Emily Wilson: The Renaissance of Latin

Last year, a surprise best seller hit the British book market: a romp through Latin grammar, by a London journalist called Harry Mount. In Britain, the book was called Amo, Amas, Amat ... and All That, after the first verb (to love) encountered in elementary Latin class. But in the American edition, the title has become Carpe Diem. The phrase was coined by Horace in Odes 1. 11, a poem that recommends instant kicks (bad strained wine, quickie sex), since time is fleeting and the future unknowable. In American culture, however, the phrase has taken on a life of its own; in Robin Williams' famous speech from Dead Poets Society, seizing the day has something to do with self-fulfilment and the realization of the American dream.
The change of title tells us a lot about the different cultural positions of Latin in British and American society. Most educated British people can, it seems, be expected to know a smattering of "school-boy" Latin. The term is revealing, since under the British educational system, those who know Latin usually learned the language at an expensive school (often all-male). State schools in Britain rarely offer Latin. Unsurprisingly, then, knowing Latin in Britain is closely associated with being posh—a situation Mount's book sets out to remedy, or at least modify. The time has come, it seems, to liberate the study of Latin from issues of social class.

For Mount, the main danger in learning Latin is that it may earn those who master it the derogatory label of wankers from ordinary blokes—"prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own," as Kingsley Amis put it. British upper-class philistinism involves feeling embarrassed about knowing anything, especially any esoteric knowledge or knowledge that may have taken some effort to acquire. (At the Oxford college I attended as an undergraduate, the motto was "effortless superiority": You should never seem too hard-working or too interested in your studies, unless you want to seem like a "swot," a "wanker," or a "girl.")* Mount, like any self-respecting member of the new British upper classes, hopes to evade the old class system by replacing knowledge with leisure. He wants to make learning Latin "fun"—the equivalent of "a pistachio ice cream and a glass of prosecco"—as opposed to the Blue Guide version of a trip round Venice: "four million Tintorettos," in his words.
The odd thing about the book—which perhaps reveals that the New Britain is less new than we might think or hope—is that Mount, who is in his 30s, does an excellent imitation of a British public-school teacher in about 1960, or even 1930. An outline of basic Latin morphology is interspersed with an enjoyable collection of school-masterly anecdotes and digressions, on Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse, the difference between Doric and Ionic columns, and Mount's own Latin teachers from prep school and Winchester. The occasional digressions into current affairs or more recent sources (Camilla Parker-Bowles' love life, Donna Tartt's Secret History, or the Latin tattoos of "Beckham" and "Miss Jolie," as Mount rather archaically refers to them) are delivered with cultivated pomposity. The pleasure of Latin always seems to recall those jolly times back in the Upper Fifth—not exactly fussy, but still pretty fusty.

In America, the cultural place of Latin is very different. It's true that in the United States, as in Britain, some expensive high schools teach Latin. But so do Catholic high schools, which may be inexpensive or free. Moreover, a surprising number of American undergraduates begin the language from scratch in college, of their own free will. In this context, knowing Latin is not a marker of membership in a cultural elite, or no more so than any kind of college education. Some of those who voluntarily struggle through the conjugations and declensions of a long-dead language may be hoping for an easy way to fulfill a language requirement; after all, in Latin class, you generally don't have to worry about perfecting your accent, and you don't have to put in time at the language lab. But many choose to learn Latin because they are genuinely interested in learning how the Romans imagined the world. To describe American Latin students, we need to substitute the much more attractive category of "geeks" for Amis' "wankers."...

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