Bad Latin: Inaccurate? Too Simple?

I’m intrigued whenever there’s mention of “bad Latin.” Honestly, I’ve never experienced it, even from my students! I was curious whether a similar phenomenon exists for a modern language, so I asked my wife if she’s ever referred to any Spanish she’s read as “bad.” Although she couldn’t recall a particular case, indeed there seemed to be two situations in which she might say this; if something is inaccurate, or too simple.

As for the latter, for something to be labeled “too simple” you must correctly identify the target audience’s level. People who refer to “bad Latin” are overestimating the audience level. This should come as no shock since realistic goals are not Classicists’ strong suit. Furthermore, we know that reading below one’s level can be enjoyable, and instills confidence. Our students need both of these.

(I edited the following paragraph after responding to a comment in an effort to align more closely with my original point that became muddled when I used the word “nuance” in a silly way.)

As for the former, inaccuracies refer to non-native-like use (i.e. a modern SLA term VanPatten uses in place of “incorrect”) of language. There isn’t really good or bad language when it comes to comprehension. Instead, there is more or less understandable language, and that call is made by the interpreter. Cicero is not understandable to Novice students, and they don’t care how flawless his Latin is. Cicero’s ideas delivered in a less native-like manner using appropriately sheltered vocabulary, however, can be understandable to Novice students. It’s worth noting that the level of non-native-like use could contain glaring errors (i.e. canem ambulate = to walk the dog), or innocuous ones (e.g. canem ambulare = to walk the dog). The idea that non-native-like uses makes something “bad” is in favor of correctness over communication. Regardless of inaccurate or simple Latin:

I did not improve my Latin by NOT reading Latin. The abundance of perfect yet confusing Latin as well as the absence of understandable Latin did nothing for my fluency. 

I studied Latin for 7 years yet failed to read even the “easiest” authors without consulting a grammar book, commentary, and lexicon. This comes from my experience as a highly motivated student, but what about other learners who are less willing to drudge through Latin written in the style of the Classical canon, yet remain just as capable to acquire the language?

Believe it or not, but there’s only one Latin novel that ALL first year students can read, and it was published in 2015. We need more reading materials at this level. Unless these materials contain countless egregious errors in form, we’re OK. Any inaccurate use of certain words and syntax (e.g. “ambulare canem” for “walks the dog”) have very little negative impact on Novice readers. The books are written to students’ level of sheltered vocabulary, which might not include a particular word that creates a perfect Latin idiom. So, “bad Latin” doesn’t really exist for the Novice audience, which tends to attract the most criticism. It’s worth noting that Harrius Potter, and Hobbitus Ille don’t fit the bill since their reading level is way beyond Novice. It takes multiple embedded readings to read just portions of those works for students within the first 1-4 years of Latin.

So, have you read “bad Latin?” Chances are good that you’ve misunderstood for whom it’s written. Have you found inaccuracies in published Latin written for Novice or Intermediate learners that you feel are crippling to the learner? Why not contact the author and begin a dialogue about why you think so?

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5 thoughts on “Bad Latin: Inaccurate? Too Simple?

  1. Hi, Lance!

    First off, let me say that I admire you, your approach to teaching, and the very useful thinking about SLA and Latin pedagogy that you post here really highly. No, really I am in awe. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to come and watch you teach in 2016. I have a friend who has a second home in Glendale (near Stockbridge), so it’s quite doable.

    Anyway, gotta disagree with you here. Bad Lx exists, and it’s worth talking about.

    Perhaps “bad” is too values-laden a word to use here; perhaps just “incorrect”. And “ambulare canem” meaning “to walk the dog” is a good example. We are not talking about a morphology error, of course. Nor are we talking about nuance, which to me always has a large element of language-intrinsic connotation about it. A brief and morphologically simple example would be Cicero’s “vixerunt!” to announce the execution of the Catilinarian conspirators to the crowd in the forum. A modern Latin student who knows this form perfectly well might well not get what C. meant to say. She is missing the nuance, the connotation of the remark.

    No, *canem ambulare is incorrect Latin because ambulare is virtually never transitive, and _is_ never transitive except for nouns that refer to something to walk on or along. In other words, you do find viam ambulare or even mare nave ambulare, but never to walk a person or an animal. In fact, it’s worth pointing out that it would not even occur to native speakers of many languages to say *canem ambulare, as their L1 “walk” is intransitive as well: an example is Russian, where *sobaku xodit’ would earn you a sudden stare and then a laugh (actually, I suspect a Russian would understand this as a weird way of saying “to walk like a dog”. I’ll ask my informants). They say “take the dog out for a walk (or a stroll)”, and that’s what I would say in Latin: canem spatiatum (or ambulatum, or ut se levet) educere.

    I also think your dichotomy of student writing vs. Cicero’s is very forced. There’s lots of correct Latin in between, as you know well.

    Linguists have used an asterisk to mark an incorrect/impossible utterance in an Lx, something that an L1 speaker would basically never say. It’s a useful conceptual category, and, moreover, I would say that a teacher should endeavor _never_ to use an incorrect utterance (“bad” language) in class. How to respond when they come from student output is entirely another matter.

    • Thanks, Stephen! We’ll set up a time whenever you’d like. Disagreements are always welcome. I used “canem ambulare” as an example in a non-native-like way (i.e. a modern SLA term VanPatten uses in place of “incorrect”) to express “to walk the dog.” When sheltering vocabulary to words students know, understandable messages are more important than how native-like one can be, even if it’s the ultimate goal. Your suggestion of “canem ambulatum” also would be understandable in that situation of sheltering vocabulary, and has the benefit of being more native-like, so thanks!

      Of all the things we could begin discussing, I’ll focus on the idea of “bad Latin.” There isn’t really good or bad language when it comes to comprehension. Instead, there is more or less understandable language, and that call is made by the interpreter. Cicero is not understandable to Novice students, and they don’t care how flawless his Latin is. Cicero’s ideas delivered in a less native-like manner (= “incorrect” in your terms) using appropriately sheltered vocabulary, however, can be understandable to Novice students. It’s worth noting that the level of non-native-like use could contain glaring errors (i.e. canem ambulate = to walk the dog), or innocuous ones (e.g. canem ambulare = to walk the dog). The idea that non-native-like uses makes something “bad” is in favor of correctness over communication.

      Classicists have an obsession with correctness. Perhaps this is why access to Latin has been restricted to only the few. If using some words in a less native-like manner means that all students experience Latin, there’s really nothing “bad” about that.

      • Well, Lance, I still wonder. I’m going to avoid Van Patten’s “non-native” because it’s irrelevant for Latin. To be honest, there are all sorts of standard terms relevant to language study and learning that are one-step-removed when it comes to Latin (e.g. the asterisk for incorrect), with no native speakers and no native speech (as opposed to writing).

        A couple of points:

        –A teacher who is a native speaker of the target language is never going to allow “comprehensibility” to trump idiom. And, at least in my extensive experience with Russians, this is not a case that you can make.

        –What of students who are not native English speakers? Canem ambulare may make no sense to them (it didn’t to my Russian informants, who are adults).

        We certainly are agreed on the goal, Lance: reading Latin texts with understanding and enjoyment. The question is the best, most effective path for the most students, to get there. And I’m pressing this point because many other features of Latin come into play–word order, for a big one.

      • “I’m going to avoid Van Patten’s “non-native” because it’s irrelevant for Latin.”

        Well, not really. The correctness was extrapolated from writings of native speakers. It all applies.

        “What of students who are not native English speakers? Canem ambulare may make no sense to them”

        Right, so don’t use it. It’s our job to make Latin comprehensible, and we must adjust for our own students.

  2. Since you’re talking about a context in which we’re trying to help people acquire Latin, we can table the good-bad terminology and focus instead on what is efficient for helping students acquire Latin, which is, I think, the central issue in this post.

    For any phrase we use with our students that doesn’t emerge naturally from our reading of Latin, we can ask how efficient it is likely to be for helping our students acquire whatever we want them to acquire. So, for your “canem ambulare,” we can ask, “what is the feature of Latin that we hope this phrase will help students acquire?” Even more practically, we can ask, “is ‘canem ambulare’ a more efficient phrase with which to help students acquire feature X of Latin than some other phrase?”

    The main ingredients for efficiency are comprehension, without which there is no acquisition, and compellingness, which does not cause acquisition but makes people more likely to continue reading or listening. A smaller factor in efficiency is whether a structure, if acquired, will need to be “unacquired” later (by being crowded out by other usage).

    “Canem ambulare” scores high on comprehensibility for English speakers who have not yet acquired “ambulare” as it is used in texts of all eras. It could contribute to compellingness if it is part of a story or conversation that can’t be compelling without it. I don’t worry as much as a lot of people (including pretty much all the 15th-through-17th-century humanists) that non-standard usage will become fossilized in the learner’s brain, because this isn’t really borne out by modern research.

    Based on all this, the most likely reason I can think of for using “canem ambulare” vel sim. would be to support a highly compelling, unplanned, student-created plot (or conversation about a student’s real life) whose goal was the acquisition of features of Latin found in phrases other than “canem ambulare.”

    I don’t think I myself would use it in planned, editable speech or writing, because my preference is to use Latin that, if acquired, makes learners’ future hearing and reading of Latin easier. If I thought that more idiomatic ways of expressing the concept (e.g., “canem ducere”) would be incomprehensible to the target audience, I would probably change the plot (of a story) or include an explanation (in non-fiction that required talking about walking a dog).

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