Latin Criticism: Two Broad Categories

Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about Latin shaming in what’s turning out to be a quasi-annual public discussion on Latinity (i.e., quality of Latin). In 2020, the discussions concerned Latin spoken in the classroom as well as published works. This year, I’m told the focus is on novellas, which might have something to do with their proliferation. After all, in February of 2020 there were 52 books. Having doubled that number to 113 as of last week, and going from 18 author voices to 26, there’s a lot more different Latin being written now. Different Latin must lead to more opinions about that Latin. Granted, I haven’t been a part of these public discussions myself, but word gets around. Perhaps the 2023 panel on what it means to teach students to actually read Latin has spurred the latest round of things-Latīnitās. I have no idea for sure. Suffice to say that Latin shaming still plagues the profession. Instead of full-out shaming, though, this post sticks to general criticism. In my experience, there are two broad categories of criticism: that which matters, and that which doesn’t…

Criticism That Matters
This first category includes overt, blatant mistakes (i.e., author knows what’s expected, but it’s just a goof), or glaring errors that couldn’t possibly be rationalized (i.e., author doesn’t know or had the wrong idea about something all along). In the former group, things like ego canem vult sneak by from time to time. I’ve read them. I’ve published them. Having someone point out these things is helpful as an author, which makes them more like notes than any criticism, actually. Plus, they’re easy to fix. Done. Sometimes, though, novellas don’t get updated because no one catches the goof or contacts the author. Other times, no one cares, lol! I’ve been in the latter boat, noticing something off, but just end up moving past it. Is my role macron police? Naw. Can it be surprising when an author uses the same word spelled differently from one line to the next? Sure, but really…we’re talking about a long mark over a vowel in most of these cases, or something like “minimē” and “niminē,” where it’s obvious what happened during the writing process. I have students correct some of these right in the book. It’s also quite possible I have an early copy and it already was updated long ago, too. Just this week, I heard from a colleague who found a spelling goof on the same day I read it with my students! The published version had already been updated, but there’s always the chance it hadn’t, so the note was helpful.

The second group of glaring errors is rare, but can happen. Usually what seems like a glaring error is actually just a goof, or there’s some other explanation, like an alternative use of case, or whatever. Still, Latin has its quirks, and authors don’t always have things totally right, nor should they be expected given how backwards Latin pedagogy has been. Things in this second group, when they really belong there, are just as helpful. For example, something like “hey, did you know that the subject of the infinitive is commonly in the accusative?” was a super helpful comment I got regarding scrībere sōlus eī placet in my first novella. Of course, the difference between sōlus and sōlum went unnoticed for years, so even that glaring error wasn’t obvious to most. Either teachers didn’t know about that sort of thing, or they did and didn’t mind, and moved on.

So, there are two groups of criticism (or just notes) that’s helpful. Then there are other comments, though, like “you should capitalize this,” that leave me wondering what some people’s spare time looks like. Hence, our second category…

Criticism That Doesn’t Matter
The second category of criticism includes everything else, and….doesn’t really matter. It certainly doesn’t matter to beginning Latin students, so it shouldn’t really matter to their teachers. Criticism often comes from scholars, not teachers, but that’s not always the case. There are teacher scholars who cannot accept any Latin that differs from Classical authors, too.

This kind of criticism includes pretty much anything that isn’t a goof or error, like choice of vocab, choice of style, choice of usage, choice of syntax, and so on. The operative word there is “choice.” Since most current authors aren’t trying to imitate Classical authors, they’ve chosen their words to use. They’ve chosen how to present dialogue. They’ve chosen how to express yelling and whispering. They’ve chosen what to gloss and what not to gloss. They’ve chosen the font. They’ve chosen the size of the book. They’ve chosen which case to use—especially when more than one documented (i.e., “attested”) examples have been found. They’ve chosen when to break up sentences into shorter ones. They’ve chosen when to keep relative clauses and have longer sentences. They’ve chosen when to repeat subjects, and they’ve chosen where to put the verb. Bottom line, there’s a host of choices and decisions today’s Latin authors have made, and the reasons are likely unknown to most of the critics. Among those reasons is writing novice-level Latin to address The Latin Problem. We have no examples from antiquity of Latin that beginners read. Current authors are filling that gap. So, comments regarding any of these things that start with “I think you should…” aren’t helpful. They show how critics know something about Latin and would prefer that other people’s Latin match what they know.

What if I want to use a seldom-used, yet documented meaning of a word, and scholars would prefer otherwise? Tough. The whole reason we have multiple meanings of words anyway is that we found them being used differently, in different contexts, by different authors. However, scholars would say that unexpected current uses aren’t valid. Tough. These uses now just become the hallmark of the authors writing them. Rather than criticize choice of vocabulary, style, usage, syntax, or whatever else comes to mind, scholars can still do what they’ve been doing for thousands of years: analyze how authors write Latin.

In fact, not only does the profession now have new kinds of texts written at an appropriate level for the beginning Latin student, these texts can also be analyzed the same way! Consider discussing one ancient author’s use of the subjunctive compared to another. You can do that with today’s novellas, too. What themes are present in the writing of Vanderpool? What does Olimpi’s choice of vocab add to the narrative in Ego Polyphemus? There’s a lot that could be said about all that, and the act of analysis is no different. If literary analysis really is a goal, students are one step closer to learning how do to that with more-understandable texts. Of course, the critics assume that reading Classical Latin is the point, not analyzing Latin of any time period. That’s valuing a particular text over the skill of learning how to analyze a text. It’d be hard to argue teaching a text over teaching the skill according to current pedagogical values.

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