Last modified: 2012-07-04 (finished). Epistemic state: believed.

This is the first post in a 2-part series about learning to read Latin, or any language, really. Even though the Four Evangelists - Khatzu of the Moto clan, Steve “Doing What I Do, Better, Earlier and Getting Paid For It” Kaufmann, Prof. Alexander “The Shadow” Arguelles and Stephen “The” Krashen - have already brought us the Holy Scripture of Language Learning, my approach is slightly different, more hacker-friendly, and a bit more text-focused. Saint Morph Man covers TV, I cover books.

This is Part One, Method and Mindset. Part Two is about Tools and Examples.

So you want to learn how to read Latin. Sure, no probs. Let me channel the Warrior of Ten Thousand Sentences for a second…

Here’s the deal: you can already read Latin.

That’s right, I’m claiming you already have the ability to read Latin. That software is already installed, my friend.

You can read, presumably. (P-zombies who only pretend to read, go away!) The mechanism to read stuff is there. You aren’t a chimpanzee who’s totally puzzled by this “reading” thing everyone seems to be doing. (If you are, please don’t conquer our planet and enslave all of humanity?)

“But”, you might say, “I can read English, not Latin”. That, my friend, is not entirely correct. Look here:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.

That’s a sentence with seven words, right? You see that? So your Latin module is working just fine.

“But I don’t know what ‘omnis’ means!” Oh, so you’re saying your software has some bugs. Seems someone shipped an early beta. It happens. Your database is missing a word. ‘omnis’ means ‘all of’.

“But I don’t know what ‘Gallia’ means, either!” Another bug. That’s ‘Gaul’, the place where Asterix lives.

I’m not gonna lie to you. There may be a few more bugs in your software. The developer has a history of being kinda sloppy.

But that’s no big deal because you can patch everything. You just have to run your software, feed it some input, and see if you get any breakage. “I don’t understand that!”, that’s what a bug feels like. Then you just install the relevant patch, fill that gap in your knowledge, and that’s it.

Nothing more to it than that. You still remember what ‘omnis’ means? It never gets harder than that.

Learning one word is a trivially easy task. You’ve just done it twice, with no effort. (I presume. If you’re totally exhausted at this point, my apologies! Also, suck it.)

So you’re telling me, “I want to know what that sentence means!”. Sure thing. Seven words, remember? So we do it 5 more times. Heck, I’m sure you can already guess some of them.

Like ‘in’. You totally know what ‘in’ means, dude. And ‘partes’. Yeah, ‘parts’. That’s really tricky. ‘est’ is just ‘is’, like in French. ‘tres’, think un, dos, tres - right, it’s ‘three’. One last word, ‘divisa’, which obviously is ‘divided’.

So that sentence means ‘All of Gaul is divided into three parts’.

Yeah, the word order is a bit weird, I know. If it confuses you, that’s another bug. The sentence sub-module can be a bit tricky. It’s an ancient hack, ok? Serious legacy code. But it’s pretty small, so it’s easy to fix the occasional bugs.

“But muflax”, you ask, “how did you know what ‘omnis’ meant?”. Good question, you handsome narrative device, you!

I looked it up. Not everyone knows this, but people aren’t actually born speaking a language. There are no “native” languages at all. (I was shocked too!) These damned kids who later go around claiming Latin, or Japanese, or whatever new-fangled thing they speak these days, they claim this thing is their “native” language, they totally own it, and they learned it in completely unique and special ways, ones only children can use…

These people are full of shit.

When those kids didn’t know what something meant, they looked it up, too. Not in paper dictionaries, generally (lol paper books, amirite?), but TV shows, or other people, or comic books, or… Well, you get the idea. Quite a distributed way to store a language, if you ask me.

You may have noticed that there aren’t many Romans around these days. There’s a bunch of cosplayers in Italy, but they’re kinda weird. So where did I look it up?

There are a bunch of sources, but the three main sources are, dictionaries, parallel texts and context.

As a dictionary, Whitaker’s Words is pretty good. (Also has an online version. The program is written in Ada, which, as you may know, is the second-oldest language known to man, invented by Gilgamesh himself, right after he killed the Great Bull of Heaven.) You can google for more. Almost all languages have good online dictionaries these days.

Parallel texts just means “look this shit up in a translation”. The original sentence is the beginning of Caeser’s blog posts account of the Gallic war, so that’s pretty popular and there are translations galore.

And context, well, did you really need me to tell you that ‘in’ means ‘in’ or ‘into’? You just got that? Could make an informed guess? Perfect.

No other magic involved.1 I don’t secretly have Caesar chained up in my basement, that’s a dirty lie, I’ve given up on necromancy centuries ago!

You have your pre-installed Latin module. You feed it content. You encounter some bugs, you look them up in the most convenient way possible. You feed it more content until all the bugs are fixed.

Back in the Stone Age, which is pretty much any time before the 90s as far as I’m concerned, you’d take a text you wanted to read, get a translation (written by an old dude who censored all the dick jokes, likely), put them up next to each other, and read. You’d pay attention to how the sentence structure works, how words match up, what patterns there are. If something looked interesting, you’d write it down in your notebook. Also, all the words you didn’t know and couldn’t trivially guess. Then every day, you’d review those words. If you were particularly fancy, you’d even make paper cards out of them. Do that for a while, bam, write Aristotle fan-fiction scholastic philosophy in Church Latin.

Maybe we can automate this process, have (begin ominous music) The Computer (end ominous music) systematically look for bugs and generate little patches for us. You know, so we can be as lazy as is humanly possible. Which is very lazy indeed.

There’s one more thing though. I’m sorry to say, but, well, how can I put this nicely… you have brain-rot. What I mean is, someone accidentally turned on the Second Law of Thermodynamics in this universe, and now we’re all doomed to the endless samsara of memory loss.

You’ll forget things again. You may have noticed this feature of reality before. (Unless you forgot. Haha.) So you may want to use some little trick to not forget things. Not strictly necessary, of course, but personally, I’m fan of only learning something once. Don’t like wasting time much.

So you put your stuff in your trusty SRS, use a bunch of Anki cards for your new-learned words - I’ll tell you how in part 2 - and that’s it.

You now know everything there is to reading Latin.

  1. Here’s Lucius Vorenus opinion on grammar: “Grammar… I am a son of immersion! I fuck grammar in its arse!”

blog comments powered by Disqus
blog » languages » reading latin (part 1)