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Latin – The Language We All Know

I love buying cheap second-hand books, especially if they are in a foreign language, no matter I understand or need it or not. This one, IANUA NOVA, is a grammar exercise book for the German-speaking Latin learners, and I bought it last year just for 4 Turkish Lira (1 US Dollar). Neither do I speak German, nor do I have any serious commitment to learn Latin. But it feels nice to know what kind of material other people speaking another language have when they are learning a language I once attempted to learn yet failed.

Studying Latin is fun. When you study Latin, unlike living languages, you will encounter fabular phrases in your exercise book, like “The girls saluted the soldiers”, “The slave listened to the master”, “I applauded the poet”, “The emperor conquered new countries” etc.. It is never like “How can I go to the post office?” or “What kind of music do you like listening to?”. I believe that is not merely because Romans didn’t have post offices (or did they?) and they weren’t lucky enough to have access to Spotify. And it is very unlikely to find a Latin speaker, let alone a native, to practice your newly-learned phrases.

Whether you desire to learn Latin to read ancient texts, or to enhance your vocabulary, or just for the fun of it, it offers an opulent source of wisdom and linguistic experience, especially if you are familiar with any Romance language, or are interested in etymology as an English speaker. It is almost a globally recognized background component for the European culture. When I wanted to benefit from this fortune of sophistication, I didn’t know I was not in the right place. The professor, who was the head of the Latin department at college, look puzzled when I told her I wanted to take the Latin grammar course just two hours a week instead of four hours as my syllabus didn’t allow me. She said an un-sympathetic no, and asked me how on earth I thought I could learn Latin without fully attending all classes. I didn’t take the course officially, but I frequented her class as I pleased for a few weeks. The joyous show of hands to conjugate in the praesens didn’t feel satisfying for me, so I did not set foot on their territory of learnedness ever again, and I contented myself with only written material available. Luckily, Turkish masters of the Latin language have provided us with great learning material – grammar books, dictionaries, and the Latin classics printed in bilingual form.

Learning Latin in Turkey has its own peculiarities though. When we encounter the classical languages (i.e. Greek and Latin), unlike Europeans, we find ourselves amidst a myriad of entities difficult to digest, as opposed to easily acclimatizing our own clasiccal background with Persian and Arabic, which have shaped the Turkish lingual identity to a radical extent. When things changed drastically early in the 20th century, with the language reform and the westernization of the country, an exhilarated relish for humanisme made universities start offering classical philology programs, and even some high schools started teaching Latin.

 Today we have several books on Latin grammar. One of them, Tercümeli Latince Grameri by Faruk Zeki Perek was not printed for decades. I had obtained a photocopy of it at one of the stationary stores around the Faculty of Letters in Istanbul, which also sell lecture notes for students. This three-volume work remains to be the most comprehensive and concise at the same time.  In recent years, publishers brought us new gifts from Latinists from Istanbul and Ankara: Filiz Öktem’s Latin Dili (Latin Language) and Çiğdem Dürüşken’s Descartes Latince Öğreniyor (Descartes is Learning Latin). The latter is quite a delightful source. It is not just filled with tables of conjugations and declensions, but passages from classics with their translations follow the boring grammar chapters.

Dürüşken also pioneered the Humanitas series which include translations from Latin, to which, later, translations from Greek classics were added. This series are published in bilingual form, with the Turkish translation being on the right page while the original demurely stands on the left. It is a rogue business for me to read like that as I easily get distracted by the original text when I read the translation, pondering which word could be the equivalent of a certain Turkish word, or getting lost in an intriguing expression and then getting caught into the nets of words in the dictionary. The first one I obtained from this series was Cicero’s Pro Archia Poeta (I paid 1 Lira for that one, I think). Later on, I bought other books of Cicero (De Natura Deorum, In L. Catilina Oratio, Pro Murena Oratio) and Stultitae Laus (The Praise of Folly) by Erasmus. Many more from this series await to be bought and read.

My interest in Latin is pretty shallow. I don’t think it will yield any result good enough to have a command of the language or its history at all. But familiarizing oneself with tidbits of a great culture is a good way to establish a taste for finer things. With this approach, I presume, a physician from Britain, Dr. Keith Souter, put together a collection of Latin medical terms in a handbook called Doctor’s Latin, which of course, I got on the cheap – 4 Lira. I loved the part titled Apologia where he says “This book is intended as a work of entertainment, rather than a textbook of medical Latin. I, the author, am a simple medical practitioner rather than a linguist or a Latin scholar...”. I felt more than enthused about this short description of the author’s humble yet solemn intention.

Latin is vast. Spanning, not only geography but also realms of thought and traditions along the centuries, it has been one of the most influential legacies over a huge array of institutions and trends in world history. Today we can see the footprints of Latin in many fields from law to medicine, to architecture, to political institutions, to science, and to philosophy. Even the letters used today by the majority of the world population are a remainder of Latin. In a way, people still speak Latin today. Just in a form different than languages as we know them.


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