Book review: Gwynne’s Latin By N M Gwynne


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The Independent Culture

If Mr Gwynne is to be believed, you really ought to cancel your weekend plans and concentrate on learning Latin instead. It’s not just that Latin is a brilliant subject per se (ah, see what I did there?), but through its study you’ll also develop other skills – problem-solving, strengthening your English, generally improving your character, et cetera. In fact, he believes a Classics-based education to be “many thousands of times better [sic!] than any education offered today”. The force of his conviction is hard to resist.

This little book makes a great case for learning Latin, not least because of the countless Latin words and phrases in our daily English. But it also argues for Latin to be taught in a particular way: i.e. (that is) the way it was taught before the 1960s came along and did bad things to education. Recent techniques, says Gwynne, are almost worse than not teaching it at all. But nil desperandum! He and his proudly old-school methods are here to help. This particular pedagogical … er … modus operandi (aha!) involves grappling with principles of grammar ab initio (a fundamental understanding of grammar being, you see, a sine qua non of any serious study); it involves memorising declensions, repeating them ad infinitum (or ad nauseam, whichever comes soonest); and of course, it involves parsing sentences. Gwynne regrets that few people nowadays will even know what to “parse” a sentence means.

Having made the case – and it’s a convincing one – that Latin ought to be learned, Gwynne settles down and teaches it to you. Hereafter, his book operates as a classic-style primer (naturally from primus, “first”). Page 94, randomly chosen, introduces “Verbs, Deponent and semi-deponent” and “Nouns, Fourth and Fifth Declensions”. It’s rigorous and systematic. It’s dense with information. It is, in short, hard work. But nb: this is not in any sense intended as a criticism, for learning Latin, as Gwynne readily admits, should be hard work if you’re doing it properly. The pay-off is that if you’ve done as you were told, you should be able to translate fairly complex text from Latin to English and vice versa, and, in addition, you’ll be a person of improved character all-round. But – caveat lector! – it takes some hard grind getting there, and demands absolute commitment. Part manifesto, part fully realised curriculum (noun, 2nd decl, neuter), Gwynne’s Latin is not, in truth, a book for everyone. More’s the pity, perhaps. (QED)