Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.12.12


John C. Traupman, Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency. Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1996. Pp. 224. $15.00. ISBN 0-86516-316-2 (pb).


Reviewed by Terence O. Tunberg, University of Kentucky.

[[An addendum sent one day after the original review appears at the end of this file. --Eds.]]

An up-to-date book written in English, which is designed as a practical manual for those who want to use Latin as an active language in the classroom, or elsewhere, is a real desideratum, especially at a time when teachers are increasingly realising the value of oral Latin as a pedagogical tool. The author of this book should be congratulated for taking the initiative in what is not an easy task. Conversational Latin contains much that teachers will find useful, and if the utility of this first edition is to some extent undermined by its defects, this should not blind us to the value of the enterprise which it represents.

On the positive side, readers of Conversational Latin will find a large store of words and expressions pertaining to ordinary life. Chapter 11, entitled 'Useful Colloquial Expressions' is especially rich in this regard. This chapter is easy to use, since one (or sometimes two) key words of common English phrases, listed in alphabetical order, serve as a guide for finding equivalent Latin expressions. There is also much of value in the copious list of Latin words for colors contained in Appendix II, which groups together many words which are hard to find under one heading in other sources. Also useful is Appendix IV, which consists of six pages of proverbs and sayings.

Moreover, the layout of the entire book is quite convenient. One can begin anywhere in the book, because the chapters themselves are arranged according to subject matter, rather than progression of difficulty or grammatical sophistication. Each chapter is structured around a theme: for example Chapter VII concerns health and fitness, Chapter XVI animals, chapter XVIII trades and professions. In each chapter we find several model conversations, arranged in order of increasing complexity, which deal with the main subject matter of the chapter. Each group of model conversations is followed by a vocabulary list from English to Latin, which provides some of the essential terminology for the subject in question. Every Latin sentence is paired with a colloquial English translation, so that those who practice the model conversations can gain a mastery of Latin phrases to match the English ones. The author's object is to impart lots of Latin and to make it fun for students, and the book is designed in a way that has the potential to fulfill both of these goals.

In view of these advantages, it is highly regrettable that we find pitfalls. Many of the mistakes suggest hasty composition and an insufficiently revised text. Our purpose here is not to list every instance of this, but merely to point out the main areas where the book needs revision or improvement. Here and there the latinity of the dialogues should be corrected. Let us consider a few examples. "Do you have a good appetite" in the mouth of a doctor worrying about a patient's fever becomes in Latin "Habesne appetentiam bonam?" (p. 32), although in correct Latin usage 'appetentia' is not the equivalent of the English 'appetite' unless joined with a genitive such as 'ciborum', 'escarum', etc. The word used absolutely means nothing more than 'desire' (See Thesaurus Linguae Latinae [henceforth TLL] II, 279.60-280.20). A student thinking about the beginning of school in the autumn says "I often wonder whether teachers are really all that eager to return to school after summer vacation", of which the Latin version is "Saepe miror num magistri sint vero tam cupidi ad scholam redeundi post ferias aestivas " (p. 48). But the Latin verb 'miror' does not have the dubitative meaning of the English "I wonder". For a Latin equivalent we would need 'velim scire', 'incertum mihi est', or some similar expression. The noun 'classis' in Latin can legitimately refer to a body of students in a school or classroom (as it does in Quintilian, for example), but in such cases it has primary reference to students grouped according to a level of age or advancement, as a British headmaster might 'address the form' meaning 'the students of the sixth form', or an American would perhaps refer to the 'eleventh grade' (the best account of this is probably still J. P. Krebs, Antibarbarus der lateinischen Sprache [7th ed. Basel, 1905], vol. I, pp. 28-89: see also TLL III, 1295.26-49, esp. 39-49). But it is not at all clear that this meaning is present in "..est peritissima magistra. Nemo dormiscit in eius classe" (p. 112), for which the English s given as "... she's a very experienced teacher. No one falls asleep in her class." Is 'classis' used here as the simple equivalent of the English 'class', meaning 'a group of students guided by a particular teacher'? The English word usually refers to a class in a given subject, without reference, or at least without primary reference, to what form or grade the students belong to. Hence, for the meaning intended here, would not a Latin sentence such as "Nemo ex eius auditoribus (or 'discipulis') dormiscit" be more appropriate?

Incorrect spellings have not been revised. For instance, 'supellex' is spelled 'suppelex' and incorrectly given an accent on the first syllable (p. 20), we find 'coxendrix' instead of 'coxendix' (p. 34), and 'lardum' or 'laridum' is the word for 'bacon', not 'lardus' (p. 44). Inconsistency is not rare. For example, we find the incorrect 'concentum -i' for 'concert' on p. 29, but the correct word 'concentus -us' is supplied on p. 132 (cf TLL IV, 19.69-20.69). The indication of syllabic quantities needs proofreading. For example, the first syllable of 'visus', and of 'nasus' should be marked long (p.34). The penult in 'crastinum' (p. 62) should be short instead of long.

An author of a handbook for conversational Latin will have to decide whether she or he is creating nothing more than a tool to help students gain a command of the language sufficient for reading ancient texts, or is attempting to produce, in addition to such a tool, a guide for using Latin (even in a limited way) as an active language which can also describe modern experience. If the author opts for the former choice, it is arguable that the most appropriate policy would be simply to restrict the situations, conversations, and subjects to ancient circumstances. But Traupman has chosen the other alternative. For the present reviewer -- and most probably for anyone with an interest in the immensely rich post-antique traditions of Latin, medieval, renaissance, and modern -- this choice is both laudable and reasonable. Of course, an author who follows this policy will necessarily have recourse on occasion to post-antique works, and even very recent neologisms. There is nothing wrong with this -- indeed the addition of new words and terminology is a constant factor in medieval and Neo-Latin. However, the choice of post-antique or new words sometimes requires considerable care and judgement, and the present reviewer suggests that this is another category in which Conversational Latin might be improved.

Sometimes the use of an ancient word to describe something modern results in a sense of anachronism and a lack of precision which is quite unnecessary. Surely we do not have to strain the meaning of 'denarii' to signify 'dollars' (p. 18). In the two most recent and almost certainly the most widely used lexica of modern Latin, C. Helfer, Lexicon auxiliare (Saarbruecken 1991), and the Vatican's Lexicon recentis latinitatis, vol. I (A-L), ed. C. Egger (in urbe Vaticana 1992), we find the perfectly reasonable neologism 'dollarium-i' (as well as the clumsier 'nummus Americanus'). Some readers may feel uncomfortable with Professor Traupman's use of 'optimates' for 'republicans' and 'populares' for 'democrats' (pp. 143-44), since neither of these ancient political terms has any equivalence to modern American political parties, as any historian of ancient Rome will readily point out. Would it not be better to employ any one of several possibilities in modern Latin which mean simply 'the liberals' and 'the conservatives'? One might object that the book is designed merely for beginners, but we could reply that that there is no reason why students cannot learn to use words as precisely as possible from the start. As Professor Traupman himself remarks in his introduction "In conversational Latin, meaningful and realistic communication is the aim and goal" (p. 5). This reviewer agrees, and suggests that the best policy to fulfill that goal might be summarized as follows: where the classical vocabulary can be employed accurately, use it. If there is no appropriate classical word, we have the resources of late, medieval and Neo-Latin. If the right word is not available here, we turn to the sources of modern Latin. Rarely, an appropriate coinage may be necessary.

Having a supply of synonyms is often not a bad thing, but in the case of modern Latin words for very recent entities we are sometimes confronted with a chaotic plethora of names for the same thing, and a dismaying lack of consensus among those who have written texts for students, which include Latin comic books, stories, conversational handbooks like the one reviewed here, and many others. A greater consensus would be particularly desirable at the present, when the living Latin movement is experiencing considerable growth, especially in Europe, as witnessed by the existence of such societies as the Domus Latina (Brussels, Belgium), the Societas Latina (Saarbruecken, Germany), and the Academia Latinitati Fovendae (Rome), and the Latin-only meetings held each year in various European countries. A policy on very new words is to some extent a subjective matter, but the present reviewer would advocate, in the interest of bolstering a consensus, recourse wherever possible to the most authoritative and up-to-date sources, especially the lexica mentioned above. Neo-Latin, in theory at least, has always been international, and any contribution to modern Latin should, in principle, also be international. Let us consider some examples of cases where a different policy might have been adopted in Professor Traupman's book.

How does one express the names of modern sports in Latin, such as basketball and baseball? In the case of these two games (as happens not rarely), Helfer and the Vatican lexicon disagree (Helfer, p. 324; Vatican, p. 81). But despite the disgreement, should we not follow one of these two lexica (each of which, in this case, offers acceptable alternatives), instead of introducing yet more variety as Professor Traupman has done, who offers his own words (or perhaps words from yet another source) for these games (p. 29)? Instead of 'potatum -i' for 'potato' and 'tomatum -i' for 'tomato' (p. 44), is there any reason why we cannot use the scientific Latin terms 'solanum' or 'solanum tuberosum' (= potato) and 'lycopersicum' or 'lycopersicum esculentum' (= tomato), which have been in use for centuries, and enjoy a kind of international consensus? The same policy could be employed for any fruit or vegetable unknown to the ancient world, and in fact many such words are supplied in the dictionary by Helfer mentioned above. We also have a dictionary of modern Latin place names, which is published and used by the Vatican, and therefore enjoys some authority, which is C. Egger, Lexicon nominum locorum (2nd ed., in urbe Vaticana, 1985). Professor Traupman should consider revising all his names of modern cities and countries (those which were founded after classical times), to accord with those provided by Egger's lexicon.

The present reviewer is a strong advocate of 'latinitas viva', and is glad to see the tangible proof of the growing interest in this area provided by the publication of this book. As we have noted above, the book as it stands contains much useful material, but anyone who employs it must know how to separate what is valuable from what is less valuable, or even mistaken, and it is doubtful that most of the potential users of the book would be advanced enough to make such distinctions. It is to be hoped, therefore, that Professor Traupman will in the very near future publish a revised edition of this book -- which retains the excellent format of the first edition, but includes all needed revisions.

ADDENDUM (12/19/96):

This review was composed in the late summer of 1996. In the meantime it has been brought to my attention that Professor Traupman will be publishing a revised edition of 'Conversational Latin'. Professor Traupman is making every effort to remove errors in the first edition which resulted from the need to meet an early publication deadline. Moreover, the new edition will be enhanced by several improvements. If the well-conceived, practical format, and the wide ranging scope of the first edition are retained, it seems that teachers who want to incorporate active Latin in their classes are going to have a very useful tool at their disposal in the new edition of 'Conversational Latin'.