“That’s Latin!” A review of…

Reginaldus Thomas Foster and Daniel Patricius McCarthy, Ossa Latinitatis Sola Ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque (The Mere Bones of Latin According to the Thought and System of Reginald). The Catholic University of America Press. 2016. Pp. 831. ISBN 978–0–8132–2832–7. $39.95

This is Big

Never before has a Latin textbook carried endorsements from the New York Times, BBC News, or USA Today. This one does, because its author, Reginald Foster, is widely acknowledged as the greatest Latinist in the world.

For forty years, Foster was papal secretary of Latin Letters in Rome. Latin is no longer used at mass, but it’s still the official language of the Catholic church, and in that time Foster’s job was to translate the Vatican’s official declarations and diplomatic communications into the ancient tongue.

Top Gun for Latin

That’s not all. Throughout those same years, Foster also taught Latin in Rome, and in two formats. One was a world-famous summer school for advanced students. Located on Rome’s Janiculum hill, it was Top Gun for Latin. It attracted professors, students, pilgrims, and enthusiasts from around the globe. The elite. The best of the best. Foster aimed to make them better, to make them the best of the best of the best.

Then, when the heat broke and the weather cooled each autumn, Foster would head over to the Pontifical Gregorian University, near the Trevi Fountain, to teach five year-long “experiences” in Latin to priests, seminarians, nuns, and anyone else who found their way there.

Unlike the summer school, the academic-year courses covered Latin ab ovo ad mala — from the rudiments, in the first experience, up through master classes on par with the summer school in the fifth.

The book under review is based on that five-sequence course. Consolidating the observations and insights of four decades of teaching, Foster’s textbook calls to mind other introductory works written by great masters of the craft; think Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures on Physics. But it’s a lot more than that. What made all these classes so famous is that Foster taught us, his students, to regard reading Latin as only half of learning the language. He considered it equally essential to learn to write and speak it.

And that — the active component — is what makes this new textbook unlike any other. It represents the living tradition of Latin, rather than the philological tradition. That distinction requires a little explanation.

The Living Tradition vs. the Philological Tradition

The world is divided into lumpers and splitters. In Italy, you’re surrounded by zillions of Christian monuments and inscriptions in Latin everywhere you go. They’re a constant reminder that Classical Latin literature makes up only a tiny percentage of the literature that survives: after Rome fell, Latin stuck around as the preferred medium for medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern discourse. Some embrace that reality today, and they lump those traditions together; others, however, consider those postclassical monuments a distraction from our real business.

At elite universities in the US and Europe — think Oxbridge and the Ivy League — we teach Latin through the philological tradition. That tradition is a splitter. Our goal is to investigate the four centuries of Rome’s classical period (2nd c. BCE — 2nd c. CE), so we look for trees in the forest. We emphasize nuance among words and explanations of grammatical phenomena. We regard Latin as a dead language and so, as with dead butterflies or beetles, we assume students learn it best by dissection, taxonomy and periodization. We even give them archaic translation formulas (lest or would that! or should…would) to lock that precision in.

Foster’s book, by contrast, is a product of the Vatican-Catholic approach. That approach — the living tradition — is a lumper. It sees the forest, and it wants to read it all: the literature of classical Rome, the medieval world, the Renaissance, the Reformation. Like the philological tradition, it too regards Latin as a dead language, but not dead in the same way that, say, Etruscan is. It sees Latin as analogous to biblical Hebrew — and, as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda proved, people can do some pretty amazing things with a dead language like that when they refuse to regard it as a code to crack or a corpse to cut up, and instead treat it as an instrument of communication.

Both approaches insist on precision of analysis, but in different ways. Philology likes things lean and mean from the get-go, so it uses commentaries extensively and favors close reading — arguably, because it has to; the pace is glacial, so students can comment on individual words or maybe a sentence. The living tradition, like bodybuilders, aims to increase mass overall before refining the fat-muscle mix later on. Instead of commentaries, it favors dictionaries, synonyms, hacks, puns, contemporary English, and extensive reading.

And now that they’ve found out about it, people are loving it. Crossing political divides, enthusiasts of the living tradition — many of them Foster’s students, or students of his students — have been attracting attention in the Wall Street Journal and The Nation. All of this — the pedagogy, the enthusiasm, and especially the fun — is due entirely to the famous classes that Foster taught in Rome. This book is a record of what he did to teach and inspire them.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice!

If you saw Bill Maher’s movie Religulous, you’ve seen Foster. He’s the priest who steals the show with some irreverent wisecracks out front of St. Peter’s square. Foster has now reached the age of 77, and Ossa Latinitatis Sola is both his lifetime achievement and the achievement of a lifetime. In 1999–2000 I took a year off grad school to take all five of his experiences simultaneously. (I’d already spent part of 1997 in his summer school.) If you ever wanted to take those classes but couldn’t, this is the next best thing. The book is like an edited, polished transcript of exactly what he taught us then. Reading the pages, I can hear his voice repeating the mantras and lessons he taught us then. And frequently I find myself laughing out loud.

Seriously. This book is fun; you could read it on the beach. Foster teaches grammar through an utterly absorbing conversational style, as Plato might have taught it, rather than via charts or formulas. And salty or sardonic remarks — the kind you saw in Religulous — enliven every page. So you’ll read:

In these [hopelessly ambiguous] cases, we shall never know why a verb is in the subjunctive until we meet the authors in another life.

Even the strange title works this ironic way. Cicero uses ossa (bones) as a metaphor for “the solid parts or outlines of a discourse.” Foster begins with that metaphor (though doesn’t say so) and turns it back into a richly developed metaphor for a skeleton of learning, to be augmented in the future — and in companion volumes — with “meat” for our “bones.” Once you realize the deliberately stilted English is deliberately stilted to show you, more or less, what Latin is saying grammatically, you will love it.

Foster’s method

Latin is hard. Usually we try to soft-peddle the problems; not so Foster, who delights in pointing out why it’s hard:

It is not that we have so much to learn, but we have so little material with which to express our thoughts. … In Latin all of these [unambiguous verbal] forms are contained in that one verb, and that is what makes Latin so demanding and satisfying for mature people.

Hence, in mentioning that Latin often omits the antecedent of a relative pronoun, he’ll cheerfully point out, “This is going to cause trouble and confusion and desperation for the rest of your life.” The solution? “Good luck!”

That’s not the only irreverence in the book. To illustrate grammatical phenomena, Foster makes up his own examples. This drives some purists (classicists) nuts, who think an example is only good if an ancient author uttered it. Likewise, Foster chooses vocabulary words at whim. To illustrate the second declension, he chooses asinus (jackass, donkey, blockhead); to illustrate an ablative absolute, he uses soluta hypotheca (the mortgage having been paid). For fun and variety, a very few examples include the Latin words for bus (autovehiculum), bicycle (birota), space ship (navicula siderea), potato (solanum) and ketchup (licopersici liquamen). Some will protest these words are rare in the literature they’re likely to read. They are right.

But Foster isn’t trolling us; there’s a method to the madness. He’s in the business of teaching us the whole language, not how to prepare ourselves to just read chunks of Virgil or Julius Caesar. Make no mistake: 99.9% of the book is solid classical or Christian Latin that Erasmus or Cicero would have recognized immediately. But Foster insists, rightly, that anyone who wants to know Latin needs to know its vocabulary. As he points out, this method is like learning the piano: “This is the way a new pianist slowly grows in acquaintance with notes, keys, combinations, harmonies, rhythms, scales — the whole reality.”

Foster commits other philological heresies in the service of showing us what works. He dispenses with venerable grammatical terminology, preferring to discuss how words function. He does not mark long vowels, or even tell you how to pronounce Latin (the only point on which I’d suggest a future edition might be amended). Instead of jargon or historico-linguistic explanations for phenomena, we find explanations like this: “To say erimus venientes for “we shall be coming” is spaghetti Latin or babble talk.”

The upshot

Ossa Latinitatis Sola is the compendium of a lifetime of observation and analysis, no different and no less revolutionary than the observations compiled and analyzed by Darwin in biology or Copernicus in astronomy. Foster’s field is the 2,300-year sweep of Latin literature, from Plautus at the start through our own day. You can love his style or hate it, but when Foster speaks of Latin, he speaks with greater authority than anyone alive. We can all learn from it. Exegit monumentum aere perennius!