Latin lovers' new viva voce

A dead language sets tongues wagging at a fanatic's tea party. Rosie Millard chips in

Elderly prep-school masters and fans of The Oldie alike must be laughing their socks off. Latin is back. The Sunday Telegraph has just finished a four-month column aimed at educating readers to its charms. The editor of the Times is said to keep a volume of Latin poetry permanently by his side. Finnish radio has recently started broadcasting 15 minutes a week of solid Latin. You can even go on Latin conversational walks in the Black Forest, of all places.

Forget Esperanto and other Euro-modernist claptrap. Everyone is digging the manifold charms of hic, haec, hoc, Caecilius est in via and Metella sedet in atrium. Perversely, it seems that just when most schools have dumped compulsory study of Latin, it is now the fashionable language to learn. Latin evening classes are all the rage.

"It shows you, properly, what words mean," says Pree Hilary. An elegant, middle-aged woman, Ms Hilary delicately sips tea from a bone-china cup. "It clears your mind. It structures your thinking. It improves your English. Everyone should have a bash at it." Ms Hilary came to the joys of bashing the ablative somewhat late in life, taking up Latin when her daughter was struggling with it.

It was a container of salt that provided the conversion - a sort of Pauline flash of light in the Hilary kitchen. "I suddenly realised why Saxa Salt is called Saxa. From the Latin. Meaning rock." She sighs. "It really got to me." Having started Tuesday night Latin classes in south London three years ago, Ms Hilary is taking her Latin GCSE this summer. In September, she hopes to embark on a three-year degree course in classical studies at King's College, London.

I am taking tea not just with Ms Hilary, but the entire Tuesday night Latin class, which meets regularly at one of the members' homes. We are eating scones with whipped cream and bowls of trifle, drinking China tea and discussing the wonders of Virgil. The pupils are well past school- leaving age. All took up Latin after gaps of several decades. They are polite, tweed-suited, smartly coiffured and wholly female. "We had one man in the group," admits Pree Hilary, "but he left." She pauses. "He kind of drifted away. I think it's a woman's thing. Perhaps we're more alert."

"Well, I think mixed ability was the right word for our class," says Margaret Tod, our hostess, briskly. "Most of us started off not being very good, but it gets you hooked. I mean, we didn't enter class and say 'Salve!' or anything like that, but once we started translating Virgil, I'd be up at one in the morning with homework. And we all improved. Apart from Glenys, that is." Ms Tod looks anxiously around the room and lowers her voice. "Glenys was Welsh-speaking and, you know, I think it got in the way. The Welsh and the Latin. Muddled things up. She got miles behind. In the end, she left."

It's like being with a group of genteel missionaries. While the silver-plated teapot is passed around by a cosy-looking woman called Ethel, we talk, in English, about the nightmares of Alexandrines, how to pronounce the name of the poet Cicero - either hard ("Kikero" is traditionalist), or soft ("Sissero" is dangerously modernist) - and the difference between pure Latin and Late Latin (the latter apparently used in churches). Someone mentions she is off to Rome to visit the Vatican, the only state where Latin is still spoken. Apparently, Father Reginald, the Pope's speech writer, spends 70 per cent of his time speaking it. "No problems if I get lost, then!" she jokes.

"Did you hear about that diplomatic meeting in Bulgaria?" says Pree Hilary. The others crowd round. "Nobody had a common language, so they conducted the whole meeting in Latin!" She sits back triumphantly and waves her scallop-shaped trifle spoon. The tale may be apocryphal, but it confirms the group's belief: Latin is worth it, and not just for public school boys and Oxbridge dons.

"The opportunity should be there for everyone," says Sue Piquemal, who works in the classics department of Penguin Books. Before taking up Latin, she had never been able to read her list of Roman books in the original. "Latin is so vigorous; it has to be good for your mind. Until you understand it, so much literature is closed to you."

I make my exit just as a book of Latin poetry is given to Margaret Tod. It's Horace's Satire II, the story of the town mouse and the country mouse. "De mortis nihil nisi bonum,"* says Margaret Tod, as I rejoin the English-centred outside world.

* Of the dead speak nothing but good.

Suggested Topics
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

    £39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game