Through sheer coincidence I’ve had several conversations over the last few weeks with self-taught Latinists: people who started learning Latin completely on their own, perhaps with the aid of a book, and who’ve progressed to the point of reading ‘proper’ Latin.
There are a few things I’ve observed about self-taught Latinists. One is that their knowledge of grammar is far more robust than that of most Latin students. Self-taught Latinists drill themselves: they learn tables, and they keep learning those tables until they stick. Today’s Latin courses don’t put that kind of emphasis on rote learning; instead the emphasis is on reading skills and comprehension, with grammar in a supporting role. But self-taught Latinists instinctively understand the need to learn, to internalise all those declensions and verb tables before moving forward.
Another characteristic of self-taught Latinists is their absolute determination to reach the point of reading ‘real’ Latin, the Latin of Cicero and Tacitus. And once they get to that point, they develop a real feel for nuances of style: their intensity of focus and their confidence in grammar and syntax make them particularly sensitive to the differences between writing styles, and to the differences between what they’ve learned and what they see in a text.
Yet self-taught Latinists often lack confidence. They have a startling level of humility; they rarely admit their advanced knowledge, because they don’t see themselves as particularly competent. Because of the laborious process through which they acquired their knowledge, they are very conscious of how much there is left to learn; and because some of them have spent many years building up that knowledge, they tend to forget how far they’ve come.
So I’d like to say a few things to all the self-taught Latin students out there: because these last several weeks have shown me that there are a lot more of you than I realised! The first thing is that you did everything right. Yes, you’ve missed out on some things by studying alone, but you’ve gained a great deal that you may not realise. Your focus on memorising, on detail and on precision really does set you apart, and gives you a tremendous advantage over those of us who were taught via story-based systems.
The second thing is that you should take stock of how much you’ve learned, and allow that to give you confidence. Take a look at some past GCSE and A level papers: how much can you do? Move closer to assigning a formal level to your own expertise, and stop thinking of yourself as an amateur.
The final piece of advice I’d like to give to all those self-taught Latinists is to take a leap into the unknown. Almost every self-taught Latinist I’ve met has focused on prose: Pliny, Cicero, Caesar, Sallust – with the odd bit of Plautus thrown in for linguistic interest. My advice to you is to branch out into poetry. Now, don’t roll your eyes! Latin poetry is an exercise in syntactical gymnastics: in it you’ll find style, complexity and grammatical quirks by the bucketload. And translating it – well, that’s the ultimate challenge. To translate Latin poetry well, you need to have nearly as much style, skill and flair as the original writer: and you won’t know if you can do it till you try it!
Cora Beth Knowles