You may have noticed that a blog or two ago I used a Latin quotation. Perhaps you wondered why. The fact is, I’m hopelessly addicted to being hopeless at Latin. I started learning it about three years ago. After two terms of a beginner’s course (now cut, along with a host of other wonderful adult education courses like art and archaeology), and armed only with a dictionary and grammar I am travelling through the underworld with Aeneas. Very slowly.
Why am I learning Latin? Because I’m a writer.
Let me explain.
The novel I am currently working on has as one of its main characters an eighteenth century classicist. I wanted to understand what it was he loved and why, know a little of what he knew. The other main character is the Roman who haunts him, and to get to know him I had to learn about Roman history. Without Latin what can you know of that? I did the same thing when I wrote a novella set in Wales. I taught myself some Welsh (forgotten now, alas). So I am learning Latin because I am a writer.
There are enormous advantages to a writer in learning another language, especially one that feels very different from English. It makes you pay more attention to your own language, its words and meanings, why and how we name objects, how our concepts are defined and contained by our language, and leads us on to contemplation of the ideas we live by and our perceptions of the world. It makes you think about tone and rhythm; it helps you to hear voices. It improves your grammar. So I am learning Latin because I am a writer.
In the eighteenth century Latin was ianitor antro: the doorkeeper of the gates, the gates to knowledge, university, the professions. Women couldn’t study it, the lower classes couldn’t study it, and when I was at school I couldn’t study it either though I wanted to. Perhaps this was a wise decision from the point of view of a school concerned with its examination results. I was dreadful at languages. Of course there was no question of learning for pleasure, self-development, or the mere appreciation of beauty. But that’s all changed now. Surely. We aren’t letting subjects like Latin die out are we? We aren’t favouring league tables over knowledge?
Latin is challenging, difficult, and beautiful. Just hearing it read out loud makes me shiver. It is elegant, sonorous, allusive. It has become one of the loves of my life. I think I shall struggle on with it even when this novel is finished. Don’t worry - my characters won’t be spouting Latin in the book. Well, maybe once or twice, for veracity’s sake.
And you can read Will Self on learning French in today’s Guardian – though of course his is a live language! See http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/mar/23/will-self-learns-french