Monday, December 03, 2007

Dictionarese and the Death of Latin

As I wrote to the colleague who forwarded a link to Harry Mount's op-ed piece in the NYT on Latin, this is painfully unreadable and barely Latin, which defeats for the most part its author's argument.

Aside from the countless errors (e.g., at age 9 Jefferson 'started learning' Latin and Greek, according to the English version, but in the Latin he 'docere coepit', which would be quite a feat), the style is virtually absent, by which I mean to say that he has written not Latin but simplified English with very little regard for Latin idiom.

Let's take briefly the opening line. Is there any student of Latin composition who would not be ashamed to write this:

'Primum, duces nostros linguam Latinam non iam studere triste non videtur.'

When he means to say this?

'At first glance, it doesn’t seem tragic that our leaders don’t study Latin anymore.'

Let's just ignore the awkwardness of the English. One could at least make an effort in the Latin to be readable or accurate or both. For example, why primum and not primo (or a more explicit phrase)? Why this clumsy and ambiguous construction with the impersonal verb when any number of more elegant constructions present themselves readily (e.g., a conditional sounds nice to my ear)? Why triste at all when a dozen other words are more suitable (e.g., clades)?

I won't waste any more time on this, but I would like to encourage others out there to make a genuine effort to promote good Latinity and reject bad.

5 comments:

sauvagenoble said...

Yeah, that wasn't the greatest Latin.

Anonymous said...

Pity us poor Latin students, who cannot tell the difference. If we attempt to translate what we reasonably assume to be good Latin (it's in a prestigious mag, nonne?), we only end up becoming confused and frustrated. Id est, we know enough Latin to translate a bit, but not enough to know when the "Latin" author is worse than we are.

Tamerlane said...

Yes anonymous I agree I wonder if there is a style book for 'good latin.' I have a couple English -> composition books, they have a little info on idiom but not enough, and nothing on general style.

Dennis said...

There are those who like to harrumph about how little we know about 'real' Latin or 'good' Latin, and those who like to disparage Ciceronians, for example, but a modern writer's Latinity is really a simple thing to judge. If I--as a serious student of Latin--can read it as Latin, then it's good.

If, however, it is actually a cipher for a series of English sentences (which this was), then it is very, very bad.

The guide to good Latin is reading Latin literature.

When you find yourself in the midst of an authentic Roman author and think, 'this feels particularly clumsy,' you've probably found a bit of corrupt text.

But here it just signals a corrupt author.

Mimi said...

I wondered why the author would use an accusative ("duces nostrOS") instead of an nominative ("duces nostrI") when there's a verb like "videtur" which usually requires an NcI (Nominativus cum Infinitivo)because it's a passive form of a "verbum dicendi" (I don't know how it's called in English, that's what I learned in German Latin lessons) . However, the author uses an AcI (Accusativus cum infinitivo). Or is there an exception to this rule?