Arts & Life

Living Dead Languages – Voices, November 2010

Written by Daina Savage | Oct 22, 2010 1:49 PM

I didn’t plan to fall in love when I was filling my language requirement at Dickinson College. After four years of high school German, I wanted a change, but more importantly, I didn’t want two more years of tentatively mispronouncing foreign words in front of my peers. Out of my mouth, those heavy, hard words always fell somewhere between coughing up a hairball and the verbal equivalent of shaking a fist at someone.

First semester freshman year, amid a sea of football players equally attracted to the no-embarrassment factor, I was prepared to keep my head down and quietly break the code of Latin 101.

But Prof. Phil Lockhart was having none of that.

Little did I know that I had enrolled in a course led by such a passionate proponent of the classics. Seemingly ancient himself at first glance, when Professor Lockhart was teaching, he imbued this “dead” language with an enthusiasm and energy, rendering the stories we were translating more real and relevant than we could imagine.

Seared into my memory is the day we translated a passage about a tumescent serpent emerging from the depths of the sea. Gesticulating wildly as he waxed poetic about the meanings of tumescence, he set the roomful of college students blushing.

But my favorite moment came in another one of his classes, “The Latin Language,” where he charged us with working in reverse. We were to discover the origins of Latin words, digging deep into Gallic, Greek and even Sanskrit to find the Indo-European roots. It was in this class that we discovered the stories behind language, how the words came into being. It was here the study of language ceased to be some sort of abstract mathematical puzzle for me and evolved into pure moments of human need.

The origins of the Latin “spiro,” for instance, which means so much more than its simple translation of “to breathe.” Late at night, researching in the Latin library, I came across this image: the act of a warrior gathering in the dying breath of his fallen comrade. That gathering in of the breath of another, taking in his spirit to inspire his own life – the realization of the true scope of this word made me shiver, as it still does, more than 20 years later.

Although Professor Lockhart failed to turn me into a Latin major, he did inspire a reverence for the power and beauty of language.

So when it came time for my daughter to learn another language, it was with such delight that I found a school in Central PA with this same sense of passion.

Laurie and Peter Brown, co-founders of The Lancaster Center for Classical Studies, lead lively classes of homeschoolers, afterschool students, theology students and adults, like me, simply desiring to advance our own knowledge of Latin and Greek.

These are not courses teaching cursory knowledge of word lists to help you win spelling bees or ace your SATs. These are comprehensive classes where the languages come alive in spirited discussions and debates. Only in speaking the texts can the poetry of the language resonate. Oh, yes, and the initial joy of name-calling in another language, especially with teenagers in the house, cannot be overemphasized.

“Pestis,” I’ll exclaim. “Furcifer,” she’ll retort.

Fortunately, the Browns take such juvenile behavior in stride. Their animated classrooms go far beyond declining Latin nouns and deciphering Greek letters. Here students put on their own plays, like the summer “Latin on the Lawn” production of Ovid’s story of Perseus from Metamorphoses. At Christmastime, the students read the Nativity story in Greek and Latin and sing Latin carols.

“We don’t want Greek and Latin studies to be looked at as a foreign language or an enrichment on the side,” says Peter. “We see it as the vibrant core of a whole educational program: central and rich and limitless in possibilities.”

“There’s no question that the study of Latin and Greek supports every other area of study,” adds Laurie. “It’s almost impossible to understand English literature without understanding its origins, or to understand the New Testament without reading it in its original Greek, and then reading it again in Latin and observing the difficulties of translating it. This education builds a complexity of thought that you can’t achieve otherwise.”

Oh I’ve fallen in love again, wholeheartedly, especially when the Browns remind students that “classical education has nothing to do with the idea of ‘antiquity’ ” but rather “it is concerned with eternity.”

For more information about The Lancaster Center for Classical Studies diploma program for home-schooled students or after-school Latin and Greek classes, contact Peter and Laurie Brown at 397-3223 or 

Photo credit: RedDogFever on flickr

Published in Voices

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