Sunday, April 13, 2014

Learning after the Latin is gone

Two years of high school Latin was helpful for all the roots to English words that the study of Latin taught us.

The time when sum, es, est, sumus, estis and sunt fairly tripped off my tongue is long gone but many other facts of learning remain.

Our studies went far beyond reading about the Roman senators in their togas, seeing pictures of murals found in excavations of the destroyed city of Pompeii, or learning of the sanctity of home life at the height of the Roman empire.

It was more than, but also included, translating the words of Julius Caesar’s famous victory speech, Veni, vidi, vici – “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Latin made me aware of the ancient world and made it relevant. It invested me with a special regard for the Roman genius.

The Roman empire at its peak, like the Greek civilization before it with its philosophers, scholars, scientists, merchants and playwrights, shaped and changed the world.

If the Greeks were the visionaries of the Western World, the Romans were its pioneers and foot soldiers. 

Brilliant builders, the Romans forged stone by stone, and brick by brick, through such international roads as the Appian Way, the footpaths that made possible the expansion of their empire.

These soldiers, when retirement came, often chose to settle in the lands through which they marched.

In the end the Roman legions, sent out to conquer the world, were conquered by the beauty of the places they passed through. They came back to claim their foothold as pensions of their service to the Emperor.

Studying the ancient world through its language makes those times pertinent. 

A people and their culture can never be dead, or without something to teach, when they can speak to you, in their own language, across the millenniums.

In this way I learned, my first year of Latin, that life is more interesting when you appreciate the longevity of connections.

As you study an ancient language you gain insight into forgotten times. The past is kept alive through the power of the words that steered the lives of these ancient ones.

It was likely in Latin class that I learned our modern calendar is derived from the Roman calendar, and that our months get their names from that same calendar.

My Latin recently proved helpful again. We’d come to April at last. The first day brought a tidy accumulation of snowfall. The calendar had its small laugh on us.

We were taking the snow in stride but with rueful mention of the white landscape all around. Spring is April's promise to us but sometimes it tardily delivers.

"April comes from “aperire,” to open," I said. The thought was a way to balance the presence of new snow with the ardent desire for greening and blooming. 

It's what we learned in Latin," I added, picturing the budding that would have enveloped the Roman countryside by April. Springtime vigor resonates in "aperirie," the word borrowed to name the 4th month. 

From this I was led to recall the origins for the names of the other months. 

         The months and how they got their names

January - from Janus, god of beginnings and endings. Janus is shown with two faces, one looking forward, the other looking back 

February - named for a feast of purification

March - named for Mars, Roman god of war

April - its origin, as learned, is from "aperire," to open, as in the opening of buds and flowers.

A perhaps more widely held theory is that April comes from Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, beauty and pleasure. 

Gods and goddesses had their stamp on the ancient world. It's highly conceivable that April, a time of beauty in nature, was given its name to honor the fair Aphrodite.

My instinct is to stick with “aperire” as the source for April. The preference is largely because the information has stayed with me so long. 

It's also because it fits as a name the practical Romans would have given the fourth month. In "aperire," meaning "to open," they had a name that reflects nature's order within the calendar year.

Establishing order - with their calendar, as with their empire - was a particular Roman ability. 

The Romans noted the seasonal rotation of the months as it applied to farming, astrology and other areas of impact on them. It would have been clear to them that April is the portal to the season of flowering.

The sweep and swelling of life at this surging time of the year would have influenced them. The full-on opening toward life that is April resonates in the word "aperire." It's pleasant to think it echoes in the name we use today.

May - from Maia, an earth goddess. Maia was patron of blossoming and fruitfulness, of springtime and growth

June - from Juno, Queen of the gods and patron of marriage and weddings

July - for Julius Caesar 

August - for Augustus Caesar 

September - from the Latin, the 7th month, as it was in the Roman calendar

October - from the Latin, the 8th month in the Roman calendar

November - from the Latin, the 9th month in the Roman calendar

December - from the Latin, the 10th month in the Roman calendar

This roster was put together after doing some online research. The web sites verified my calendar name recall except with February. 

I credited February to a Scandinavian goddess. This would have scandalized the Romans.

They considered as barbarians those of the cold northern lands whose shores lay untouched by the gentle wash of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The languages of the northerners registered on Roman ears as grating. Romans also considered their manners lacking, placing them far outside the pale of civilization.

If only the Romans could have used their calendars to foretell time. It might have saved them, or maybe it’d have only staved off the inevitable. 

Progression of time brought those very barbarians to the gates of Rome. It brought the age of classical Rome, already in steep decline, to an end.

Latin, the tongue of vanquished Rome, had its own reversal of fortune. Luckily, the Latin language was never entirely lost.

Modern languages including Italian, French and Spanish draw from Latin. 

It continues to be a studied language in its own right. It maintains its value in the fields of science and medicine. And until the 1960s it was the universal language of Mass in the Catholic Church.

From conjugation to calendar to continuity Latin class taught fundamentals which keep proving rewarding.

If my home could be redesigned to accommodate an atrium this would be laid at the door of Latin class as well.

Atrium, like “aperire,” is remembered from Latin studies. 

The idea of an atrium as a feature in your house, as the Romans had in their homes, appealed to me then. 

It stays with me as a feature that would be nice to have in our home someday.

Ro Giencke – April 13, 2014




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