Did the Romans really speak Latin sir?

Usually about this time in Year 9 Latin, when they are meeting the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives, somebody asks me if the Romans REALLY spoke this frankly rather labyrinthine language. It reminds me of this sketch by Eddie Izzard (contains swearing. In English, not in Latin).

It is a question that makes sense, but demonstrates a lack of understanding. I think it comes from an implicit assumption that all people throughout history have had the same linguistic way of thinking, and given that their thinking doesn’t work in the same way as the Romans’ did, that the Romans must have tried to speak Latin using brains wired towards the English language.

I tend to explain to the students that the Romans may not have been able to work out what the words in a sentence were doing based on word order, but the feel of the ending of the word instantly affected how they thought about that word’s import to the actions being described.

It is similar with gender in most languages other than English – many of my students (and I have to confess to struggling with this myself) cannot see how an apple ‘looks’ or ‘feels’ feminine, as my French exchange once told me, to explain his incredulity with me getting the gender of a noun wrong.

I also explain that there is a difference between learning a language intuitively as a child, and learning a language later in life. There are all sorts of rather complex linguistic structures and exceptions to rules that people use all the time without knowing it. Take English plurals as an example. Tgis is how my lesson for year 7 goes on these…

Latin plurals are complicated, of course. There are different plurals depending on the declension. puellae, but servi and mercatores. English is much easier. What do you add to make something plural in English? “An s.” Yes, of course, so if we have a simple word like man, we just add an s. Mans. Oh no hang on. Well, that is just a bad word to use. With that word you change the a to an e. But most words, like child… Oh no. Er… Sheep? Ah. Cactus?

You get the idea. Their homework that lesson is to make a list of as many different ways of making English plurals as they can. Most of them get more than 25.

I sometimes go on to make an analogy. There are so many things we use intuitively without really knowing how they work. The iPad I am currently using for example. I don’t really know exactly how I can communicate with the world using a small slab no bigger than a book. It baffles me. But I can do it. If someone were to explain how it works, would I be confused about the fact that people are able to use it, given its complexity?

So anyway, to cut a long story short, yes, the Romans definitely used Latin. Of course, they certainly wouldn’t all have written or spoken it perfectly every time they put stilus to cera, or opened their mouths, but their intuitive grasp of language (I’m aware of my reading of Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct at this stage) surely would have meant that they got it right most of the time.


3 thoughts on “Did the Romans really speak Latin sir?

  1. I had a comment from someone once when I was reading Ancient Greek. She said, “how can you read that? It looks like gibberish to me!” 😀


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