“Classically Attested” & “Latinity”: The Latest Buzz

Teacher-written reading material for Novice & Intermediate language learners is not new, at least for modern languages. TPRS Publishing and TPRS Books frequently add more to their roster, so teachers have their choice of topic. 2015 saw the publication of the first two of these novellas in Latin, [self-]published by Pomegranate Beginnings (i.e. Pluto & Itinera Petri). Since then, there has been a wide range of reception amongst Latin teachers (or Classicists, or Linguists, or Scholars, etc.). The general consensus regarding the positive reception has been something like  “this is helping our students feel successful and have a positive experience in Latin class. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it.” Regarding the negative reception, most of it revolves around two buzzwords:

  1. Classically Attested
    This is used to question the use of Latin in a way that doesn’t appear in our extant sources (e.g. we don’t know if someone ever said or wrote mihi magis placet because it doesn’t exist in the literature that has survived).
  2. Latinity
    The “style” of one’s Latin (speaking, writing) in terms of conforming to grammatical norms, which could also include word choice.

These buzzwords matter. For some teachers, less-than-superior style and unattested Latin appear to be a threat to The Classics as an insult to intelligence and knowledge, or the work these teachers themselves put into translating and parsing over the years. For other teachers, less-than-superior style and unattested Latin appear to be a disservice to students who wholeheartedly embrace the canon, take the AP, enroll in college, and then complete the cycle to teach Latin at the secondary level (or remain in Academia holding a variety of positions). The reasoning is understandable—fine, even. I get it. I feel you. I hear this, yet I’ve just moved on.

Latinity: An example
I recently overheard a professor slam Oxford as being “bad Latin.” Wow, really? The same professor claimed that “bad textbook Latin” is the reason students can’t transition to reading authentic texts. This is unsubstantiated. A more probable claim is that students can’t transition to reading authentic texts because most students aren’t READING Latin to begin with (re: reading vs. translating textbook passages), and that they haven’t built mental representation of the language, being held accountable for memorizing far too much vocabulary, and/or grammatical knowledge. There are many types of reading tasks, but fluent reading—the kind of reading when you read for meaning so easily that you’ve finished a passage/chapter/book without realizing how long it was or how long you had been reading—is one of the better, if not best experiences to have as a reader! I never had that experience as a Latin student, and I was exposed to superior Latinity. It’s a miracle I’m still here after struggling with Latin for so long, but this isn’t about me. I’ve seen how most students aren’t willing to endure what I did, and there’s not much glory for the few who do.

Classically Attested: An example
mālō (I prefer) expresses preference, but unfortunately looks like malus (bad), or mālum (apple). That is just one reason not to use mālō. Another might be that I don’t want to add a new verb. The reasons don’t matter as much as the decision. So, lets say I decide that I just don’t want to use mālō. The suggestion to use mihi magis placet (I like __ more) is reasonable. My students already know mihi placet, so this substitution is probably more comprehensible, AND we have the added bonus of sheltering vocabulary to what students know without adding a new verb, mālle. So, I did some research and found that mihi magis placet doesn’t appear in the literature. Ugh, right? Now the choice is to use an attested word (mālō) that might be more difficult to comprehend (adding another verb to the students’ vocabulary), or to use an expression the Romans would probably understand even if it’s not found in the literature, but one that I’m positive that my students would comprehend. The criticism is that if something isn’t used in the literature in the same way, or isn’t found in the literature at all, we shouldn’t bother giving it to students to read. This is valid, but only insofar as those students—all of them—will end up reading the literature at all. Very, very few students continue reading Latin, and those who do tend to become Latin teachers. Furthermore, if my experience is anything like other Latin teachers, I can say confidently that I cannot READ most of Latin literature. Give me a couple hours, a dictionary, and some notes, and I’ll be able to tell you what’s going on, or maybe even translate a passage or two, but neither of those are enjoyable experiences for me. What about our students?

So, the basis for questioning the use of Latin in a way that doesn’t appear in our extant sources breaks down because the reality is that most students’ experience doesn’t match the goals of teachers making this claim. An argument could be made that less-than-superior style and unattested Latin that enables all students to feel successful would actually get more kids interested in The Classics (where there is no dearth of Latinity). It certainly wouldn’t result in fewer kids considering it, right? I cannot imagine a world in which Little Johnny is pissed when he finds out that mihi magis placet is nowhere to be found in his M.A. reading list. I can, however, imagine a world in which Little Johnny doesn’t have to think upon coming across the phrase mihi placet, or just the word magis while he’s fluently reading what his peers are parsing (because they were never given material they could read). In the end, we can’t predict what students will do with Latin, but we can focus on their experience with us. I don’t intend to be dogmatic about this. Just make sure you’re holding true to what it is you want your students’ experience to be.

Language classrooms are filled with tourists—the kids who have dreamed of visiting another country since age 8. There are other types of tourists, too—the kids who take our language course because it seemed cool, their friends are in the class, or they’d rather not take another elective. The argument for using only superior style and attested Latin also breaks down for these students. In fact, it breaks down for just about every student we have (minus those very few students we send to college as Classics majors). When using these buzzwords, we need to recognize our audience, examine the experience of our students, and evaluate whether OUR goals include all, or exclude most. It can be tricky trying to reconcile being true to the literature while also recognizing that most people can’t read the literature they’re given—because that’s all we’ve had to give. This doesn’t absolve the author of including egregious errors, or inventing syntax, but should encourage discretion when creating reading material that positively contributes to the feeling of success, and overall experience in Latin class.


9 thoughts on ““Classically Attested” & “Latinity”: The Latest Buzz

  1. Two things you haven’t addressed here that I’d be interested to know your thoughts on.

    1. The use of words to mean things that they don’t quite mean, but accepting them because of simplicity or a nice English cognate: difficultas for “difficulty” in Brando Brown, when that would imply something rather stronger than the responsibilities and issues a puppy can cause, like for example “poverty.” I’ve heard Justin, the translator of BB, express discomfort with having had to do this particular thing several times; thus this is in no way a jab at him. I understand the argument in favor of doing this, but because of point 2, I would strongly argue against it.

    2. The major concern that I have with using unattested Latin is the same as I have with putting Latin words in a more English-like word order: when we do these things, we are prioritizing English syntax and meaning over Latin syntax and meaning. Since we teachers are the front line for Latin’s continuing relevance, I consider it of extreme importance that we treat Latin like a real language and respect its rules and usage on their own terms.

    One further thing- I use the word “unattested” not to mean “we never see this word with that word” as in the case “magis placet” but rather “we never see this word acting in that way” e.g. as an intensifying adverb. magis can be an intensifying adverb, and so I consider “magis placet” admissible. If you think I’d better define it thus in my posts on this subject, I’d be happy to add it.

    • “difficultas” for “difficulty” isn’t the same as something like “embarrasado” (= pregnant) for “embarrassed.” I wouldn’t have the same struggle that Justin SB did because “difficultas” just has additional meanings, or nuance. It’s like the choice to use “scribere” when a poet is composing in her mind, and likely not writing something down on expensive papyrus. In terms of word order, Justin varied it quite a bit in BB as well. You also supported the idea that we should use different word order to illustrate Latin’s flexibility, and Alan shared with us how uncertain word order analysis has been. Decisions I make will reflect connections and comparisons to English—my student’s native language. A native Spanish author will likely create Latin learner reading materials differently for her students. I don’t think those are destructive strategies.

    • In case the bit about my discomfort refers to my mentioning difficult-to-translate-phrases in Brattleboro the other day, the other examples I gave were all ones for which I came up with Latin alternatives with which I’m quite comfortable. (I may have mentioned some off-sounding Latin possibilities to give examples of how I often had to choose entirely different phrases instead of these off-sounding ones.)

      I don’t feel that bad about difficultas–we have plenty of examples in classical Latin of difficultas used to describe difficulty learning something, building something, getting something, accomplishing something, etc. If it oooonly meant severe hardship in all attestations, I don’t think I would have used it–here I probably differ from Lance. The noteworthy point is that I know an expression that seems to me like a very close equivalent of “to cause someone problems”–“alicui negotium exhibere”–but chose to use the expression with difficultas instead for the sake of transparency.

  2. Magis placet may not be attested, but plus placet is and multiple times. Why not use that? I do wonder whether your professor considers the Vulgate or Petronius “bad Latin.” Sed de nugis in commentariolo tuo loquor. Wouldn’t you say that this professor never teaches students to read (vs. decode) in any case? Have you seen Mary Beard’s comments about reading something completely new in her blog post? I agree with you wholeheartedly (with the minor observations that often authentic phrases do exist, and that I am not clear at all on where you place idiom on the “sheltering” scale (cf. vocabulary and grammar). But, as Bob Patrick can attest, the fate of CI/TPRS in college programs is a real issue, and will become a more prominent one. I know of no efforts to address this in a comprehensive way.

  3. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.10: Quoniam, quae Graeci πάθη vocant, nobis perturbationes appellari magis placet quam morbos…

    Martial 3.51:
    Cum faciem laudo, cum miror crura manusque,
    dicere, Galla, soles “Nuda placebo magis”,
    et semper uitas communia balnea nobis.
    Numquid, Galla, times ne tibi non placeam?

  4. Pingback: Pīsō Ille Poētula: A New Latin Novella | Magister P.

  5. Pingback: Input Processing: Implications | Magister P.

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