Dante’s Circles Of Latin Shaming Hell

Instances of Latin shaming (i.e. causing one to feel ashamed or inadequate regarding their use of Latin) come up every now and then. I last pondered the issue back in August of 2019 in a draft of this post, first started in 2018 after observing some kind of online scuffle. Like clockwork, there have been public discussions once again regarding Latinity (i.e. quality of Latin), whether spoken in the classroom, or appearing in published works. To be clear, I have no interest in participating in those discussions. None. However, I’d like to share a bit about what’s been going on, and give some examples of Latin shaming…

For starters, I’m a current author of short books for the super-beginning to beginning Latin learner (i.e. within the first years). There are probably just 10 authors writing Latin at this level, so to think I’m not among those at the center of Latin shaming would be naive. Truth be told, though, I haven’t experienced much Latin shaming myself…at least directly.

Since 2016, I have received *exactly* three emails regarding anything other than silly typos (that always manage to get through!). Three. Yet over the years, and in public fora, I’ve observed the shaming of particular Latin similar to my own. That means people aren’t contacting me with concerns (hence, why I have no interest in any public discussion). That also means that if you’ve observed any Latin shaming about my work, I probably haven’t, which is super unhelpful. Of course, the assumption there would be that Latin shaming is intended to help, ultimately for the good of language learners in the first place. But that’s a big assumption. In fact, if people truly wanted to help, they’d contact authors with their ideas or concerns, or just go ahead and write their own books at the same level. As far as I know, neither has been the case. N.B. there have been not-so-subtle responses in the form of new books to the Latin that’s been publicly shamed. However, the new books were written at a much, much higher level than level of that Latin subject to shaming (no, I’m not calling out anyone, just read through some prefaces if you’re curious). In truth, I’m not sure what purpose public Latin shaming discussions really serve other than for some people to express their preference for the kind of Latin they wish were being written. Yeah, you’re not missing out on anything there. Speaking of missing, something often missing from Latin shaming is acknowledging that many decisions have been made by authors that non-authors just don’t know about, or haven’t had to consider yet. Furthermore, author teachers make different decisions than author scholars. And that makes sense. In fact, I wonder if most of the Latin shaming is done with a disregard for pedagogical decisions.

But enough of that. Let me take you on a journey. Here are different levels of Latin shaming inspired by a bit of Dante. Some, I’ve actually observed. Others don’t exist in any published works I know of, but would elicit the most egregious Latin shaming. For example:

  • antijio cenniney.
    Not Latin
  • Khaleesi antijio cenniney.
    Non-classical topic + not Latin
  • persōna, Khaleesi, ambulāre anamal canīnum.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic + English-like word order + non-idiomatic phrase + non-native-like inflected form + unnuanced vocabulary + typo

OK fine, I’ve never seen anything remotely close to those. This would be like staring frozen Lucifer right in the face. Moving outwards through Latin shaming hell, then:

  • persōna, Khaleesi, ambulāre canim.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic + English-like word order + non-idiomatic phrase + non-native-like inflected form + typo
  • persōna, Khaleesi, ambulāre canem.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic + English-like word order + non-idiomatic phrase + non-native-like inflected form
  • persōna, Khaleesi, canem ambulāre.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic + non-idiomatic phrase + non-native-like inflected form

I’ve never actually come across examples like this, either. However, if anything like this were to be published, some would consider the entire batch of examples “not Latin” at all. Let’s leave the inner circle of Latin shaming hell, and venture forth, shall we?

  • persōna, Khaleesi, ambulat canem.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic + English-like word order + non-idiomatic phrase
  • persōna, Khaleesi, canem ambulat.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic + non-idiomatic phrase

When it comes to Latin shaming, either example above might “get someone murdered in certain Latīnitās circles,” as a fellow Latin teacher once put it. Some might also consider these “not Latin.” Latin like the examples in this circle do exist, but tend to be quite rare. Moving on:

  • persōna, Khaleesi, dūcit canīnum animal.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic + English-like word order + unnuanced vocabulary
  • persōna, Khaleesi, animal canīnum dūcit.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic + unnuanced vocabulary
  • persōna, Khaleesi, canem dūcit.
    Late/modern use of cognate/derivative + non-classical topic

The circle above might represent the primary target of Latin shaming. Although a more-idiomatic verb is used in all of these examples, there’s still enough opening up this kind of Latin to significant shaming. Even the last example among otherwise native-like Latin is subject to it because of a single word (Vulgar and Medieval Latin aren’t always safe from shaming!). Often, the choice to use one word over another has been considered, and reconsidered, and re-reconsidered, even when multiple readers and editors are consulted. Sadly, Latin shaming tends to not acknowledge, much less respect those author decisions. But let’s continue the journey, yeah? The outer circles of Latin shaming hell below are reserved for those who tend to have very different values and goals for their students apart from most teachers following a comprehension-based and communicative language (CCLT) approach, if they even have students at all:

  • Khaleesi dūcit canem.
    Non-classical topic + English-like word order
  • Khaleesi canem ducit.
    Non-classical topic + missing macron
  • Khaleesi canem dūcit.
    Non-classical topic

You might not believe it, but I’ve observed how not-classical, let alone pop-culture references can be enough for Latin shaming to take place. Oh, and some people shame Latin just as much for its use of macrons as its lack of them! Nonetheless, there’s light ahead, but we’re not in the clear, yet:

  • Caesar canem dūcit.
    Inaccurate; Caesar would have never walked a dog

OK fine, I’m not sure that’s actually true, but I have seen historical fiction prone to Latin shaming on content alone. Fear not! The end is near. At this point, we’ve left purgatory behind:

  • servus canem dūcit.
    Perfect Latin. Totally fine topic.* Students probably want to read and discuss slavery a lot more, perhaps daily.* Better yet, let’s act this out, too: “Who wants to play the vēnālīcius?”* More textbooks should be written with greater emphasis on this aspect of antiquity, for sure.*

Finally, ascension:

  • dūcit [Argolicās] canem.
    Perfect unadapted ancient Latin (i.e. “authentic”) written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca iunior (from Hercules Furens)

Before we conclude, take a minute to compare this last perfect ancient Latin to the other [realistic] examples of Latin above. They’re not that different if you really, really compare them. Not by much, at least, and certainly not worth any shaming. Note the English-like word order, too, ha! Otherwise, I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. However, let’s get real…

Everyone has their limits—everyone being a critic and all—but those limits are going to vary from person to person. In truth, there are examples above—the realistic ones, at least—that I’d be surprised to find in published work intended for students, though still wouldn’t take to the streets (or fora) to trash on them. Worst case? I probably just wouldn’t use them.

Perhaps the most important distinction to make regarding Latin shaming, though, concerns impact. What is the impact on a student who reads 2, 20, even 200 instances of the realistic Latin examples prone to shaming found above? It’s null. That is, there’s no measurable risk of a student being at a disadvantage, or in a place they won’t naturally move beyond with any continued study. To understand this, one must understand the nature of language and language acquisition. Language systems either develop with exposure to more native-like input, or they don’t when a student stops interacting with input. That’s it. And there’s one thing that’s undeniable: students who cannot understand native-like input have no chance of developing their language system. For example, a common result of being forced to interact with native-like Latin above on’es level is dropping the course as soon as possible out of frustration. At that point, Latīnitās doesn’t matter at all. All that shaming? For not. The truth is, much of the Latin prone to shaming has actually been encouraging students to continue studying, and has been exposing students to far more Latin than Distinguished level texts ever have. Hard to argue with that. I do understand that it can be hard to let go of expecting Distinguished level Latin, but it’s also both preposterous and a bit pretentious to expect beginners language learners to read that kind of literature in the first place.

So, there it is. I probably won’t respond to comments (remember, I have no interest in public discussions regarding Latin shaming), especially anything including the phrases “disservice to students,” “we have a duty,” or “correct Latin,” or the reply itself is some erudite Latin quote. Just don’t take my silence personally. Oh, and I definitely won’t reply on Twitter. I’ve determined that I’m least understood on that platform. If you want a conversation, contact me.

*heavy sarcasm

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