Learn Latin

Is “Reading” Latin Impossible?

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Guest arti­cle writ­ten by Tom Kee­line, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, St. Louis.  

 Vitas inuleo me similis, Chloe,
 quaerenti pauidam montibus auiis
  matrem non sine uano
    aurarum et siluae metu. 

I bet you can’t under­stand that Latin sen­tence the first time you read it. I bet you can’t even under­stand it if you read it again—go ahead, give it a shot. Maybe you can, of course, and if so you’re bet­ter than I am, since I got stuck on it one day last month. I was sit­ting in the park one Sat­ur­day dur­ing a rare reprieve from a cold and snowy Jan­u­ary, keep­ing half an eye on my chil­dren while prepar­ing for one of my class­es on Mon­day. We’d be cov­er­ing book one of Horace’s Odes in my grad­u­ate sur­vey that day, and so I had 38 poems to read. (We move pret­ty fast: as a col­league of mine jokes, “if it’s Tues­day, this must be Tibul­lus!”) The last time I’d read this par­tic­u­lar poem—Odes1.23—was, as near as I can tell, about sev­en years ago, and in that time I’d for­got­ten the key word that unlocks much of the mys­tery of that first stan­za: inuleo. If you could read the stan­za at a glance with ease and plea­sure, then you knew that word, and I’d make a fur­ther bet: it’s prob­a­bly because you already have read this poem, and you man­aged to remem­ber it bet­ter than I could.

Here’s a bit of help for those who haven’t read it or whose mem­o­ries are as porous as mine: inuleus means “fawn.” Does that help? Here’s a bit more back­ground: in this stan­za Horace com­pares his love inter­est, Chloe, to a skit­tish young deer who runs off to look for its moth­er in the moun­tains, naive­ly fear­ing the sights and sounds of nature. Maybe you can fol­low it now. It goes some­thing like, “you avoid me like a fawn, Chloe, a fawn who seeks its fright­ened moth­er in the lone­ly moun­tains out of a fool­ish fear of the breeze and the trees.”

Fresco from Pompeii, ca 30-50 A.D. showing two women with a fawn.

If you don’t know the word inuleus, you will almost cer­tain­ly be stuck. It’s just one word, but if you don’t know it, you prob­a­bly also can’t tell whether uitas is the sec­ond-per­son sin­gu­lar verb “you avoid” or the accusative plur­al noun “lives,” because inuleo might equal­ly be an unrec­og­niz­able noun—nominative? dative? ablative?—or an unrec­og­niz­able first-per­son sin­gu­lar verb. sim­ilis won’t help: nom­i­na­tive sin­gu­lar or accusative plur­al? By the time you get to the sec­ond line, you’re prob­a­bly just lost—there are too many uncer­tain­ties to try to hold onto in your work­ing memory.

Now of course you can even­tu­al­ly sort this out. I didn’t bring a dic­tio­nary with me to the park, but when I flipped to the com­men­tary in the back of Roland Mayer’s Cam­bridge Green and Yellow—I wasn’t bring­ing Nis­bet and Hub­bard to the playground!—I found the word glossed as “fawn.” I then remem­bered Anacreon’s sim­i­lar poem, which only came back to me because Anacre­on mem­o­rably wrote that female deer have antlers (Anacre­on fr. 408, gen­er­at­ing a fierce zoo­log­i­cal con­tro­ver­sy in antiq­ui­ty; Aris­to­tle was indul­gent). Sud­den­ly Horace’s whole stan­za fell into place, flow­ing smooth­ly through the men­tal chan­nels that I’d carved out the last time I’d read the poem in the fall of 2011.

But “you can even­tu­al­ly sort this out” is not the point. Or per­haps it is a corol­lary of the point. The point is that, if we believe the SLA research, you need to know 95–98% of the words in a giv­en pas­sage in order to read it. By “read,” these researchers typ­i­cal­ly mean move your eyes once over the sen­tence and more or less instant­ly take in its mean­ing. They cer­tain­ly do not mean “look at a sen­tence in puz­zle­ment, con­sult a dic­tio­nary and/or com­men­tary and/or trans­la­tion, and even­tu­al­ly extract its meaning.” 

But know­ing 95–98% of the words in a giv­en pas­sage? That’s an almost impos­si­bly high bar for most Latin­ists to clear when they’re read­ing many, if not most, ancient Roman authors. The same SLA researchers who point out the “95–98% rule” will often argue that vocab­u­lary is best learned through com­pre­hen­si­ble input and exten­sive read­ing (more here). If you could only read enough pas­sages where you know 98% of the words and the unknown inuleus occurs too, you’d even­tu­al­ly learn how to say “fawn” in Latin. Researchers are not agreed about how often you might need to be exposed to a word in order to learn it, nor are they eas­i­ly able to take into account the fact that some of us for­get words that we knew per­fect­ly well sev­en years ago, but you pret­ty clear­ly need to do a whole lot of read­ing. Many pro­po­nents of exten­sive read­ing want stu­dents to be read­ing a book a week at the begin­ning and inter­me­di­ate lev­els; two or three a week at the advanced lev­el, and we are not even remote­ly close to hav­ing that many high-qual­i­ty com­pelling and com­pre­hen­si­ble Latin texts (seen in these terms, the cur­rent pro­fu­sion of Latin novel­las is only a tiny drop in a very large bucket).

Manuscript showing Horace, Odes 1.23.

But let’s just leave those issues aside for the moment, because there’s almost no way that you’ll ever learn inuleus through exten­sive read­ing. Indeed, the only oth­er pas­sage in Latin lit­er­a­ture where a typ­i­cal Latin­ist is like­ly to see the word is Prop­er­tius 3.13.35. Aside from that, it makes a hand­ful of appear­ances in Pliny the Elder (and his epit­o­ma­tor Soli­nus), as well as a series of cameos in Scri­bo­nius Largus. If your read­ing extends to the mid-fifth cen­tu­ry, you might also come across inuleus used once in Eucherius’s For­mu­lae spir­i­tal­is intel­le­gen­ti­ae (for those keep­ing score at home: form.4 p. 26 ll. 11–13 in Karl Wotke’s edi­tion). But you could, sim­ply put, read through all of extant ancient Latin lit­er­a­ture and still not have come across this word enough times to have inter­nal­ized it in your men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the lan­guage. (And you prob­a­bly wouldn’t be able to “read” many of those oth­er pas­sages either, even if you did look at them, since you aren’t like­ly to know 95–98% of the words in the sur­round­ing con­text.) And most clas­si­cists will nev­er see the word out­side its sin­gle occur­rences in Horace and Propertius.

Horace is about as canon­i­cal as they come, but I’m going to wager that any­one who can “read” Horace (in the SLA research sense) has already “read” Horace (in the clas­si­cist, hack your way through this with a men­tal machete sense). I admit that to con­duct rig­or­ous research on this claim would be both imprac­ti­cal and almost a form of stu­dent abuse: we would have to train up a crop of Latin­ists to become as pro­fi­cient as pos­si­ble, all the while sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly deny­ing them the plea­sures of Horace, just so that we could one day test whether they could actu­al­ly read and under­stand him at sight. But even if we were to per­form this cru­el exper­i­ment, I’m fair­ly con­fi­dent they wouldn’t succeed.

Is the exam­ple of inuleus cher­ry-picked? Maybe. It’s what stopped me in my tracks the oth­er day, and that’s why I picked it. But open up your own Horace to a poem you haven’t read in a while (or have nev­er read), and see how you do. This one, for exam­ple, continues:

nam seu mobilibus uepris inhorruit
ad uentum foliis seu uirides rubum
 dimouere lacertae,
   et corde et genibus tremit.   

There are seri­ous tex­tu­al issues here, but ignore those for our present pur­pos­es: ueprisrubumlac­er­tae—do you know them all? (I was two for three on Sat­ur­day in the park, hav­ing for­got­ten rubus “bram­ble bush,” and the com­men­tary didn’t gloss it for me. I couldn’t fig­ure it out from con­text and had to look it up when I got home.)

Since I’ve quot­ed two-thirds of Horace’s poem, I might as well quote the last stan­za as well:

atqui non ego te tigris ut aspera
Gaetulusue leo frangere persequor:
 tandem desine matrem
   tempestiua sequi uiro.

I man­aged to do a bit bet­ter with this one, but I nev­er even could have made it to this stan­za with­out help get­ting through the first two.

Sketch of a grown male lion lying down, by Rembrandt.

Now can we do pre-read­ing with our stu­dents to pre­pare them to read this poem? Of course we can, and of course we should! But in a larg­er sense, we real­ly can’t pre­pare our­selves to read such poems (i.e., not “this poem” but poems like it). Active Latin and com­pre­hen­si­ble input on their own sim­ply will not get us there. The amount of pre-read­ing and prepa­ra­tion you’d have to do to read Horace’s four books of Odes at sight is so enor­mous as to be all but impos­si­ble: read­ing through all of extant Latin lit­er­a­ture would be a good start, but it still wouldn’t get you all the way there. And that is just to speak of vocab­u­lary and not even to get into issues of cul­tur­al lit­er­a­cy, word order, syn­tac­ti­cal odd­i­ties, tex­tu­al trou­bles, and so forth—separate arti­cles all!

Some­one might point out that you don’t have to lim­it your read­ing to clas­si­cal Latin, and they might sug­gest that you read con­tem­po­rary novel­las and oth­er Latin writ­ten by lat­er authors. I agree! I think that read­ing Renais­sance Latin in par­tic­u­lar has done a lot for my abil­i­ties to read Roman authors. Much of lat­er Latin won’t count as com­pre­hen­si­ble input for most Latin learn­ers, but it offers an almost immea­sur­ably greater vari­ety of top­ics and lev­els than ancient Latin alone. Such texts still aren’t like­ly to teach you inuleus, but they will help rein­force a lot of oth­er vocab­u­lary. And some medieval and Renais­sance texts real­ly do count as lev­el-appro­pri­ate, com­pelling, com­pre­hen­si­ble input; some of this Latin real­ly can be “read” in the SLA sense of the term. Such has been my expe­ri­ence, at any rate.

Nev­er­the­less, read­ing lat­er Latin has its own dan­gers: lat­er authors were not native speak­ers of Latin, and they per­force lacked the Sprachge­fühl need­ed to wield the lan­guage with native-speak­er pro­fi­cien­cy. We can­not nec­es­sar­i­ly trust their intu­itions about word order, or dis­tinc­tions between approx­i­mate syn­onyms, or any of a num­ber of oth­er rel­a­tive­ly sub­tle points.There is, sim­ply put, a dan­ger that we may devel­op an inac­cu­rate men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the lan­guage. (And this is to say noth­ing of new asso­ci­a­tions with old words: if you speak Latin or read post-clas­si­cal texts, what pops into your head when you see rae­da or pre­lum?) I think in prac­tice the ben­e­fits far out­weigh the risks, but I’d sug­gest that you read lat­er Latin for its own sake—and it is absolute­ly wor­thy to be read!—not just for its poten­tial to help you read Cae­sar and Vergil. That’s just a side benefit.

Active Latin and com­pre­hen­si­ble input alone are not going to make peo­ple per­fect read­ers of ancient Latin lit­er­a­ture, at least not for any future I can real­is­ti­cal­ly imag­ine. For many—I sus­pect most—ancient Latin texts, there will remain some gap between our lev­el of read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy and the lev­el that the text demands in order to be read flu­ent­ly. That gap can be bridged by teach­ers and com­men­taries and dic­tio­nar­ies and per­haps by explic­it knowl­edge about gram­mar and how the Latin lan­guage works, and we can in the end get mean­ing from these texts, and enjoy them, and even­tu­al­ly re-read them in the way that they were meant to be read. But on a first read­ing, that gap will be there for most of us most of the time.

What Active Latin can do, I sug­gest, is nar­row that gap. Read­ers who nev­er do any­thing but trans­late will have a much larg­er gap to bridge, and their jour­ney is much longer and hard­er. On the oth­er hand, read­ers who have worked to devel­op a sophis­ti­cat­ed and accu­rate men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the lan­guage through com­pre­hen­si­ble input, wide read­ing, exten­sive lis­ten­ing, and so forth will still need to tra­verse a bridge from where they are to where the ancient Roman authors stand, but their jour­ney is short­er and eas­i­er. Down­hill rather than uphill, to change the metaphor a bit. They will have to look up a hand­ful of words, but not every oth­er word. They will have to con­sult com­men­taries, but when they do so, they will also get prof­it and plea­sure from the con­sul­ta­tion, not just an Eng­lish crib of the Latin. They’ll even need to read trans­la­tions some­times, and that’s ok, because they won’t be sole­ly reliant on them for their under­stand­ing of the Latin.

Black and white image of Botticelli's Dante to the left and Virgil to the right.

You wouldn’t try to read Dante today with­out first learn­ing mod­ern Ital­ian, or Shake­speare with­out first learn­ing con­tem­po­rary Eng­lish. Latin lit­er­a­ture is our equiv­a­lent of Dante and Shake­speare, and Active Latin is the clos­est thing we’ve got to “learn­ing Ital­ian” or “learn­ing Eng­lish.” But the ancient Latin texts that we read are not, by and large, “lev­el appro­pri­ate”; we’ve got noth­ing except the ancient equiv­a­lents of Dante and Shake­speare. We’ve got texts that were writ­ten at the high­est lev­el of sophis­ti­ca­tion for an elite audi­ence of supreme­ly well-edu­cat­ed con­tem­po­rary native speak­ers. They weren’t writ­ten for us. Do I think these texts are emi­nent­ly worth read­ing? Of course—I’m a clas­si­cist! But we shouldn’t delude our­selves or our stu­dents: the gap between us and those ancient native speak­ers is nev­er going to be ful­ly bridge­able by wav­ing any mag­ic wand, whether it’s labeled “Active Latin” or any­thing else.

If the final des­ti­na­tion of this jour­ney is to “read” ancient Latin the way we read our native lan­guage, we may nev­er get there. I’m cer­tain­ly nowhere close. Should we just give up then? Well, I don’t think so. As with geom­e­try, there is no roy­al road to Latin, but I think I’ve made a lot more progress by embrac­ing Active Latin than I would have oth­er­wise. I’ve def­i­nite­ly had a lot more fun. If read­ing ancient Latin the way I read Eng­lish remains an elu­sive goal for me, get­ting mean­ing from Latin texts with ever-increas­ing ease and plea­sure is a com­plete­ly rea­son­able goal that I make progress towards every day—well, let’s say “most days”! If we begin with such a goal in mind, then we can con­stant­ly strive for a per­haps unat­tain­able per­fec­tion while still enjoy­ing every step of the jour­ney. And this, I think, is the real­is­tic promise of Active Latin.

Tom Keeline

Tom Keeline

Tom Keeline is an assistant professor of Classics at Washington University in St. Louis. He teaches his Latin classes either exclusively or in large part in Latin, and he co-hosts the Latin podcast Philologia Perennis with Patrick Owens. He also enjoys activities with immediate practical application in everyday life, such as Latin verse composition and lexicography. Outside of Classics he spends most of his time with his wife and three children.
Written by Tom Keeline

Written by Tom Keeline

Related articles

The Supine in Latin Grammar: What it is and What its Function is

The Supine in Latin Grammar: What it is and What its Function is

Among Latin’s many verb forms, the supine, causes students quite a lot of confusion. In this article, I will ...
How to start speaking Latin: the first daily exercise

How to start speaking Latin: the first daily exercise

Do you want to learn to read Latin well—without looking for the verb or checking the dictionary every other ...
How to Read and Study Classical Latin Texts: 10 Suggestions from a Latin Teacher

How to Read and Study Classical Latin Texts: 10 Suggestions from a Latin Teacher

For most students of Latin, learning Latin means sooner or later reading classical Latin literature. However, ...