Latin lovers' new viva voce
A dead language sets tongues wagging at a fanatic's tea party. Rosie Millard chips in
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.
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