July 2010 Archives

Defining "Authentic Latin"


One of the tenets of folk linguistics that is actually true is that language is imprecise. A discussion that reminded me of that is a discussion of what "authentic Latin" means. Depending on who you talked to "authentic Latin" could mean:

  1. Text by a Classical Latin author of the Roman era (e.g. Cicero, Caesar)
  2. Any text following the rules of Latin grammar
  3. Grafitti found in Pompeii or text from letters found in the Roman fort of Vindolanda.
  4. Latin used authentically such as to ask to go to the bathroom during class.

In case you're wondering the topic being debated was whether it made sense to speak Latin in a Latin classroom as you would try to use Spanish in a Spanish classroom. As usual, my answer is "Yes and No" because it does all depend on what you mean by "Latin."

Cicero vs. Graffiti

You might think that everyone agrees that Cicero is "authentic", but in fact there is a debate. Many people know that Latin evolved into the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian). However, if you reconstruct "Proto-Romance" based on what we now know about these languages you do NOT get Classical Latin, but something different. We know about Latin only because it was continued to be used and taught in post-Roman Europe.

It is clear that the predecessor of the Romance languages isn't necessarily written Latin, but rather a form of "street Latin" (probably multiple dialects of street Latin). Therefore historical linguists are extremely excited when they see informal scribblings like graffiti, letters or other texts NOT meant for literary posterity. Sometimes, the MORE they diverge from Cicero, the more excited we get. We are seeing change in progress! And if we can date the manuscript, we can also start dating the change!

So for some historical linguists, "authentic Latin" is really street Latin or Vulgar Latin, the kind spoken casually and spontaneously by the Roman populace. It's not always pretty, but it is real authentic evidence of what the ancestor of Spanish/French/Italian was like.

But what about Cicero? Isn't his material authentic? Well...it's authentic educated written Latin, but there is a question of how close to spoken Latin it was. In English, the distance between educated written English and spoken English by an educated speaker is not huge, but in some societies such as Egypt, Greece, Sri Lanka, the difference can be so significant that the written form is considered a separate language.

Today in the Middle East, educated Arabic speakers literally learn a separate language called Modern Standard Arabic (similar to Quranic Arabic) so they can communicate across national borders. At home though, speakers use their local variety of Colloquial Arabic - but these varieties are so distinct, that English speakers have to learn each one individually (much like we have to learn Italian, Portuguese and Spanish as separate languages).

Linguists aren't sure about the situation in the Roman Empire, but dialogue from some fairly early plays by Plautus (254-184 BC) shows that structures found in the Romance languages were already in place even before Cicero wrote. Granted, it was dialogue from lower class characters, but we can deduce that spoken Latin was well on its way to Proto Romance before Cicero (106-43 BC) was even born. If that's the case, what does that mean for Classical Latin? Since Classical Latin materials includes letters and debates, it's clear that it was a very familiar language and that authors were fluent in it. But how did they address servants or merchants? Was it something they had to be schooled in? And what was spoken at midnight when one was tipsy? It's not clear.

FYI - If you are studying the archaic history of Latin, then the focus IS on archaic forms which may be found in Classical Latin or archaic Latin texts. Classical Latin is very much a beloved friend for many linguists.

Latin vs. Neo-Latin

Another distinction is Latin vs Neo-Latin. By the time of the Oaths of Strasbourg (842 AD) when the first spoken Old French (or Gallo-Romance) is written, it is clear that local dialects of late Latin was the native language of even upper class speakers and that Classical Latin was used only for written documents or spoken among educated speakers.

But is also the case that documents continued to be written in Latin following grammars established by earlier generations (with some neologisms and local quirks). However, Latin is pretty much "dead" in that no one learns to speak it as a child but rather learns it formally in school. This is particularly true in regions where the native language was NOT a Romance language.

Today, there are many writers of Neo-Latin (post 1550 AD) who produce texts such as Vicip├Ždia Latina, Winne Ille Pu (sic) and Asterix Legionarius

This is authentic Latin also, of a sort but often different from what the Ciceronian Romans would have written. If you take a look at a page of Latin quotes, you'll often be able to sort out the Neo-Latin from the "authentic" Classical Latin quotes very easily, the Neo-Latin quotes are much longer (e.g. Abutebaris modo subjunctivo denuo "You've been misuing the subjunctive again") than the original (Veni, vidi, vici) and if they are written by English speakers, rarely employ the ablative absolute as a Roman would. It really isn't quite the same.

One issue is that modern speakers are still filling in gaps not in the original Latin. Not only did the Romans not have iPhones and Twitter, they didn't have Halloween, Saint Patrick's Day or the number zero either. And when you get down to it, we may know about the latrine, but are we sure we know how to ask where it is? And did they have a Ladies Room or was it unisex? If we know the answers, they probably come from something like the Vindolanda texts, not from traditional Classical Latin sources.

The other issue is that our secular 20-21st century usage of Latin has a more humorous quality than in earlier generations. It's rare for anyone, except maybe the Vatican, to write original material in Latin (and the Vatican is pretty much the only organization conducting business in Latin, but in Church Latin). Rather we are translating pre-existing material, and often trivial material such as children's stories and dialogue from Star Wars. No longer are scientific treatises and formal decrees being written Latin. Latin has become a beloved aunt who has retired after a long term of service (but could come back to work if needed).

And that's what makes teaching Latin different from teaching Spanish. Classical Latin as we have it was meant to be a formal language for formal situations. While I'm sure the Romans were able to order a drink, ask for directions and translate "DVD", we can't always guess what it might have been because it's not always recorded. We're often just guessing what might have happened.

So...should an Latin instructor use Latin for "authentic purposes?" Sure, why not? Mine did, and I do remember some grammar and vocabulary points because of it, and it's fun! But is worth understanding that it's often a guess and may not work if you accidentally time travel back to the Forum.

Still All the Same "Authentic"

Stepping away from Latin, you may be awed and amazed at how many uses of "authentic" there are, but at some level, it's all the same use. No matter who you are - a classicist, a linguist, or a Latin instructor - authentic means "worthy of trust, reliance or belief". For a scholar focusing on Roman political history and rhetoric, there is no better source than Cicero. For a linguist wanting to know about Vulgar Latin, graffiti is the way, and for the instructor, using language for a real purpose is crucial.

Back in my graduate level semantics class, we talked about a concept called "context". If you wanted to know who "I" and "you" were any given utterance, you had to know who was speaking and who that person was speaking to. This is similar to multiple uses of "authentic" because the meaning of what is most reliable varies on what you are interested in.

Thus, it is true that meaning is always somewhat relative and contextual. The only time you can establish an "absolute" meaning is to establish a context. And then you sound like a lawyer or a pedantic scholar - but that's what it takes.


Here is a fascinating article on why Winnie Illi Pu is not quite authentic Classical Latin as the Romans would have written it. I do not agree with the final conclusion though.