A few years ago, I decided to start learning Latin for various reasons.
Firstly, I thought that it was and still do think it is a majestic and beautiful language. Its words just have that accompanying gravitas. It had so much weight. Somehow, the mere fact that something is written in Latin seems to lend it greater credence. This could explain why so many mottos and well-known sayings are in Latin. It doesn’t sound as grand in English.
Secondly, many of the difficult words in the English language, which includes but is not limited to medical and scientific jargon, often make use of Latin and Greek roots by combining them to yield esoteric language. I had the idea that if I went about learning Latin, I would have a much better shot at deciphering a lot of medical jargon (particularly in anatomy), and many challenging English words that I encounter as I read the literary classics, medical textbooks, and other texts.
Thirdly, I thought it would be cool to be able to read the Bible in another language. I think it is quite interesting to read Scripture in Latin, a language known for its beauty. I particularly like how some expressions are rather concise in Latin. For example, consider this: Dixitque Deus : Fiat lux. Et facta est lux.
This is Genesis 1:3, and the KJV reads: ‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light’.
As I read the original Latin, several things jump out at me. Allow me to walk you through my train of thought. The first is the word ‘Dixitque’. The suffix -que just means ‘and’. ‘Dixit’ refers to how somebody said something in the third person. All we know from ‘dixit’ is that a third person spoke it. It could be a he or a she. We don’t know. This third person is of course clarified by the word following ‘Dixitque’: Deus. The ‘third person’ who did the speaking is none other than God Himself.
I am reminded of the puzzle game called ‘Dixit’.
I wonder how many people know that ‘dixit’ is an actual Latin word. It’s subtle, isn’t it? The root word for ‘dixit’ is dico, dicere, dixi, dictum and from this root springs words such as ‘diction’, ‘dictionary’, dictation’, ‘contradict’, ‘dictator’, ‘predict’, ‘benediction’ (‘bene’ means good’; so go figure what Benedict as a name means), and ‘verdict’. ‘Verdict’ is interesting. We know what -dict in ‘verdict’ stands for by now. What about ‘ver-’? We see this in words such as ‘verify’ and ‘veracity’. The Latin word ‘ver’ means ‘truth’ or ‘true’?
Do you know what Harvard’s motto is?
Perhaps you could have figured it out from the logo. Veritas, which means ‘truth’. Unsurprisingly, in Roman mythology, Veritas is a goddess. No prizes for guessing what she is a goddess of.
Most people should recognize that ‘Deus’ refers to ‘God’. From this word, we have words such as ‘deity’, and phrases such as ‘deus ex machina’.
What is Mozart’s middle name? Most people should know this one. Yes.
Amadeus. It can be split into ama- and -deus.
The prefix ama- means ‘love’ (I’m sure you have heard of ‘amore’). So ‘Amadeus’ can be rendered as ‘one who loves God’. Amadeus is not a name that you would hear nowadays. However, its feminine form ‘Amanda’ is alive and well. In a similar vein, the Latinized form of my name is Nicolaus, which is quite uncommon. However, the feminine form ‘Nicola’ is alive and well. I suppose the equivalent feminine form of ‘Nicholas’ would then be ‘Nicole’, which is also rather common.
We have deviated quite a bit. I’ll just make two more short points. Consider the word ‘et’. That means ‘and’. In fact, can you think of a symbol or character that looks like ‘et’ and shares its meaning?
&. Yes, the ampersand, &! The ampersand actually originated as a ligature of the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’ in ‘et’. According to the Wikipedia article, the word ‘ampersand’ is a corruption of the phrase “and per se & (and)”, meaning “and by itself and (represented by the symbol &)”. Marvellous, isn’t it?
Lastly, we have the word ‘lux’. Not that interesting. From this Latin word springs words such as ‘luminosity’, ‘elucidate’, ‘luminate’, and ‘translucent’.
See the sheer number of connections one can make just from that short Genesis 1:3.
For a very long time, the Bible was only available in Latin. Latin was the language of the educated. For century after century in Europe, various regions all had their local languages. The Bible as we know it has the Old Testament and the New Testament. The original language of the OT is Hebrew with some bits of Aramaic. The original language of the NT, on the other hand, is Koine Greek (or common Greek). Perhaps due to the influence of the Catholic Church for much of medieval times, Latin earned its place as the language of the elite. It probably also helped that by the time the biblical canon was well-established, the Roman Empire that we associate with Caesar and Augustus had faded. I do not know the relevant history well enough to be able to make a definitive comment but what I will say is that the languages spoken by the masses, at least from the time of Christ onwards, slowly morphed from the classical Latin that has survived in the form of the works of classic writers such as Caesar. Latin was preserved in writing. However, regarding the spoken form of Latin, Vulgar Latin, according to the relevant Wikipedia article, ‘is a blanket term covering vernacular dialects of the Latin language spoken from earliest times in Italy until the latest dialects of the Western Roman Empire, diverging still further, evolved into the early Romance languages – whose writings began to appear about the 9th century’. Many factors reinforced one another to give rise to the sheer influence of a Latin translation of the Bible.
What happened in the 4th century was that Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to revise various Latin manuscripts for the Gospels that were used by the church at the time. Presumably, things would be neater and more organized if there were just one standardized manuscript that the church could use. It seems that Jerome was quite spontaneous, as he decided to go the extra mile. Jerome extended his task to that of most of the Bible, essentially making his own Latin translation of the Bible, which would be known as the Vulgate. Once published, the Vulgate was widely used and it was basically the same text used by the Catholic Church from that point on for the next 1,500 years (from around the year 400 (note that Jerome was commissioned by Damasus I in AD 381) to the year 1979, when the Catholic Church decided to use a new Latin translation, the Nova Vulgata). This is what Wikipedia has to say on the influence of the Vulgate on Western culture:
For over a thousand years (c. AD 400–1530), the Vulgate was the most commonly used edition of the most influential text in Western European society. Indeed, for most medieval Western Christians, it was the only version of the Bible ever encountered. The Vulgate’s influence on Latin culture throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance into the Early Modern Period is even greater than that of the King James Version in English. For Christians during these times, the phraseology and wording of the Vulgate permeated all areas of culture.
These constitute some of my thoughts that had prompted me to want to learn Latin a few years ago. However, I gave it up after a while. I did self-study it to the extent that I can dissect Genesis 1:3 and various other bits of the Bible. However, I am not at the proficiency where I can read the Bible comfortably in Latin without needing to consistently consult a dictionary. I do intend to resume learning Latin again for good though.
You might be asking at this point? So Nicholas, how did you actually start learning Latin? Allow me to introduce you to LLPSI, or Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata (which could be rendered ‘The Latin Language Intrinsically Illustrated’). This is a series which comes in two parts: 1) Pars I Familia Romana; 2) Pars II Roma Aeterna. I used this series when I first started learning Latin on my own a few years ago.
It employs the ‘natural method’, which is a rather interesting concept. Basically, the entire LLPSI series doesn’t contain a single word of English. The entire book is in Latin. The learner learns by context, visual cues, and gradual acquisition. It starts off very easy. For instance, Its first sentence is ‘Roma in Italia est’. I am confident that every decent speaker of English or a Romance language will be able to know instantly what that means.
What I intend to do is that I’ll post screenshots of the text in my blog posts. You will be able to learn Latin by reading them. I will also post my translation attempt of the text, which I think is helpful for my learning. You may also find it helpful to consult it.
Stay tuned for the first chapter!
13 June 2020