Working to Modernize Latin Values, Along With Latin Vocabulary

A Review of Stephen Berard’s “Vita Nostra”

Skye Shirley
Aug 2, 2018 · 7 min read
The Lely Venus in the British Museum. (“London — British Museum — 2411” by Jorge Royan, from Wikimedia Commons).

Stephen A. Berard. Vita Nostra: Subsidia ad Colloquia Latina. Tomus I. Clinton, Washington: Cataracta Publications, 2018. Paperback: 152 pages, $25.00.

Most of us have probably encountered the belief that Latin is dead, or at least outdated, and that its vocabulary is by now set in stone. Maybe we’ve had to make the case for spoken methods to our students or administrators, or seen the surprise on a stranger’s face when asked our profession. Maybe we even internalize this message, and wonder whether what the world needs is increased access to a language that seems more fitting for a medieval university than the electric yellow highlighter of a 21st-century reader. Yet within immersive settings such as classrooms, conventicula, and conferences, even the most determined spoken Latinist sometimes abandons Latin to access vocabulary related to films and electronics. Vita Nostra by Stephen Berard is an auxiliary text for those wishing to improve conversational Latin by drawing on themes from contemporary life. Not only does this hyper-modern vocabulary allow for greater fluency in conversation, but it also allows us to learn Latin in contexts meaningful to our own experiences. It is incredibly challenging to modernize a language, and we are fortunate to have another book added to conversational resources. His aims were admirable and his book will provide assistance for countless Latinists as they, too, strive to fuse the past and present in dialogue.

Berard’s book provides sample conversations, discussion prompts, comprehension questions, composition exercises, and a glossary. With these tools he blends the Natural Method, an approach to language instruction best exemplified by Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata, with meaningful contexts that will appeal to today’s students. The book’s greatest value lies in the variety of topics addressed, the creativity of some sections, and the plethora of neo-Latin vocabulary required for conversations in our rapidly modernizing world. Its aims are admirable and many of these are achieved. As with any language resource, it ultimately is up to the teacher to extract the most beneficial resources.

The text begins with a three-page Prooemium. The style of this Latin prologue is ornate but clunky; its complexity seems to run contrary to the book’s overall goal of making Latin more accessible. In fact, the passage in the book most in need of pre-reading, a glossary, or tiered scaffolding is this first threshold: the introduction itself.

Yet readers who do venture to digest this introductory passage will not be disappointed, as it is here Berard elucidates many of his intentions for the text. He draws on the recent lexica of Latinists from around the world. These lexica may have been written by Americans, Germans, and Italians, and others, but all of these Latinists share a desire to update an ancient language for modern contexts. Berard uses no ancient sources, though many neo-Latin words derive from earlier roots. Furthermore, the lexicon Berard selects has a Greek flavor. For example, he chooses the Greek xystus rather than porticus for “covered walkway” and lychnus rather than lumen for “lamp.” These variations are interesting to those already acquainted with conversational Latin, and may be confusing for those hoping to see more consistency between Latin immersive settings and this textbook. Berard closes his introduction with a brief explanation of the book’s grammatical parallels to chapters of Ørberg’s series. A full-page graphic aligning the first books of Lingua Latina and Vita Nostra is provided for readers on page 14.

The intended audience for this book is the increasing number of Latin teachers and students who, informed by the the most current and convincing research in Second Language Acquisition, choose to learn Latin the way the brain is wired to learn language, regardless of whether native speakers still exist. Certainly the text would be far too challenging as a Latin primer, and even for a veteran student and teacher in spoken Latin immersion programs, I found myself frustrated by some of the wordier passages in the Prooemium. Berard encourages readers to explore the glossaries as needed, but to feel no pressure to learn all words. He advises readers ad pascendum, that is, “to graze” over glossaries, selecting what is needed for the current conversation.

The layout of this 145-page volume is attractive: from its glossy cover showcasing colorful pictures of modern settings to the blanks for students’ own compositions, the design does much to appeal to classroom use. There are only five chapters, each centered on a different theme: homes, indoor activities, outdoor recreation, occupations, and biographies. One might imagine that five chapters are too few, but it appropriately fits Berard’s goal of providing ample practice on each theme. The chapter glossaries include opportunities for students to personalize responses, allowing for countless variations on a single prompt.

Each chapter begins with a heading page that is superimposed on a collage of anchoring illustrations. The mixture of ancient and modern visuals are delightful, such as the house-themed image of Chapter 1, where a Roman villa’s ruins are juxtaposed with a modern Tokyo high-rise apartment building. Particularly unique to this book is the incorporation of these illustrations in exercises. Berard provides prompts such as:

“Together with one or two other students look at the pictures on page 94 and imagine that you are involved with these or similar things at work. Describe your story to your partner.” (Chapter 4)

This under-employed method of combining visual and linguistic aids stimulates pre-reading strategies and gives each chapter cohesion. Yet aside from these chapter headings, the book lacks visuals. This becomes particularly noticeable in three pages listing colors in Latin simply by translating them to English, and another glossary of rooms in a house but with no floor plan to allow readers to stay immersed in Latin.

Next, each chapter has two dialogues of different levels, and exercises that range from Latin comprehension questions — familiar to any reader of Ørberg’s series — to paired conversation prompts. Following these activities, Berard provides a list of Latin idioms. Berard uses them in contextual sentences which unfortunately can be distractingly bizarre, such as “The dental profession doesn’t exactly appeal to our friend William” (arridet) and “Randy gets fatter every day” (in dies).

On a larger genre scale, the book aspires to strike a balance between a workbook and a reference book. The 8.5 x 11” page spreads and long lines for original compositions allow Vita Nostra to function as a workbook, although the comprehension questions do not have space for writing answers. Part of this is because Berard wanted a mix of ways to communicate output — but the book’s liminality left me unsure of whether to mark it up or leave pages pristine for photocopying.

Some exercises will certainly make for useful classroom prompts, in particular his questions about what activities we do in different rooms of a house. Other passages are outdated and problematic. In the very first chapter, we read phrases like tablīnum est patris, and in every passage it’s equally clear that the kitchen is the mother’s realm. When the father is a cook, he in cauponā magnā labōrat, whereas the mother domī labōrat, despite the long history, even in Roman times, of women working as cooks in taverns and food stalls. One might hope that in any book published in 2018 about contemporary life, someone at some stage in the editing process would question why the character of the mother is always cooking or cleaning, while the father is away on business.

In the world of Latin learning, we read ancient authors whose opinions we must and should preserve as is, regardless of how outdated they sound to modern readers. We strive to interpret the classical world as it was, and not just as we want it to be. And it is because of this that we have a real opportunity in neo-Latin sourcebooks like Vita Nostra to keep gender issues at least as current as a lexicon which has expanded to include the i-Tabella and computatorius programmator.

The cast includes 33 characters, none of which reappear in other chapters. Forty-two percent are women, and Berard includes math and classical philology among the interests of female characters. The fourth chapter even noticeably features photographs of women outside the home: Lorraine Turnbull Foster, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics at Caltech, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Such efforts are unique within the realm of Latin textbooks, and Berard seems to have wanted to include positive female representation. Yet despite even the best intentions, blind spots occur. The exercises are frequently written with a male space in mind, as phrases like fabulam tuam magistro postea narrabit or the instruction to speak cum aliquo occur.

Particularly outdated is the dialogue for Chapter II, which involves a scene of a boy who needs to mow the lawn and clean the car, and a girl who is inside helping her mother cook for the father, who is out of town on a business trip. “Cras domum veniet pater tuus et ei cenam optimam parare volumus,” (50) the mother’s part reads. This conversation is a missed opportunity in a book that in many ways looks toward the future. Thankfully, a second volume is forthcoming, which hopefully will address these issues. In spite of its limitations, books like this that embrace the challenge of synthesizing past and present Latin are a step in a positive direction. A book like Vita Nostra shows that Latin is not only the language of ancient Rome; we may have inherited it, but we also get to play our part in changing it for the future. What 21st century Latin says, and who it includes and excludes, depends on us.


Vita Nostra is available here on Amazon. Skye Shirley is an educator and writer. More information about her work can be found at www.skyeshirley.com.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

Skye Shirley

Written by

Teacher, speaker, writer, and spoken Latin enthusiast

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

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