Language fragments – language impressions

Something in my Caesar class got me to think. My prof was remarking on how the focus on canonical literature for Latin classes in school, that is, the classic Latin of Caesar, Cicero and their contemporaries, eventually led to a canonical vocabulary. Basically, those German scholars responsible for limiting the authors most students will ever read in Latin to a specific scope have written part of the language’s vocabulary out of canon.

Let me explain. Latin, like any language, has a basic vocabulary spanning things such as the most important verbs (e.g. esse – to be), nouns, etc. Then there’s specific vocabulary such as military terms, political terms or poetical terms. Now, it’s basically these three topics that most students of Latin will encounter during most of their studies – simply because those are the fields literature was written in, and those are the fields that Latin literature has survived to this day. So a student of Latin will have a wide vocabulary in these fields, but may be lacking in others.

Let’s contrast this to the learning of another, a “living” language, if you will (though I deny the claim of Latin being a “dead” language). When I learned French, for instance, I never aquired much military of political vocabulary. Naturally, the school curriculum’s vocabulary is more concerned with the areas of daily life, such as asking for the way, ordering a meal in a restaurant, etc. pp. Now, that is of course a sign of the times. We do not learn how to order a meal or ask for the way in Latin because it simply wouldn’t do us any good. We learn the vocabulary we need to acquire in order to translate the texts that are left to us.

Now I’ve heard it said by students that they find it interesting how many different words the Romans seemed to have for killing, weapons, warfare, etc. But is that actually true? Even in Ancient Rome, the military vocabulary probably did not constitute as great a part as the school curriculum’s vocabulary might have you believe. As such, one could get the wrong impression of the Latin language by how fixed it seems to be on certain areas, when in fact it’s just the curriculum that’s overly concerned with them.

The remnants of texts from earlier times are the only source we have of classical Latin. There is no unbroken line of native speakers, so we have only these texts to rely on. Now, let us consider for a moment that English would, at some point in the future, lose all native speakers, unlikely as that is (just pretend that the world is really going to end in 2012, and only the French will survive, or something). In the Apocalypse, all media containing the English language is lost. As society slowly rebuilds itself, it recovers only … Broadway musicals, for instance. I wonder how that would colour the perception of English.

Published in: on May 30, 2011 at 12:46 am  Leave a Comment  

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