It’s all Latin to me

Tapestry performing at Lift Gallery Maleny, Queensland

Were you one of the music lovers who came to hear our choir, Tapestry, sing at Lift Gallery on Sunday, but couldn’t get in? Better book next time, eh!
One of the pieces we sang was Allegri’s ‘Miserere’, a 17th century piece of sacred music, which, apart from its degree of difficulty (in gymnastic terms a 9.8), comprises 20 verses in Latin.
Half the battle was to phonate the Latin words, more so the parts where up to eight singers chant in unison. We had been working on this 12-minute piece for months, it seemed. Those of you who know choral singing will recognise the difficulties, particularly for the four-part solo ensemble. The soprano solo has five top Cs.
But getting back to Latin. I have seen it pronounced habeas corpus (dead) along with Sanskrit, Classical Armenian, Coptic, Biblical Hebrew, New Testament Greek, and other sacred languages.

Old school

I vaguely remember the top swats at the Kiwi public boy’s school I went to for a while being allowed to choose Latin or French. We could have argued (maybe not in 1966), that learning Maori would have been more useful.
English blogger Donald Clark wrote a provocative essay on the Latin question called “10 reasons to NOT teach Latin (reductio ad absurdum)”
Clark’s amusing bursting of other people’s bubbles includes quoting Research and the teaching of English by Sherwin, which found that “the study of Latin does not necessarily increase the ability to learn another language…”
Sure, the so-called Romance languages have Latin roots, so learning Latin can arguably help one understand English, Spanish, French and Italian, to name a few.
But Clark says the advantage is marginal, unless you learned Latin first and your knowledge is extensive. And why would anyone do that? You could learn Mandarin in the same amount of time and get a job teaching English to Chinese farm labourers.

Dismissing this argument as a non sequitur, Clark adds: “You don’t have to go out with the grandmother to help you understand your wife.”

Pluck the day

She Who Has A Bottomless Store of Useful Information rattled off more than a dozen Latin words still in common usage: ad hoc, ad nauseum, caveat emptor, ergo, et cetera, ibid, in abstentia, in sutu, ipso facto, in utero, mea culpa (my bad), tempus fugits, per annum, per capita, and (one for the former Speaker of the House), per diem. And who could forget Robin Williams as Professor Keating urging his poetry students to “Carpe Diem”?
I’m wondering if the cub reporter sent out to canvas people on whether the Australian people should elect a Speaker by referendum would have any understanding of what “vox pop” really means.

Sacred and profane

But getting back to Miserere mei, Deus, (“Have mercy on me, O God”), a setting of Psalm 51 by Italian composer Gregoria Allegri. It was composed in the 1630s, during the reign of Pope Urban VII, for exclusive use in the Sistine Chapel. One of our choir members (did I mention we are a community choir who do this for recreation?), went to the bother of providing us with the Latin words and onomatopoeic pronunciation and English translation. So here’s the problem – the first line (in English) says “Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness (14 syllables, right). The same thing in Latin extends to 22 syllables and so it goes. Challenging. It is a gorgeous piece of sacred music, though, and sounded majestic in a cathedral like gallery.
One night when She Who Can Also Hit High C and I were a bit challenged by this work, I started reading out loud the English translation. Of course it is full of thys and thous, lots of sin-cleansing and forgive my perfidy, O Lord; the sort of things that make you feel bad about saying bugger it when you drop the Range News in a puddle.

I should mention, less you think me irreverent (God forbid), that my childhood belonged to the Reverend John Calvin, whose flock dealt strictly with biblical English and hellfire and brimstone. The Calvinists, Baptists and Methodists held sway in our lives in the 1960s. It was not a good time to be begat out of wedlock.

A bucketful of Latin

Our choir director Kim Kirkman says it was on his “bucket list” to have a choir perform Miserere. I’m sure we all feel honoured that he chose us (a community chamber choir) to achieve this ambition.
Often when a choir has been taught a challenging piece and then finally performs it, the work gets tucked into the back of the book and may never again see the light of day. I would like to tackle it again, if not to (um) perfect it, but simply to expose ordinary music-loving punters to the arcane wonders of Old Latin.
Latin is what they call an inflected language; the root of the word remains stable, but the inflection or ending can vary widely depending on the meaning in the sentence. Latin also has three distinct genders, seven noun cases, four verb conjugations, six tenses, three persons…shall I go on?
Ocker English is far more succinct.
“D’youse reckon the Broncos will win the comp?”

Touch typing more useful?

Our family lawyer (meaning in the family rather than dealing in family law), took touch typing and Latin in grade 8, prescient choices given his later profession. He makes a good point in that once you know Latin; you know it, because unlike English, it is a language set in stone. There are no Latin words for Internet, Google or Meme (blame Richard Dawkins for that).
But there is resistance to Latin being revived.
The Courier-Mail was castigated by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority for beating up a story “Absurdus Maximus” about the possibility of Latin once again being taught in schools.
“This is sensationalist journalism at its best and an attempt to politicise the Australian curriculum,” said ACARA about the CM’s claim that “Latin will be dragged back into Australian schools”.
“Schools will simply have a wider choice of languages to teach in the classroom,” ACARA chief executive officer Rob Randall wrote in a letter to the editor.
“It is schools that decide the languages they want to teach.”
ACARA selected 11 languages for development and inclusion in the curriculum and another five, including Turkish, Hindi, AUSLAN (sign language), and Classical Greek and Latin, were funded for development.

Donald Clark, whose blog provoked a lot of comment, much of it disrespectful, had a good poke at the teaching of Latin in UK schools.
“And why this obsession with learning romance languages over say, German or Mandarin?” he mused.
“You are far more likely to hear Punjabi, Bengali or Urdu (the top three minority languages spoken in the UK). I suspect that there’s more than a whiff of snobbery in our selection of languages at school.”

At which I turned to She Who Goes By Many Names and said:

“Omnia mihi lingua Graeca sunt,” (It’s all Greek to me).”

“Omnia dicta fortiori si dicta Latina,” she replied (“Everything said [is] stronger if said in Latin.”)

1 thought on “It’s all Latin to me”

  1. amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatus, amant . Our Latin teacher, Miss Brophy, stared out the widow calling ‘again’ at intervals; while we chanted over and over in Form 3 Latin Class. I studied it for three years. It was like maths, i.e., puzzles to be solved. In the end I decided it would not contribute to my ability to get on in Qld, 1960. Thanks for the piece! Hope to catch the concert another time.

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