How to Speak Latin: A Beginner’s Guide to Living Latin
When I first started studying Latin, friends and family were skeptical. “What are you going to do with Latin?” they asked, “It’s a dead language,” they said. “Why don’t you study a language you can actually speak with people, like Spanish?”
Even later when I was studying Latin in Rome, Italians were amused and bewildered that I was learning Latin, especially when my Italian still needed so much work.
But to my mind, it was obvious why I should learn Latin. As someone interested in literature, history and art, everywhere I turned I would run into the influence of Latin literature and Roman culture. Let’s face it: until the 20th century, pretty much every major cultural figure in the West had an education centered around the study of the Latin classics. I wasn’t going to let myself be less cultured than them.
My Latin professors in high school and college didn’t do much to dispel the impression that Latin was a dead language. Although they exuded passion for the subject and knew the language backwards and forwards, they taught it as a puzzle to be deciphered or a specimen to be dissected. The usual approach was to take a text and “parse” it. This meant we would read a sentence, analyzing it grammatically down to the smallest detail to tease out all the nuances of Latin’s intricate grammar and word order. After this intense (and very dry) analysis, we would then attempt an awkward translation of the sentence into English.
After a few years of this, I could make sense of any Latin text put in front of me, but only in the most laborious of ways. I couldn’t read a text in Latin for pleasure the way you would read a novel in English.
I assumed this was just the way it had to be. Latin was too complicated, too alien, too ancient, too “dead”. There was no way I could gain the same intuitive feel for it that I had for English or the other modern languages I had studied.
It was then I discovered a community of Latinists that flipped all these assumptions on their head. Known as “Living Latin” (or Latinitas Viva in Latin), this worldwide network of Latin teachers, scholars, enthusiasts and eccentrics made the astonishing claim that it’s possible to become “fluent” in Latin. After my frustration with the traditional approach to Latin, I was ready to give “Living Latin” a try.
What is Living Latin?
The “Living Latin” movement is an approach to Latin that recognizes that Latin is a natural human language like any other. The fact that it is ancient, “dead” or “classical” does not prevent us from using it as a living language, or even internalizing it to a level of fluency much like we might aspire to with any other foreign language.
In the words of Reginald Foster, one of the leading figures of the movement: “If even the dogs, prostitutes and bums in ancient Rome understood Latin, then maybe there’s some hope for us.”
He has a point. Although we may think of Latin as the language of Virgil and Cicero, the fact is Latin was spoken as a native language by people from every social class and level of education. Its intricacies are no more impossible to master than those of other languages that people somehow manage to speak, such as Russian or Turkish.
If we recognize that Latin is a natural language, then this has important consequences for how we teach and learn it.
First and foremost, this means that even if your goal is just to read texts in the language, an approach focused solely on reading is not the most efficient method for getting there. This goes back to the way that your brain processes language. To put it simply: as far as your brain is concerned, the real language is the spoken language. Your brain is designed to absorb and internalize language by hearing and speaking it – this is how you learned your native language, after all.
By contrast, reading and writing are an abstract, secondary representation of the spoken language. If your entire experience of a language is just as marks on a page, you will never develop the same immediate, intuitive “feel” for it that you have for your native language or other languages you’ve learned to fluency.
From this basic premise, the “Living Latin” movement involves many different attempts to lift Latin off of the page and bring it to life. If you want to practice your listening, there are podcasts, newscasts, songs, and recordings of classical texts. If you want to practice speaking, there are online classes and conversation groups that help you connect with other Latin speakers at your level. There is also an ever-multiplying number of Latin conventions and weekend getaways where participants speak Latin to one another.
What does Living Latin Sound Like?
Ok, so now you’re convinced that it’s possible to speak Latin. But this raises another crucial question. If Latin is a dead language with no native speakers to consult, how do we know what it’s supposed to sound like? How do we pronounce it when we speak it?
Currently, there are actually two common approaches:
The first is Restored Classical Pronunciation. This is basically an attempt to speak Latin with the same pronunciation used during the heyday of ancient Rome, the age of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil and Ovid. Thanks to the efforts of scholars dating back to the time of the Renaissance, we have a pretty good idea of what Latin sounded like in classical times, and this pronunciation is what has normally been taught in schools even outside of a Living Latin context. If you had some Latin in high school or college, this is probably the pronunciation you learned.
If your main goal with Latin is to read texts written by Roman authors, then this is probably the pronunciation you would want to use, since it lets you hear Cicero’s orations and Virgil’s hexameters the way they were meant to sound, the way they were heard by their original audience.
The second approach is known as Ecclesiastical Pronunciation, because it reflects the pronunciation used in the Catholic Church over the past millennium. Some of the consonants and diphthongs have shifted away from their pronunciation in Roman times, and now they bear a striking resemblance to the pronunciation of modern Italian. One of the most prominent examples is the pronunciation of “c” and “g,” which in Classical Latin were always hard consonants, but which in Ecclesiastical Latin are pronounced like English “ch” before “e” and “i” as in Italian. For example, “Cicero” would be pronounced as [Kikero] in Classical Latin, but as [Chichero] in Ecclesiastical Pronunciation.
As its name suggests, this pronunciation is primarily used in religious circles and institutions, but it also has some popularity among Medievalists as well, since this was the pronunciation followed by medieval authors writing in Latin.
Restored Classical pronunciation is by far the most popular choice, but whichever pronunciation you choose, you can rest assured that you will be able to understand and be understood by users of the other pronunciation. Most Living Latin gatherings include a mix of both approaches, and with a little practice, your ear can follow both without difficulty.
How Can You Talk About Trains, Planes and Automobiles in an Ancient Language?
This is another obstacle people get hung up on when first starting out with “Living Latin”. If we’re going to use Latin to talk about daily life, then we run into the fact that our daily lives involve any number of objects and concepts the ancient Romans had no knowledge of and didn’t coin words for.
But Latin is not the only language to face this challenge. This was the same problem faced by other ancient languages when they first had to cope with the modern world. Arabic, Persian and Hebrew, for example, all have a written tradition spanning millennia. n their formal grammar and morphology, they have remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. When it came time to talk about modern phenomena such as electricity, cars and tweets (yes, even tweets), speakers of these languages were not content to just bring these words into their speech wholesale with just a local accent. They wanted to preserve the authentic sound and structure of the language in the new vocabulary they introduced.
So what they coined new words for these phenomena based off of native roots. For example, in Arabic, to translate “automobile,” they borrowed the word sayyara, originally meaning “caravan.” For “electricity,” Persian took the word barq meaning lightning and expanded its semantic range to include the electricity that powers your house as well. For “computer,” Hebrew coined the term machshav from the verb chashav, meaning “to think” – or if you stretch a bit, “to compute.”
“Living Latin” follows the same approach, adapting and extending Latin’s stock of classical vocabulary. For “automobile,” it adapts the word raeda, meaning “a four-wheeled carriage” and applies it to our modern, motorized carriages. It cheats a bit with “electricity” and translates is as vis electrica, literally “electric force” (the immense number of Latinate words in modern English are a useful crutch here). Then “tweets” is the easiest of all: “Living Latin” just uses the Latin word for the “tweets” of a bird – pipationes.
Now you might say this is all well and good, but doesn’t such ingenuity in coining new terms risk turning into a clever parlor trick? If the ultimate goal is still to read Latin authors, only with more understanding and immediacy than before, then how does it help to learn expressions that you’re never going to find in a book?
There are two points to keep in mind here.
First off, the fluency you develop from actively using a language exists on two levels: not just vocabulary, but grammar as well. Vocabulary will vary greatly across authors, and in the end, you will have to hone your vocabulary with the authors you most want to read. However, the fluency you develop in processing the structures of Latin grammar – that is, developing an immediate sense of them as units of meaning and not just forms to be parsed – will carry over into any text you pick up. You reap the benefits of this grammatical fluency no matter what vocabulary you used in developing it.
Then as a second point, it is far from useless to learn this neo-Latin vocabulary. You bring a language to life by anchoring it to your daily reality, and so applying even slightly modified or unclassical Latin words to your everyday experience makes them (and by extension, the more classical words they derive from) more vivid for you than if they had just remained on the page.
For example, the kind of raeda the Romans rode around in was clearly different than a modern automobile, but I have to confess that the word never stuck in my mind when I just came across it in classical texts as another type of vehicle used by toga-clad ancients. But as soon as I linked the word to an object that I saw and used every day, it became seared unforgettably in my brain. Now when I read a passage where Caesar or Cicero mention a raeda, a clear image leaps into my mind that has an organic link to my own experience (and no, I don’t picture them riding around in a Prius).
How To Get Started with Living Latin in 4 Steps
You’re convinced that it’s possible to speak Latin and that it might even be beneficial. But where do you start when it all seems so intimidating? Fortunately, there are some ways to warm up your spoken Latin before you try out your first “Salve!” (Latin for “hello”) in front of another living soul.
Step 1: Start by Listening
Listen to a vast range of spoken Latin. Especially spontaneous Latin by contemporary speakers and recordings of intermediate level texts. It’s best to save the Aeneid and Cicero’s Catilinarian Orations for later. The idea is to immerse yourself in a large amount of material that you can understand readily (Google Krashen’s “comprehensible input”). This will help anchor vocabulary and grammatical structures in your head, and pretty soon you will be able to instinctively deploy them yourself. Not because you memorized a rule, but just because they “sound right.”
Step 2: Read, then Paraphrase
After reading a passage from Virgil, Caesar, or your own favorite author, try to retell the action out loud in simpler language using your own words. This helps you retain vocabulary and convert the passive experience of reading into the active skill of speaking.
Step 3: Find Living Latin Speaking Partners
The network of Latin speakers is connected more than ever before, both virtually and in real life. Find a regular speaking circle that you can attend, even if you’re not sure if you can utter a coherent phrase yet in Latin. The “Living Latin” community is very supportive and will be more than happy to help you get started.
Step 4: Immerse Yourself in Living Latin
“Immersion” is, of course, the gold standard for learning any foreign language, and although the technology does not yet exist to send you back in time on a study abroad program to ancient Rome, there are a number of programs and conventions that will give you the experience of 24-hour-a-day immersion in Latin.
Living Latin Resources
Here are some of the resources I’ve found most helpful for learning “Living Latin”.
Living Latin Books
- Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata by Hans H. Ørberg: This is the most popular elementary text in the “Living Latin” community. Ørberg’s Lingua Latina gets you thinking in Latin from day 1 by teaching Latin entirely in Latin.
- *Ossa Latinatis Sola by Reginald Foster: This is another introductory course by one of the world’s premier Latinists. As opposed to older textbooks centered around memorizing conjugations and puzzling out artificial example sentences, *Ossa Latiniatis Sola adopts a more intuitive approach centered around “experiences.” These experiences have you dealing with authentic Latin from the first day of the course, building up your understanding by gradual immersion in Latin authors covering the whole range of Latin’s history, from the ancient Romans down to the present day.
- Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency by John Traupmann: If you already have the basics of Latin grammar, this is the book that will teach you how to start speaking it actively. Presenting a series of dialogues revolving around daily life and typical conversations, it gives you the vocabulary and structures you need to convert your book Latin into spoken Latin. It also contains a helpful glossary covering all the expressions you need to talk about daily life, as well as Latin renderings of phenomena the Romans never encountered, such as American sports and modern technology.
Living Latin Dictionaries
Sad to say, Google Translate has not yet reached the level where it can translate English into anything close to comprehensible Latin (a deficiency that has led to many unfortunate tattoos). So if you want to know how to say something in Latin, your best bet is these two dictionaries.
- Smith & Hall’s English-Latin Dictionary: This is the best general purpose English to Latin dictionary. A product of the 19th century, it won’t help with “automobile” or “airplane,” but for almost any another concept you want to express, it will give you the pure Ciceronian way to say it. It has recently been digitized by the website Latinitium, so you no longer have to lug around the 900-page tome to your Latin meetups.
- Morgan-Owens Lexicon: This online glossary is the one to go to for any newfangled modern concept you want to express, from cell phone to photocopier.
Living Latin Listening Resources
Of course, if your goal is to speak Latin, you’re going to have to get used to hearing people speak Latin in real time. Fortunately, there are a plethora of YouTube channels, podcasts and other audio resources to help you get started.
- Magister Craft: This YouTube channel presents a variety of content all in Latin, including retellings of stories from Roman history and mythology and descriptions of life in ancient Rome. What makes this channel especially suitable for beginners is that the Latin used is fairly simple, all the videos are subtitled in English, and the stories are illustrated with computer graphics that help immerse you in ancient Rome.
- Scorpio Martianus: This YouTube channel contains a variety of helpful and fun videos, including a recording of the text of Ørberg’s Lingua Latina, tips on pronouncing Latin, and versions of popular songs redone in Latin. Especially recommended is his Latin version of “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid.
- Quomodo Dicitur: This podcast is hosted by three experienced Latin speakers and ranges over a variety of topics. While a bit more challenging, it gives you a good idea of how proficient Latin speakers express themselves in ordinary conversation.
- Latinitium is a wonderful all-around website for “Living Latin”, as it hosts several podcasts, compilations of spoken Latin from around the web, and articles with helpful tips for Latin learners.
Living Latin Immersion Experiences and Meetups
- Paideia: The Paideia Institute offers a variety of programs for Latin enthusiasts, including immersion experiences in Rome and Paris, and online classes in spoken Latin for all levels.
- Accademia Vivarium Novum: Possibly the only university in the world that allows you to pursue an entire undergraduate education in Latin.
- Conventiculum Lexingtoniense and Conventiculum Dickinsoniense: These two weeklong Latin conventions run by Terence Tunberg and Milena Minkova are among the most highly regarded Latin conventions held in the US. They require a language pledge to speak nothing but Latin for the entire week and are open to all levels of Latin speakers.
- SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, hosts a number of weekend retreats and weeklong immersion experiences throughout the US.