wrong with it. I’m sure it’s extremely useful. No doubt there would be demand for a course run by an accomplished and published writer. On the other hand, maybe people like the social aspect of attending courses in person?

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