Mors Latina. The Latin Death and the Grief of Learning

Latin is a language, as dead as dead can be. First it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me. morslatina.JPG

I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life teaching Beginning Latin.

It’s hard to describe what that means in professional terms. I mean, becoming a Classicist is no mean feat. People dropped out of my program and went to med school. Taking someone with my training and making him teach beginning Latin is a bit like taking a theoretical physicist who has survived fifteen years of grueling and thankless toil learning to unlock the secrets of the universe and then making him teach Beginning Algebra over and over again.

No, it’s not quite like that, it’s like this:

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

And that’s just to where I am now. If I retire when I think I will, it means:

Yet again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again.

And the funny thing is, I got into this business for the Greek.

A Roman deli counter at a bar in Ostia.

A Roman deli counter at a bar in Ostia.

I do teach other things: Greek and Roman literature, culture and history; medical history; intellectual history; comparative mythology; critical theory; academic writing; and, yes, sometimes I even get in a Greek class. But these are variables; the constant in my professional life is Latin 101-102.

You might think that, at this point, I would take a page from Oedipus and poke my eyes out with white board markers. And sometimes, I confess, the thought crosses my mind. I’m not gonna lie. Sometimes I just want to light a lantern and wander the campus like Diogenes, looking for a student – any student – who honestly knows something about grammar and syntax.

With Latin, you see, you pretty much need to teach students their own language before you can get to yours. Parts of speech for which they have no names, ways of thinking about language that have never occurred to them, and a whole shipwreck of grammatical bits and pieces lost in the Bermuda Triangle of their previous education have to be raised to awareness, named, and assembled so that language becomes a conscious object of analysis and vehicle of expression. You have to teach them become mini-philologists.

philology |fəˈläləjē| noun
*the branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages.
*literary or classical scholarship.

I remember going through the daunting challenge of learning Greek and Latin. It was tough, and I was one of the best in the university at it at the time. On top of it all I was going through a tough time (aren’t we all?) then. The world that I had so confidently espoused coming into the university was coming apart under the stress of it’s own internal contradictions, it’s unsupported assertions, and the knowledge that I had thought would validate, rather than complicate, my views. I had taken Greek to try and patch that up, and it wasn’t working. But I was learning.

Most people think of learning as only positive. It’s like exercise. Sure, the actual exertion is difficult at times, but if you just take it at your own pace you get is to be and to feel faster, stronger, and better. Learning just isn’t like that. There’s the exertion, sure, but learning often means letting go of things we cherish. It often means taking on burdens we didn’t want and didn’t ask for. And it sometimes means that things we thought were true turn out to be a lie. Instead of patching over our doubts, fears, and ambiguities, and teaching us how to avoid or not see them, it opens us up to them and teaches us how to face and live with them. That’s essentially the difference between education and indoctrination. I had come looking for the latter and was getting the former, and I was grieving the security and comfort that was already lost.

Indoctrination and education each have their place, but their approach is quite different. Indoctrination teaches you to think, and feel, and live inside a private universe, as if that were all there was and all you need. Education takes you out of the confines of that universe. It doesn’t necessarily make you discard it or stop living in it, but it does force you to realize that it is there and to consider its –and your own – limitations.

At any rate, learning things, as the Greeks knew, often (if not always) involves some suffering and grief. And Latin is one of those things. But opening up the door on aspects of language, the ancient world, and learning is what makes teaching beginning Latin worthwhile for me. I don’t, and shouldn’t, drag people out of their private universes, but I can open windows in them that they didn’t know were there, and give them the tools to climb through them if they wish and still survive.

A part of that process is something I hand out in class. It’s called the “Mors Latina” (The Latin Death), a spoof on the commonly known (and inaccurate) “stages of grief” process.  It was the brainchild of a conversation with Jason Thompson, a former student who now is a professor in his own right. Sometime I’ll tell you a story or two about my adventures with Jason. But for now, I’ll just leave you with the stages. Perhaps you’ll recognize analogies to your own learning there, and I hope you chuckle. Sometimes the only way through grief is by way of laughter.


Denial: The student cannot believe that he/she must learn the forms of Latin words (e.g., the declensions and conjugations) by memory, preferring instead to intuit their way along by recognizing the bases of the words and relying on English cognates.

Stage markers:

  • Blank stare when the word ‘memorize’ comes up in class,
  • Pleasant and relieved smile when a sentence is properly translated based on intuition and guessing.

Bargaining: The student begins to try and bargain with the language and the instructor as the realization dawns that a certain level of memorization is needed.  The student, for example, may try to memorize vocabulary lists without committing to memory whether the words are nouns or verbs, try and get by memorizing nouns and not verbs, or memorize only a certain declension and conjugation (generally first and second).

Stage markers:

  • Frantic making of indiscriminate lists,
  • The gleeful waving of flash cards.

Anger: The student becomes angry and frustrated with the instructor, the textbook, Latin, the Romans, the Pope, languages in general, former grammar instruction, the Spanish Inquisition . . . anything that vaguely recalls Latin or grammar as they begin to reach a level where they can no longer rely on intuition and cognates.
Stage markers:

  • Indignation (that a language would impose the burden of learning forms and vocabulary on someone so already burdened) combined with:
  • Self-loathing and shame for never learning any grammar or syntax.

Depression: The student becomes quite depressed that, yes, they have to actually commit Latin forms to memory, and that this also necessitates a fair amount of grammar review.  The amount of work needed to make up for time lost in stages I-III seems insurmountable.
Stage markers:

  • A slowing of indiscriminate listing behaviors,
  • Nightmares of brooding figures chanting “laudo, laudas, laudat …”
  • Sitting alone in a dark room, in underwear, for days on end while staring at an unopened Latin text and eating ice cream.

Acceptance: Finally, the student accepts that one needs to memorize not only the vocabulary words, but the paradigms that they go with.  Once on this path reading becomes easier, tests become recognizable, and Saturday night is never the same.

Stage markers:

  • The Latin Tutor’s schedule begins to fill up,
  • Strategic alliances are formed within the class,
  • An ever-growing circle of friends, relations, significant others, and even strangers are pressed into service as flash-card holders or audiences for impromptu recitations of verb synopses.
  • A calm bearing, serious demeanor, occasionally interrupted by outbursts over others’ usage of “well” and “good.”

4 comments for “Mors Latina. The Latin Death and the Grief of Learning

  1. Whitney Levis
    October 16, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Remember, once students get to the point of anger, depression or acceptance, I’m quite skilled at helping with this process. Sorry that teaching Latin has been so much of the same ol’ same ol’. I really admire your dedication to it. It would be like trying to teach pre-calc or calculus to students who didn’t really understand fractions.

  2. October 3, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Thank you, my voluntative optative. 😉

  3. October 3, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    In gender, number, and case, my son, and in potential subjunctives and optatives. 🙂

  4. October 3, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I am truly humbled at the notion I must die to self in order to be raised again in my new Latin form. Tell me doctor, will I dream?

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