Let’s Talk Latinitas (and you thought it was dead!)

Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue.  Next up, Kara talks Latin. 


Animus /ˈa.ni.məs/ n. Language: Latin. Meaning: The rational soul, the part of the “soul” in the modern sense we make of it, often related to the mind and intellect. Compare with anima – noun – meaning the breath of air that makes up our life force.

Salve, mihi nomen est Kara (Latin: hi, my name is Kara)! I graduated Columbia in May 2014 with a BA in Classics. The title “Classics” can be a bit misleading sometimes because for many people classic literature is just that—a “classic” (read: Shakespeare or Dostoevsky). In this context, however, classical literature denotes the Ancient Greek and Latin texts of Greece and Rome. To continue my studies of the Greco-Roman world, I will be moving in October to Oxford in order to pursue a Masters in Classics. Many classicists devote their time to one of the two languages. In an effort to avoid this self-segregation, my research focuses on Roman writers’ work in translating Greek texts into Latin. For my contribution to the blog, I will concentrate on Latin as it is more familiar to us English speakers (why is the plural of hippopotamus hippopotami anyway?), but I will reference Greek wherever possible.

Numbers for Words

1. How many years have you studied it?

I’ve studied Latin for three-and-a-half years. I began with an intensive elementary Latin course in the spring of my freshman year of college and was able to begin reading Cicero and Ovid the next semester.

2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.)

It is very difficult to measure fluency in an almost-dead language (see below for meaning of my suggestive italics), as there are no “native” speakers to which a student may compare herself. I would rate myself at a modest 8.5.

3. Rate difficulty in learning this language, on a scale of 1-5 (1 is easiest, 5 is hardest), for each of the following categories:

     a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context). 1. The only thing that’s difficult to keep in mind here is that nouns take a gender. The beauty of studying a so-called “dead” language is that there is no “appropriate context” to keep in mind in conversation, and no social faux pas to commit.

     b. Grammar 3. Latin is an inflected language, meaning that each word is “conjugated” (for nouns, “declined”) to reflect its role in the sentence. Unlike English, word order does not change the meaning of the sentence. For example, the English sentence “the lion ate the dog” in Latin could be written as leo edit canem, leo canem edit, edit leo canem, edit canem leo, canem leo edit, or canem edit leo and it would mean the same thing. Word order is not completely random, however, and in most cases, largely depends on an author’s emphasis. An inflected language does provide for a multitude of dependent clauses, so many that you may quickly find yourself reading a two page long Ciceronian sentence and, consequently, wondering why you didn’t study French.

Ephesus | Let's Talk Latin

At Ephesus in Turkey

     c. Pronunciation 2. It depends on the Latinist you ask. A classical Latinist (myself), would pronounce the v as an English “w” and the c as an English “k”—both hard consonants. A medieval or Neo-Latinist would pronounce these with the Italian influence of soft consonants: the v as an English “v” and the c as an English “ch.” Cicero’s compatriots would have called him “kickero,” but Machiavelli and Pope Francis would call him “cheechero.”

     d. Vocabulary 2. The vocabulary of the Latin language is not as expansive as Greek, but as with all languages, the vocabulary you require to read a certain author varies greatly over genre and time, and for this reason can prove challenging to grasp.

     e. Spelling 1. Easy–it uses the Latin alphabet! Entirely phonetic, which is fun, since the grammar is difficilis.

Language Meets Culture

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be. (I’m not just a lazy interviewer ;)

For me, language is one of the most basic windows into the human experience. Knowledge of Greek and Latin brings me closer to the lives lived by ancient peoples. When I can walk through the ruins of Pompeii and read the graffiti on the walls, my ability to comprehend the majesty of the physical place is vastly improved. When I can read Vergil’s Aeneid in the original Latin, I am able to understand the poem on a deeper level than a translation could possibly hope to provide. The Aeneid was composed in the dactylic hexameter of epic poetry, which we see also in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. When we read the Latin with its meter, we not only become closer in experience to a Roman, but also to a Roman’s familiarity with the Greek language and, by extension, the Greeks themselves.

2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?

I participated in the Paideia Institute’s spoken Latin in Rome program in the summer of 2012 and the spoken Greek in Greece program in the summer of 2013. On the Latin program, we lived in Rome for five weeks, attended classes, and visited Roman sites in Rome proper and in its surrounding areas. Both in class and on site, we spoke in Latin, which is very difficult and daunting at first, as Latin is traditionally taught as a solely read and written language. The transformation of being able to speak very little to being able to understand and speak a fair amount permanently changed the way I approach Latin (instead of dissecting its various syntactical parts, I read it more holistically, as a living language). Among other fantastic experiences, the program brought us on a tour of Vatican City led by Father Gallagher, the papal secretary to the pope, which is the highest Latin position one can achieve. He gave us the tour in a seamless and awe-inspiring Neo-Latin. To learn more about Paideia’s amazing programs, visit https://www.paideiainstitute.org/.

Graduation | Let's Talk Latin

College graduation

3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad. 

Learning Greek and Latin could bring you to more countries than just Greece and Italy. The empire of Alexander the Great and his predecessors was massive, and the Roman Empire even larger. It expanded across the Mediterranean from Iberia in the west, Aegyptus to the south, Judea in the east, and as far north as Britannia at its height. Because of this, a knowledge of Greek and particularly Latin can bring you to many places—you may see the ruins of a Caesarian war camp in France or the great Roman cistern beneath the city of Constantinople (I mean, Istanbul). Before participating in the living Greek in Greece program last summer, I helped on an archaeological excavation at an ancient emporion in southern Bulgaria. Most of modern day Bulgaria was the home of the Thracians who had close economic and militaristic ties with the Greeks. The site I helped to excavate was called Pistiros and was effectively a Greek city. The Thracian persona had long before given way to Greek. Indeed, by the time of the site’s foundation around 400 BCE there was no trace of the ancient Thracian language. Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to explore a less-visited European country, dust through the site of a less-discussed ancient people, and read the Greek inscriptions on their pottery and coins (some with the great Alex’s face on them!).

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study this language?

I answer this question in part almost every time someone asks me what I studied in college. Why study a dead language? Why not a modern language, at least? For lack of a more elegant answer, someone has got to keep these languages alive. It is not enough simply to recognize that other people have studied these texts. We as a society have a duty to continue to study these peoples’ history and read their literature. It is duty we hold for ourselves and our collective past. This duty to honor history through language is at the core of all studies in the humanities. When we re-read the much read Aeneid, we learn about the Roman psyche but, more importantly, we learn about ourselves. (My spiel aside, one should learn Latin to improve one’s own English vocabulary and writing.)

Some Fun Stuff

1. Favorite word in the language, and why.

It’s kind of random and I choose it only because I think I’ve been a bit sappy on my answers: nequiquam, an adverb meaning “in vain.” I like the way it is pronounced nay-qwee-qwam, which sounds almost onomatopoetic of the idea it conveys.

2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English.

Heu! An exclamation used specifically for a cry of grief or pain. Similar to oh! or ah! but connoting a deep melancholy.

Phi beta Kappa | Let's Talk Latin

At the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at Columbia University

3. Little known fact.

Depending on the author you’re reading, “Latin” is lingua latina (“the Latin language”), Latinum (“the Latinness,” a neuter substantive), or Latinitas (“Latinity,” the pure Latin style and my favorite name for the language).
I don’t think we know much about this, but if we (i.e., the Academy) does, I’m certainly no expert.

4. Let’s define the beginning definition a bit more. 

According to the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius, animus is the tangible part of your spirit that exists as matter even after death, while the intangible anima passes away along with the body. Confusingly, animus is closer in meaning to our English word “psyche,” i.e., our whole consciousness, while anima is closer in meaning to ψυχή, the Greek for “soul” and of course the root of our English psyche. More confusingly, animus is a transliteration of the Greek ἄνεμος meaning “wind,” while anima is closer in meaning to the Greek ἄνεμος but is itself derived directly from animus. To remember the difference between the two, think of the English “animosity” (root: animus) which springs from deep within your soul (no? just me?) and, on the other hand, the force which can “animate” (root: anima) your face. If you’re still confused, don’t worry. The Romans used them interchangeably at times—because how can you really distill these two ideas as distinct?

5. Tell us a funny story or mistranslation you made in your language learning process.

While speaking Latin, I once used the word littera to denote a letter posted in the mail. A false cognate in this case, littera is an alphabetical letter. I should have used epistula, where we get our word “epistle.” You might roll your eyes, but it was pretty embarrassing.

And in conclusion . . . .

Amor aeternus non sempre inter amatores est. Fortior inter amicos amor esse potest. Cogitabo maius et in pectore meo eum tenebo. Futurum enim esse amatorem amicumque aeternum credo.

“A lasting love does not always exist between lovers. A stronger love can exist between friends. I will ponder more over this and I will hold him in my heart. For I believe that he will be both a lasting lover and a lasting friend.”

This an excerpt from my journal, the personal parts of which I often write in Latin to hide from prying eyes. I chose this bit because of its alliteration, which causes the reader to blur together the words for friend amicus and lover amator with the word for lasting/eternal aeternus.

A huge thanks to Kara! To read more from heroic language learners in the Let’s Talk series, click here. And make sure to follow A Thing For Wor(l)ds on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Are you a foreign language learner? Email me at athingforwords (at) gmail (dot) com to be part of the series!

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  • Cool! I was a latin scholar in high school and really missed it in college even though I speak Italian now.

  • Really interesting! I took a summer school Latin class when I was 11 or 12 but didn’t continue with it at all. My love for Romance languages and understanding their roots (and English’s roots as well!) makes it a fascinating language to me!

    • I agree, the main reason I would love to study Latin is to better understand all the roots! Would be fascinating.

  • …How FUN–I’ve always had mad respect for those who study the Classical Languages, :-)…To me, it’s like the ultimate intellectual-y discipline!!…

  • Wow! I loved this super interesting post, mainly because I studied Latin in high school (and promptly forgot a lot of it when I began studying Spanish, but that’s another story). I’d love to pick it up again someday although I have read a couple of books about the evolution of Spanish from the Vulgar Latin spoken in Roman Hispania which have been incredibly helpful in figuring out how Castilian works (#nerdalert if there ever was one).

    I think it is the coolest thing that Kara actually speaks Latin (like, with her voice haha), even conversationally in a way, as most courses focus on the book knowledge, translation, reading, inscriptions, etc.–which while important when you are studying the classics and antiquity, doesn’t help the language’s reputation as a “dead” language (not the same as “extinct,” thankfully!).

    That must have been an amazing (and challenging) experience to speak Latin for five weeks in Rome…and then get to go on a Latin tour with the Pope’s secretary. Like, WOW.

    • Before I posted this one I actually thought, I bet Trevor will find this one particularly interesting. . . . hahah. Glad I was right!!
      Re: your #nerdalert, I took a class at the University of Granada during my year abroad that was Spanish during the Golden Age, a.k.a. basically not Spanish at all but Latin. I was soooo lost, needless to say (possibly failed the final? er.) But it was really cool to see the evolution of Castillian. Potentially would have gained more during that class if the professor didn’t have the thickest Andalusian accent I ever did hear….