When learning a new language, I find that it’s always good to get to know it first. Find out what it’s about, the kinds of expectations it has, and how much work it’s going to be. After all, it takes a person who likes a certain kind of challenge to surmount the terrifying idioms of a language like English, or the ten thousand characters of Mandarin. But it’s not just about difficulty, it’s also about usability. Esperanto is really easy to learn, but unfortunately it only allows you to speak with nerds. So when I saw Latin making eyes at me from the course catalogue, I was a bit nervous. I’d never been into older languages, though I knew some people who had a real thing for them. Still, I was fascinated by some of its speakers, and decided to try it out.
We met at the bookstore. I knew it was a bit forward, but I was nervous about speaking with Latin in public. We went back to my place, just to have a bit of wine and a bit of conversation. It somehow managed to be both severe and funny at the same time, and I was charmed by the regularity in its accent, the way it emphasized the first syllable for two syllable words, and the next to last (“Penultimate”, it told me, a word with a wonderful Latin root) in words with three or more.
My anxiety settled into gentle curiosity as I tried to get to know this enigmatic language I had previously seen only on churches and corporate mottoes. Taking a sip of wine, I asked, “How many cases do you have?”
“Six,” it replied. I was a little put off by that, my native English having only three. “Though some of them serve additional functions. Why, Caesar practically invented the ablative of military accompaniment!”
I faked a laugh, but hadn’t the slightest idea what it was saying. The knowledge of just how many years lay between us began to sink in, and I changed the subject to history. “That’s right, you did know Caesar, didn’t you? Where else have you been?”
“Well,” it said, “I don’t like to brag, but I was the lingua franca for the entire Roman empire, east and west, in one form or another since Romulus and Remus. After the collapse, I stayed in western Europe doing the tourist thing, mostly spending time in churches. I spent time with some great scholars. Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, even Descartes and Kepler. Things did get a little foggy though. Those were my wild years, and my vocabulary tended to drift. Why, if you saw me during the Roman Era, and then again in the middle ages, well, you’d barely recognize me!”
This was the good part. I could listen all day about the scholars it had been with, and the amazing ideas which had been recorded in it. Latin, I knew, was even now the language of truly smart people. That’s why you graduate Magna Cum Laude, and not just “With great praise”. My heart was aflutter, but I was still apprehensive. I was no Kepler, no Galileo. Could I learn the language they mastered? “Do you have a gender?” I inquired. It wasn’t that it was important, but I wanted to know.
“Actually, I have three. Masculine, feminine, and neuter. Sometimes they’re easily divided by my five declensions of nouns, but usually not.”
Three genders? My fling with German in high school came back to me, and with a head filled with fond memories, I asked, “Is there anything I should know?”
It looked a little stern. “Each of my verbs has four parts, and you’ll need to learn all of them.”
“All of them?” I said, “But surely I won’t need to get all of the parts of your verbs right away. We can start slow.” What could I possibly need with all four parts of a verb? It was being unreasonable.
But it was adamant. “I’ve been burned by that before. I’d start off slow only to have my partner come back after learning the perfect complaining that they had to learn their verbs all over again. Trust me, it’s better if you learn all four parts up front.”
I knew it wouldn’t be moved. Really, I’d just been testing its boundaries. I couldn’t stop imagining the times we might have together, reading the poetry of Virgil and Ovid, the philosophy of Plotinus and the histories of Livy. I’m not going to lie, it was just so…So worldly. Together we would open up whole eras. Still, I didn’t want to appear too eager. The last thing I wanted was for this to be another one-term fling, like I had with Spanish. Sure it was passionate, but at the end we both walked away and felt better for it. I’d take it slower this time. “I have to get to bed,” I said, “But would you like to make some cue cards tomorrow night?”
“I’d love to,” it replied. “Those cards are an excellent way to get started.”
We’ve been together for almost three years now, and I won’t say we never fight. I still occasionally study other languages, but I always come back. What can I say? Latin is an amazing tongue.