Book Of A Lifetime: Kennedy's Latin Primer, by Benjamin Hall Kennedy

Mary Beard's 'Pompeii: the life of a Roman town' is published by Profile

It has lived in my desk, thumbed, defaced, treasured and from time to time mistreated, for more than 40 years, since I was 12. Benjamin Hall Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer is the Rolls-Royce of text-books and surely the longest lived: 120 years after its publication it is still the best-selling book in the Classics section of my local university bookshop. At school, in our second year of learning Latin, we were each given our own copies – and told that when we knew what was included within, we would then "know Latin".

Kennedy's Primer has not had a good press among the young. It consists mostly of hundreds of tables of verbs and nouns, declensions and conjugations, rules and their exceptions. As such, it has come to stand for everything that is deadening about learning ancient languages: the "grammar grind" – "amo, amas, amat" – and so on, and on. In desperation (and with a degree of wishful thinking), generations of children took up their fountain pens and changed the title of the abridged, junior version of Kennedy's Revised Primer. It took only a few extra letters and lines to turn the Shorter Latin Primer into the Shortbread Eating Primer. If only, they thought.

But for me, the Primer was a wondrous possession. I was entranced by the idea that someone could control a language, that you could reduce a complicated and difficult tongue to tables and rules, that it was possible to "know Latin" in this way. I've read enough about linguistics since to be rather more suspicious about how accurate those rules can ever be. But the Primer remains my first point of access to Latin and its mysterious complexities.

I also felt a soft spot for Kennedy himself. Before becoming Professor of Greek in Cambridge, he had been headmaster and legendary Classics teacher at Shrewsbury School. Being at school in Shrewsbury myself, down the road from where he had ruled the roost, I got the chance to visit his old classroom and even sit in his venerable desk. At Cambridge, I discovered that Kennedy had been a staunch advocate of women's education.

But there was to be a funny twist in the tale. A few years ago, some enterprising work in the archives by Christopher Stray unearthed the true story of the Primer. Kennedy had had less to do with it that we had all imagined. He had been responsible for a dreadful and unsuccessful first version, the Public School Latin Primer. The Revised, as its title hints, was his second go. Why did it do so much better?

Cherchez les femmes. The answer is that old Professor Kennedy took a back seat while the organisation, layout and details were taken over by his daughters, Marion and Julia. It was their enterprise and talents that managed to arrange the rules of Latin in a comprehensible way. For me, that made the book even easier to love.

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Mary Beard's 'Pompeii: the life of a Roman town' is published by Profile

It has lived in my desk, thumbed, defaced, treasured and from time to time mistreated, for more than 40 years, since I was 12. Benjamin Hall Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer is the Rolls Royce of textbooks and surely the longest lived: 120 years after its publication it is still the best-selling book in the Classics section of my university bookshop. At school, in our second year of Latin, we were each given our own copies - and told that when we knew what was included within its unexpectedly bright covers, we would then "know Latin".

Kennedy's Primer has not had a good press among the young. It consists mostly of hundreds of tables of verbs and nouns, declensions and conjugations, rules and their exceptions. As such, it has come to stand for everything that is deadening about learning ancient languages: the "grammar grind" – "amo, amas, amat" - and so on, andon. In desperation (and with a degree of wishful thinking), generations of children took up their fountain pens and changed the title of the junior version of Kennedy's Revised Primer. It took only the addition of a few extra letters and lines to turn The Shorter Latin Primer into the Shortbread Eating Primer. If only, they thought.

But for me, the Primer was a wondrous possession. I was entranced by the very idea that someone could control a language in this way, that you really could reduce a complicated and difficult tongue to tables and rules, that it was possible to "know Latin" in this way. Of course, I've read enough about linguistics since then to be rather more suspicious about quite how accurate those rules can ever be. But the Primer still remains my first point of access to Latin and its mysterious complexities.

I also felt a soft spot for Kennedy himself. Before becoming Professor of Greek in Cambridge, he had been headmaster and legendary Classics teacher at Shrewsbury School. Being at school in Shrewsbury myself, down the road from where he had ruled the roost, I got the chance to visit his old classroom and even sit in his venerable desk. Then, when I got to Cambridge, I discovered that Kennedy had later been a staunch advocate of women's education – and a portrait of his daughter Marion hung in my own college hall at Newnham.

But there was to be a funny twist in the tale. A few years ago, some enterprising work in the archives by Christopher Stray unearthed the true story of the composition of the Primer. Kennedy had had less to do with it that we had all imagined. He had been responsible for a dreadful and unsuccessful first version. The Revised was his second go. Why did it do so much better?

Cherchez les femmes. The answer is that dear old Professor Kennedy took a back seat, while the organisation, layout and details were taken over by his daughters, Marion and Julia. It was their enterprise and talents that managed to arrange the rules of Latin in a clear and comprehensible way. For me, that made the book even easier to love.

Mary Beard's 'Pompeii: the life of a Roman town' is published by Profile

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