A Natural History of Latin

This book is for everyone who wants to know more about Latin,
about the language and about its influence on the culture and history of Europe.
(opening sentence)

I have written in the past about my beloved Latin teacher, Magister Dilectus. Learning Latin from such a scholar was one of the great benefits from God which I do not want ever to forget. Naturally, when I share my story, I get wistful sighs and yearning looks.  Reading A Natural History of Latin is the best, albeit poor in comparison, substitute to having a Latin scholar for a teacher.  As I turned the pages of this book, I fondly remembered the narrative of our teacher on the same subject. 

If you are striving to learn more than vocabulary, declensions and conjugations, this is the book to round out your understanding of both ancient and medieval culture, a book that will put the Latin you are learning into context.  One thing I can assure you: you don’t need to know a speck of Latin to read this book.  Every single Latin word is translated for you.

For instance, take Latin pronunciation.  I loved when Mr. F. would recite some text of Latin from memory, the mellifluous tones beautiful sounds, even if there was no comprehension of the words. Many students have been taught that since no one knows how it was pronounced, just say a Latin word as if it were an English word. [Screeching nails on the chalkboard!! Can you imagine listening to a choir sing a Latin text as if it were English?] There are a few reliable clues that get us very close to original pronunciation.  Loanwords, words taken from Latin into another language, are helpful.  Caesar is easy to pronounce in Latin if you just think of the German word Kaiser.  When archeology digs uncovered graffiti on the walls of Pompei which had been covered by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the misspelled words offered clues to the phonetic pronunciation of those words.  

Our beloved teacher introduced us to medieval Latin poetry: the pounding trochaic lines in Dies Irae, the lugubrious Stabat Mater, and the playful Carmina Burana.  You can learn more about these if you read this book.  

If words and dialects fascinate you, if connections between languages are your “love language”, the first chapter is worth the price of the book. 

Interestingly, the modern pronunciation in many Scottish dialects is nearer to that of Latin because they did not undergo the same vowel changes as the dialects south of the border. 

One trick is to look for systematic patterns of sound correspondence.  One such is that an English f often corresponds to a Latin p, as in English father beside Latin pater, or English fish beside Latin piscis.

That one is fairly straightforward, but there are more surprising ones that can still be shown to be valid.  For example, Latin qu sometimes corresponds to English f, sometimes to v, so that English five can be proved to be connected with Latin quinque.  

All that fun from one page (p.11) of this book! Here’s more:

Many Latin words which began ca were changed in Old French so that they had the initial sound which we spell ch.  In many cases it is the French form which ends up in English, e.g. chapel, chart, chapter beside Latin capella ‘chapel’, charta ‘document’, capitulum ‘heading’,but sometimes we end up with both as in the case of channel and canal,  or enchant beside incantation, both, from in ‘in’ + cantare ‘sing’.  p. 165

Neuralgia, which means ‘nerve pain’, comes from the Greek words neuron ‘nerve’ and algia ‘pain’, and in Greek the prefix a-/an- marks a negative, as in amoral, so an analgesic is something that takes away pain. In fact, almost all our medical terms come from Latin or Greek. p. 149

I have to sit on my hands.  There are so many more wonderful passages about words. 

This book is criticized on Amazon for being written at a high school reading level.  I see that as a strength, not as a fault.  Many of us who desire to teach our children a language which we first need ourselves to learn are easily intimidated.  I do have a criticism of A Natural History of Latin.  The author’s viewpoint is decidedly secular, and to a point almost anti-Christian.  Here is an example: For someone who is not a Christian many of his [Augustine’s] ideas are strange or even repulsive.  This is especially true of the idea of original sin, the idea that man is born evil and has to be redeemed by the Saviour.  I could read around these occasional statements and enjoy the rest.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the long suffering patience of my friend Brenda at TanabuGirl. When she put her copy of this book in my hand and said, “take your time”, I don’t think she meant 15 months.  Brenda was one of the original 33 students who read Latin with our beloved teacher and one of the three remaining students six years later.  She now teaches at a Classical Christian School and has started a private blog Latin Pagina.  If you are interested in the notes of a Latin teacher, and ask really nicely [message her at TanabuGirl] I bet she’d let you be a guest and read what she is doing.  Thank you my friend.  This book will be on your desk Monday morning. Dominus vobiscum.


7 thoughts on “A Natural History of Latin

  1. You know, it’s posts like this that get me in trouble when my hubby comes home and sees the forwarded notice from Amazon.com in his inbox telling him how much he’s going to have to pay them… I am extremely excited to get this book and read it with my young scholars!  Thanks so much for the inspiring post!

  2. I am so glad I brought Latin studies home this year. The kids took one year of Prima Latina outside the home last year, but I felt left out. I am enjoying it so much – and my Dad, the former Catholic, had tears in his eyes when we said the Sanctus as grace for Thanksgiving. It has brought such a peaceful routine to our mornings to recite our Latin prayers – first the Sanctus, then the Doxology, and now we’re working on the Table Blessing. It gets the kids focused and settled – perfect lead-in to read-aloud time.
    I’ll have to add this book to my wish list.

  3. Ahhh, what a great and joyous blessing you had in a Latin teacher.  I know a bit of Ecclesiastical Latin from my choir days but I would love to learn more.   Perhaps when my Mother/Teacher days are coming to a close.  I also enjoy etymology and this book sounds delightful.

  4. First, hello Carol!
    My 14 year old son has a phenominal Latin teacher — he’s in his second year of the language and I’m so pleased with the depth of instruction. His teacher shares so much of the history and culture of language (she speaks 5 or more different languages), her students can’t help but want to travel and learn even more about world cultures and languages in addition to Latin.
    By the way, you get to go to Scotland?! Wow! 

  5. My son’s Latin teacher is awesome, too.  Connor is taking Latin V this year (Catullus/Horace), on his way to taking Medieval Latin next year (his final year of high school).  He absolutely loves the language.  I know he’ll like this book, too (as will I).  Thanks for the recommendation and quotes!

  6. Dear friend,Does that book have my oldest daughter’s name ALL OVER IT?  Yes, it does.  Amazon here I come.  I will look forward to reading it as well.Can I just say that I love seeing my family member’s faces in your picture collage on the sidebar?  Oh, was that a joyous time.  MISS YOU.Warmly,DI

  7. Here’s another GREAT book:  Roman Empire, by Colin Wells.  It’s required reading at Univ. of Ga. at Athens for a Master’s in Antiquities.
    It’s magnificent.  Read it- you’ll love it, too.

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