Mon - February 23, 2004

Et Tu?

often those who are not good for much else turn to thought...
A. R. Ammons

I've been thinking about this, sometimes more seriously and sometimes less so, at least since college, and Friday afternoon, wandering through Coliseum Books, I finally made up my mind: I'm going to learn Latin. I bought the Wheelock's Latin text, workbook, and reader, and a Latin dictionary. As soon as I finish this month's book for the reading group, I'm going to dive right in.

I admit that this might seem a strange undertaking, but probably no more strange than any of the other ways I spend my leisure time. I've never been happy that--despite six years of junior high school, high shool, and college French and one year of college Japanese--I'm stubbornly monolingual. Yes, I was once able to ask the Chinese proprietress of a restaurant in rural Luxembourg to call a taxi for me, my companions, and our bicycles to the next town, but that's not quite the same as reading Proust in his native tongue. I'm frustrated that I have to read books that mean so much to me in translation and that significant aspects of life in New York aren't available to me because I can only conduct my life in English.

But rather than learning French or Spanish, I'd like to go back to the common ancestor of so many languages. Because Latin is no longer spoken, I can learn it as a schematic abstraction rather than as a living entity. That tends to work better for me. And perhaps by learning a fully-developed and unchanging language, I'll be able to get a better handle on the concepts of grammar and syntax, which I only know in a pragmatic, ad hoc way at this point. Then, having mastered Latin and read Virgil without the aid of translation, I can move on to other languages, perhaps reading Cervantes in Spanish, Proust in French, and Dante in Italian. After all, I'm only thirty-six, and I've already accomplished everything that I ever expected to--I have to find something to do with the rest of my life.