Speaking Latin and Greek for a Day

Bijan Omrani

When I started to learn Latin at school in the 1990s, the idea that the spoken form of the language should be used as part of its teaching barely arose. Certainly, we were encouraged to read gobbets of text aloud before translating them to appreciate their auditory effects: for instance Virgil’s sound-painting of a storm or the hissing of snakes. But the language played little part in active communication. One teacher would bellow sedete! (“sit down!”) after he entered the room, and call us lumbricus terrestris (“earthworm”) if he found our homework less than impressive. However, beyond this, the language in those times remained firmly on the printed page.

Yet, in recent years, the discipline of Classics has shown itself to be far more open to trying out different methods of teaching. The use of spoken Latin is becoming increasingly popular. In the UK, various groups at Oxford are in the forefront of using the ‘Active Method’ to teach not just Latin, but also Ancient Greek and other early languages. I recently visited Oxford to attend a Dies Latinus et Graecus (“Latin and Greek Day”), designed amongst other things to show teachers and students how this method may be used practically.

Professor Eleanor Dickey (centre) recreates a Latin classroom from the days of the late empire, with Althea Sovani (l) and Professor Philomen Probert (r).

The event was organised by the Oxford Ancient Languages Society (OALS), a university society, with support from Oxford Latinitas, a non-university group based in Oxford that provides online and face-to-face tuition using the Active Method. Such events have been held regularly for the last few years.

The day’s title did not belie its substance. After I walked through the glass doors of the Ship Street Annexe of Jesus College, I found that everything was in Latin: the notices, conference programme, chit-chat between the students and tutors: “Tandem venisti! Quomodo te habes? Me bene habeo!”

“It’s important to remember,” I was afterwards told by Dr Melinda Letts, Senior Member of the Oxford Ancient Languages Society and Lecturer at Jesus College, where the Active Method is used routinely, “that the ultimate purpose of this is not to teach Latin conversation. We use the target language in active communication in order to increase the student’s speed and fluency of reading and comprehension.”

Members of the OALS gathering in a college common room.

Even if Latin conversation was not its intention, it is one of the Active Method’s more remarkable side-effects. Students and teachers had come from the UK, France, Italy, Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, the US, and Brazil. Latin was the lingua franca for the whole day, displacing English as the common language. One tutor from France, who used his Latin name ‘Petrus Calculus’ (Pierre), remarked that the method was creating “an international community of Classics students able to share their passion”. The study of Latin and Greek using the Active Method, with an emphasis on communication between students, leads to a breaking down of barriers: “we meet people of other nationalities and social backgrounds, which creates a beautiful human adventure,” said Petrus.

The first session of the day demonstrated some of the practical ways in which spoken Latin and Greek could be taught to beginners. Guessing games are popular amongst the teachers at this level. Cards with simple words, e.g. templum, argentum, popina, or else the names of historical or mythical characters are handed round. Students then take turns to describe the word or person to the group in Latin, who have to guess what it might be. In addition, the teachers ask the students simple questions about what they have been doing. Another tutor, Iván, explained the value of this exercise:

“I believe the key aspect of the active or communicative approach is the retention of vocabulary and grammatical forms. The conversations I have with my students at the beginning of each class, where I ask them simple questions like “Quid hodie faciebas?” “Quid legebas?” “Quid facies aestate?” (“What were you doing today?” “What were you reading?” “What will you do in the summer?’”) help them actually use the vocab and forms naturally, without thinking of them as lists and charts. So if a student answers: “edebam fructūs” they are not thinking “ēsse: stem ed– + imperfect marker –ba– + personal ending of the first person sing. –m; 4th declension fructus, fructum, fructus, fructui etc.” They are also not translating “I was eating fruit”, they are simply answering a question in a way that they have become used to answering. In the same way, when they encounter edebam (or any other word/form that we use regularly) they will not have to stop to think about it or to translate it, but they will simply understand it. Note that this does not mean they couldn’t, if they needed to, analyse the word edebam grammatically: we do teach the grammar (with charts and all). I say this because of the common misconception that Active Method means no grammar, which is very far from the truth. It’s rather a matter of learning the grammar, then getting to where you are able to use it or read it without the need to think about it, which is what being fluent means.”

Students, recreating one of the ancient classroom dialogues, are asked questions in Latin about the text.

The next session, based on a theme for the day of “Quid antiqui de antiquis censuerint” (“What the ancients thought of the ancients”), was dedicated to activities connected with reading Classical texts. At every level, students were given original texts. The fundamental exercise was for each student to read out a paragraph of the Latin or Greek text, paraphrase or explain it in their own words in the original language, and then for the group to discuss any points of interest that arose from this, again in Latin or Greek. Advanced groups were given Quintilian, Diodorus of Sicily, or Plato to read.

An intermediate group was given Latin epigrams about ancient authors by the 15th-century humanist Maffeo Vegio (1407-58), which then led to general discussions on questions such as “Quis tibi magis placet? Ovidius an Vergilius / Vergilius an Homerus? Cur? Placetne tibi legere carmina an orationes?” (“Whom do you like more, Ovid or Virgil, Virgil or Homer? Why? Do you like to read poems or speeches?”).

A further exercise for the advanced group was to read a passage of Quintilian on the merits (or otherwise) of Seneca the Younger; each participant then quickly wrote a paragraph in Latin on a philosophical question discussed by Seneca, in the style of either Seneca himself or Cicero. Another tutor, Symeon, described the educational merits of these exercises, which he described as the ‘bread-and-butter’ of the method: “students are continuously challenged to produce idiomatic synonymous expressions for what they are seeing in the text before their eyes. Being almost always able to produce three or four idiomatic ways of saying the same thing without ceaselessly rummaging through a thesaurus completely transforms one’s reading experience; a student who has internalized the idiomatic material easily absorbs finer contextual shades of meaning by always setting a given expression against its semantic twins.”

Participants also discussed Ancient Greek passages, using Ancient Greek.

An undergraduate, Nicolaus, who took the top first at Mods (a challenging exam half-way through the four-year Classics course at Oxford) and now runs weekly intermediate-advanced Latin classes for the OALS, agrees that these exercises have increased his reading speed and his sensitivity to nuance in the Classical texts:

“I had been studying Latin on the ‘traditional method’ for nine years before I started using the active method, and Greek seven. I had always enjoyed learning the Classical languages, and had been able to make good progress, but it was only really when I started using Latin actively… that I began to be able to read texts fluently, without looking up half the words and making English annotations – even to read purely for pleasure. Above all, the Active Method has afforded me an exposure to Latin (including speech, but, most importantly, swathes of authentic texts, from passages in class, to songs from Horace after dinner and casual citations of Virgil in WhatsApp) well beyond what one could easily otherwise achieve. This in turn has allowed me to approach a Latin text not simply as ‘a passage to translate’, but to appreciate the importance of the linguistic and stylistic nuances that make each piece of literature unique.”

Whilst, at first sight, these exercises may seem formidable, the advice is noli timere! (“be not afraid!”). Nicolaus comments:

“Though I think it must be more difficult to take the step of ‘activating’ the linguistic knowledge that one has acquired purely passively, as I did, than learning via the active method ab initio, I would like to emphasise that it is possible and less difficult than is often supposed. After the leap of faith and the initial shock, it quickly begins to feel more natural to speak – and even think! – in Latin or Greek, and turns out to be, above all, immense fun… the active method does really seem able, if done well, to ignite a joy in the language: I was once surprised, and delighted, when a friend who had always found prose composition a chore, after coming to an OALS event began writing to me in Latin!”

An excerpt from the Colloquium Harleianum, showing Greek text in the left column and Latin in the right (British Library Harley MS 5642, 9th cent., 31v).

The main afternoon session was a lecture given in Latin by Professor Eleanor Dickey of Reading University on the bilingual Greek and Latin textbooks that were used in the ancient word to teach each of the languages to foreign speakers. These bilingual texts would usually be on everyday subjects of a student’s experience, for example getting ready for school, an argument with a teacher, owing money, or dealing with someone who was drunk (sed modo numquid vomere vis? / ἀλλὰ νῦν μήτι ἐξεράσαι θέλεις; is a handy phrase to ask anyone you see the worse for wear). Long dialogues, written in columns, would be read and discussed by students the students in pairs or small groups. These groups would then come forward to the teacher, read through the dialogues, and then be asked questions ranging from points of grammar and word meaning to impressions of character. Following the lecture, there was a session where some of these original dialogues were used to recreate these learning activities of the ancient classroom, again in Latin and Greek. The challenge to describe the meanings of Latin and Greek words or points of grammar in the original languages echoed the exercises of the morning’s reading session.

I emerged as one of the stragglers from Professor Dickey’s lecture (distracted by a discussion of classical vocabulary connected to inebriation) to find an unexpected diversion in the ante room. Ancient poetry was in the air – Horace, Catullus, snatches of the Carmina Burana, the Emperor Hadrian’s haunting Animula vagula, blandula – not declaimed out of books, but sung. This was the conclusion of the day: the participants sitting round, eating pizza, playing guitars, and intoning Phaselus ille and the like to sweetly melancholy airs. It was a charmingly different experience to my own undergraduate times.

Singing Horace, Catullus, and others at the end of the day, with pizza.

The singing of poetry was praised as another way to get to know the ancient languages intimately and instinctively. But there was more to it than this. Another member of OALS, Charis Jo, explained:

The original mission behind the Dies Latinus was this: to provide an opportunity for people to have fun doing Latin and Greek together. So many of us got into this in the first place because of the pure joy of the ancient languages. When I first came to Oxford, I missed getting together with friends to read and discuss ancient texts not under the pressure of classes or seminars or papers or exams, but just for the joy of reading, discussing, thinking, and speaking – and doing so together, as friends. And I wanted more social opportunities that involved joyous, but relaxed, intellectual conversation and enjoyment of literature together. We never meant for this to become more than a handful of friends reading together, but more and more people kept wanting to come along, so the Dies Latinus was born and by 2019, before the pandemic, we would have around a hundred people coming from around the UK to each study day.”

I’m not sure my own attempts to sing along to the Horace were the occasion of any joy. However, the event did bring me great cheer. To see so many undergraduates and tutors with a wonderful grasp of the ancient languages, and an easy mastery of a wide body of literature with a fine sense of its nuances, is one thing. But on top of that, the openness of the discipline to trying different methods which have the capacity to include those without the traditional type of access to Classics at schools, and to bring them rapidly to a striking level of mastery, shows a wonderful level of self-confidence and hope for the future. Whenever I hear anyone saying that the best days of Classics as a discipline are behind us, I shall now reply with Virgil: toto surget gens aurea mundotuus iam regnat Apollo! (“a golden race shall arise throughout the whole world… Now your Apollo reigns!’).

Bijan Omrani is an Honorary Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. His books include Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide, and Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul. He has written for Antigone previously on the Greeks, Afghanistan and Buddha, on Ausonius, and on Julius Caesar’s hybrid warfare.