Thursday, May 03, 2007
Harry Mount - Amo, Amas, Amat... and all that; How to Become A Latin Lover
Harry Mount might well be amused, given his impassioned plea that the end of this book for more people to learn and be taught Latin, that my partner, upon seeing his work on my bedside cabinet assumed that it wasn't about learning a new language at all.
That aside, this is an interesting book about what is commonly joked as being the "dead language". It's a basic introduction to the vocabulary and grammar of, as the author makes clear, the language used to write some of "the most heartbreaking poetry ever written". His style is amusing and accessible - he starts of by translating the tattoo on Angelina Jolie's belly "Quod me nutri me destruit" - "What nourishes me destroys me". Even if you don't know who Angelina Jolie(*) is, you can find amusement in the fact that this inscription was one her heavily pregnant belly.
Unfortunately, at least for me, Harry Mount failed completely to achieve his stated goal. I read this book as an entertaining read - enjoying the explanations of the origins of common words, or famous Latin phrases that we see on a regular basis - but I came away from reading it, not knowing Latin at all, and certainly not inspired to learn or study it further. Perhaps this is my old hatred of foreign languages coming to the fore. Though I would have thought I would have been within Mr. Mount's target group - I do enjoy reading Roman authors in translation, and perhaps I would benefit from reading heartbreaking poetry.
There is interesting stuff here - I now know why there isn't a year zero between 1BC and 1AD for instance, but very little of it is actually about speaking the language.
Finally, Mount's impassioned plea in his final chapter for more Latin teachers, harder Latin examines and more taught Latin doesn't ring true. I take his point, after-all, Latin is something that is required for many other subjects, but I'd rather see an education system that looks forward to new ways of learning and improving education wholesale, rather than harking back to the days of prep-school Latin and enforced translations of Catullus.
(*) A film actress apparently.