This is a corrected version of a post published on April 10, 2012. It was changed to clarify a quotation in the sixth paragraph.
The Mathey College spoken Latin table is an exercise in anachronism. Like the other language tables held in the residential college dining halls, it meets weekly to provide active language practice and something of the immersion of living in a foreign country. But the Latin table does more than transport students to a different place; it takes them back in time. Every Thursday night, students are bringing a dead language back to life.
The Latin table is led by Jason Pedicone, a Ph.D. student in the classics department. Pedicone attributes his passion for spoken Latin to the charismatic tutelage of Reginald Foster, former Vatican Latinist. For 23 years, Foster taught aestiva Romae latinitas, or Summer Latin in Rome, and inspired a generation of Latin scholars to speak the language of Cicero and Virgil.
This “living Latin” method flies in the face of traditional Latin pedagogy, which stresses translation, memorization, and recitation. Joseph Conlon, a classics graduate student and Latin table regular, criticized the traditional model as “exclusive” and overly pedantic. As a result, “people are scared of Latin,” he said.
The Latin table aims to change that by fostering fluency in speaking in addition to reading and writing. Conlon encourages students to view Latin as a “normal language, just another mode of human communication.” Students talk about a range of topics at the table — de die (about their day), de professoribus (about professors), de cibo (about food), and of course de lingua latina (about Latin).
A dead language poses unique problems for modern speakers. How do you translate a word for something that didn’t exist a thousand years ago? Pedicone’s answer: “By the seat of your pants.” Consider the modern word “computer.” One approach calls for “back-forming” the Latin translation from the English word to computatrum. Circumlocution is another strategy: “computer” could be described alternatively as machinamentum quod putat, or “machine that thinks.”
When it comes to pronunciation, just about anything goes. Pedicone concedes that no amount of practice can obscure the fact that “it’s impossible to recreate an authentic ancient pronunciation in the modern age.” His advice is to focus on content. Since the language’s original arbiters of taste have long since passed away, the modern speaker has a great deal of flexibility in interpretation. Latin is, after all, a foreign language for everyone. “Everyone brings their own accent to it,” Conlon said.
Most of the students at the Latin table are classics majors, but Pedicone welcomes beginners and scholars of other persuasions. For math major Anson Fleissner ’12, spoken Latin is both a hobby and an academic resource. Using his knowledge of Latin, he is able to parse complex vocabulary into comprehensible Latin parts.
For Pedicone, Latin is a “key” that allows the student to be “culturally competent” throughout the Western world. While he maintains no delusions about a second wind for Latin as a vehicular language, he is optimistic about its value as an instructional tool. This summer, he will be teaching spoken Latin in Rome with the Paideia Institute, a summer program he co-founded in 2011.
Vicky Gan ’13 is a history major from Baltimore, Md.