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GROUNDING IN LATIN: A MUST FOR CREATIVE WRITERS

Written by ROBERT

Any writer, professional or otherwise, who has studied Latin during his or her past school days can probably stop reading this piece right here and proceed with other endeavors - provided, of course, that enough of said language's basics were absorbed through classroom effort.

To the not-so-trained members of the creative composition fraternity, we must offer our sympathies, because without a grounding in that ancient language they are clearly operating under a handicap. Despite a tendency in some quarters to classify it as dead, that has to be decidedly wrong. Not only does it live, but forms a firm basis for a great number of the words we employ, whether churning them out in written form or simply carrying on daily routine conversation. Its overall value to native English speakers, as well as those whose roots lie in Western Europe, can be considered nothing short of immeasurable.

It should be readily understandable, then, why schools from coast to coast in the USA and across the European continent offer courses for normally up to four years, covering every significant grammatical, historical, and literary aspect of the Latin language. Anyone following the full route will end up with a huge storehouse of knowledge, which can prove highly useful in later life, provided he or she wishes to become a teacher or maybe a scholarly linguistic researcher.

We doubt if the general curriculum has changed much in the years since we were fuzzy-cheeked pupils. In those days it amounted to the following:

  • Freshman year: Grammar, grammar, and more grammar ad nauseam
  • Sophomore year: Advanced grammar, supplemented by in-depth study of Caesar's Gaulic Wars
  • Junior year: Cicero's orations
  • Senior year: Virgil's epic poem, the Aenead
The obvious question must therefore be "who needs all that?" Our personal answer, based on our own school days' experience, is nobody other than the deeply dedicated types described above.

We merely wish to establish at this point that just one year's studies offer sufficient grounding for any prospective creative writer, unless he or she intends to become exclusively devoted to composition which further glorifies the grandeur that was Rome. Neither Caesar's hitherto unequaled military success, nor Cicero's flowery public addresses, nor Virgil's blank verse fiction can prove very helpful to the rest of us.

Our lingering school day memories recall how most of the student populace viewed attending Latin class as perhaps a step or two above cleaning out stables. Very well, we say, because you'll never hear us claim such language to have been easy to master. It contained four different verb conjugations, each overly saturated with tenses and exceptions, especially involving those most commonly used. Moreover, five separate noun declensions existed, and the rules called for adjective endings to agree with them in respect to case, number, and gender. Under such circumstances as these, who could ever expect a person to attain a reasonable degree of fluency?

This question can be answered by saying that the need for such achievement simply doesn't exist. The only individual goal is for the ex-student to have retained enough of the language's fundamentals which he or she can apply on a practical basis to creative written composition today. A general working knowledge of Latin vocabulary, carried forward from the classroom, should prove adequate.

We'll now switch our focus and offer some advice to those supposedly luckier schoolboys and schoolgirls who only labored with English (which isn't exactly the world's easiest language either, and thus gets butchered to death daily by a huge percentage of our modern population). We honestly deem it valuable for them to undertake a self-imposed relatively short duration study, by purchasing and delving into a suitable first year Latin textbook. We're convinced that this will help fill an extremely wide educational gap.

Why? Because we strongly believe that everyone engaged in creative writing needs to develop a "feel" for the relationship between Latin and English - or any present-day Western European language, such as French, Spanish, Italian, or even German, if applicable to the person's activity span. If this didn't result from schoolroom attendance, private self-study is our recommended action course.

Again a question seems in order, namely to ask why such a connection between an ancient language and a present-day working one holds such importance to a skilled creative writer. Providing an answer requires a touch of linguistic history.

English is fundamentally classifiable under the Teutonic umbrella, along with German, Dutch, the Scandinavian tongues, and a few less-spoken members. Had it not been for the Normans' invading the British Isles in the year 1066 and maintaining occupation for a few centuries thereafter, those of us reared on American soil would be speaking far differently today. The conquerors from France brought their language along and superimposed it upon the populace.

During this era of foreign dominance over Britain, the ruling masters used French as their official language. Meanwhile, the common man on the streets of London and elsewhere continued conversing in his native German-related English. Still, by the time the Normans eventually departed, much of their Gallic vocabulary had managed to trickle down, with an end result wherein a linguistic blend came into existence, and has remained ever since. Every single sentence we now utter represents some combination of the mundane Teutonic origin terms and the rather flowery Latinesque ones.

As a consequence, the modern-day English speaker possesses the ability to choose, albeit unconsciously, between two distinct ways of expressing key words. For example, envision a committee chairman calling his assembled group together. He might simply say "Folks, we should begin this meeting". Instead, however, he can go to the opposite extreme with "Ladies and Gentlemen, let the conference commence". Should space permit here, we could present additional contrasting phrases by the proverbial carload.

One important rule-of-thumb to keep in mind is that every English language word ending with "tion" stems directly from a Latin past participle verb form, whose closing letters are "tus" or "tum", thanks solely to the Norman occupation days and the influence wrought by the temporary French masters.

The reward for possessing an adequate working knowledge of Latin is the opportunity to dissect any English word so derived, which certainly helps improve a person's comprehension capability, leading to writing and speaking skill enhancement. We would urge the reader to incorporate such effort into his or her self-study, as suggested earlier.

We'll now close by offering segments from three famous speeches, italicizing all words which relate back to Latin, either directly or via French, as the result of the Norman influence.

(From Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address)
Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this, but in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

(From John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address)
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility - I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it - and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what America will do for you -- ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

(From Winston Churchill's Speech to the House of Commons on August 20, 1940)
It must also be remembered that all the enemy machines and pilots which are shot down over our island or over the seas which surround it are either destroyed or captured, whereas a considerable portion of our machines and also of our pilots are saved, and soon again in many cases will come into action. We believe that we shall be able to continue the air struggle indefinitely and as long as the enemy pleases, and the longer it continues the more rapid will be our approach, first toward that parity and then into that superiority in the air upon which in a large measure the decision of the war depends. The gratitude of every home in our island, in our empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day.

(Final Relative Comment)
The reader should note especially from the foregoing examples how Latin derivation words nearly always fall under the more erudite classification, whereas those of Germanic origin tend to be the ordinary and necessary sentence fillers. Quite obviously, a skillful writer's attention might best be focused on the first-cited group. This point offers further supporting evidence as to what we've been saying throughout our exercise.


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