Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.10.12

Peter Jones, Learn Latin. London: Duckworth, 1997. Pp. 176. £14.95. ISBN 0-7156-2757-0.

Reviewed by Barry Baldwin, University of Calgary,

In Britain, Peter Jones of the University of Newcastle is, or should be, a national treasure. He was co-founder of the Friends Of The Classics, an active and effective lobby group that did much to pep up the image of Greek and Latin during the great debates over the National Curriculum and other major educational changes in the 1980s. He frequently reviews classical books for the best newspapers and magazines, and has for many years published a weekly column called Ancient & Modern -- it recently moved from the 'Sunday Telegraph' to the 'Spectator', two admirable publications owned and kept alive in the best traditions of ancient philanthropy by Canadian millionaire Conrad Black. It would be a grand thing if Jones and the ever-enterprising Duckworth (their 1997-98 catalogue abounds in new classical goodies) were to publish a selection of these succinctly entertaining and informative comparison and contrasts between ancient and modern life.

Jones, then like James Bond in the Thunderball credits song, "acts while other men just talk". This latest benefaction is the final version of a series of weekly Latin lessons published originally in the 'Sunday Telegraph' (where I first encountered them), then in expanded form in that newspaper's daily stablemate. To judge from the impressions in as many months, this venture has been a big hit. The result, I am as pleased as Jones to report, is not only this delightfully droll didactic, but a companion introduction to ancient Greek, due out early in 1998 -- like Jones' other groupies, I can hardly wait.

Naturally, Jones is not claiming that his luscious libellus comports what some (alas) call the Total Latin Experience. Its purpose is (in his own prefatory words) to provide users with enough of the language to read some of Catullus and the Carmina Burana, and prose selections from the Bayeux Tapestry and St. Jerome's version of the Gospel of St. John. Unlike many commercial products, Jones' does deliver what it promises. Twenty chapters present in short digestible tranches the essentials of Latin adjectives, nouns, prepositions, and verbs along with some basic syntax. The hard stuff (Jones never pretends it is easy) is made palatable by a constant and commendable policy of relating Latin to the modern languages into which it has mutated (Canadian user should -- alas, not all will -- relish the lashing of French), by regular lecturettes on Roman history and literature, by cartoons that illustrate grammar as well as life in the manner of the Oxford Latin Course (and, old buffers like myself may remember, Kinchin-Smith and Melluish's Teach Yourself Greek), and by Jones' breezy no-nonsense style and steady stream of jokes, one or two over-used (notably the 'Yawn' parenthesis that accompanies too many of the dryer grammatical moments) but many genuine thigh-slappers, e.g., (on feminine nouns ending in -a) "to decline Corinna (a dangerous thing to do)." Substantial grammatical tables postlude these chapters, as do a pair of shortish vocabulary lists and an adequate index. The metrics of the elegiac couplet are briefly but clearly explained. An audio-cassette tape geared to the book and entitle Pronouncing Latin is available from the author (details are supplied) for an extra five quid. The book is attractively produced in the best Duckworth tradition with its red and black cover -- word and cartoons -- and remarkable freedom from misprints.

While keeping the witticisms, Jones has wisely purged the Briticisms that enlivened the newspaper verions. Brituncles like myself may regret the loss of Gazza, Hezza, and company, but cisatlantically these would have meant little or nothing. The odd one has survived (the vocative 'squire' in the sense of 'guy', p. 73), as has one indication ('this week', p. 63) of the previous serial form.

There's very little to grumble about. One tradition retained (with emphasis) by the often iconoclastic Jones is to begin the course with 'amo'; I have often wondered why Latin begins with loving and Greek with loosing, and wish Jones (probably one of the few people who could) had told us why. The deliberate exclusion (cf. p. 13) of the future tense is, I think, a mistake, though Jones was probably right to think his flock could live without the future perfect. He might perhaps have given his neophytes a bit about (say) Roman currency, dates, and numerals, also a few samplings of Latin slang via the obvious conduit of Petronius. In a couple of slack moments, the Second Punic War is ended in 202 (p. 18) while Nero exits and Galba enters in 69 (p. 41). The only really duff detail actually comes in pursuit of a very good point, namely the light shed on Latin pronunciation by Greek transliterations and Roman metrics. Jones attempts to clinch his argument by claiming that the word 'silva' is "often scanned as three syllables". But Jones has planted too many trees in his forest. Where are these many examples, outside the two in Horace (Odes 1.23.4; Epodes 13.2) whose twenty-eight other uses of the word are anyway bisyllabic? There was very little Eduard Fraenkel did not know about Latin metrics and he in his discussion (Horace 184, n. 2) couldn't produce any other case, concluding that this Horatianism was (in his words) an artificial rather than genuine prosody.

But these are mere spots upon this solar achievement of a Jones with whom it is pretty hard to keep up. His own estimate is that his course is about two-third of the British GCSE in Latin. Over here, it would cover a good deal of any first-year programme. Without doubt, it is the ideal supplement to at least the first two years at any level and age, especially when spirits on both sides of the lectern are flagging. Some of Jones' own fellow professionals would also benefit from a look at it. Ved Mehta in his memoir Up At Oxford (p. 314) reports a local's snotty remark, "There is a certain feeling at Oxford that American classicists simply don't know their texts." Well, in March 1997 in a letter that a newspaper editor chose not to publish, I defended the motto 'consectatio excellentiae' of the Sunderland Football club against the expostulations of A. J. Woodman, pointing out that if Cicero (Orator 165) can write ['consectatio concinnitatis', why can't soccer Latinists have 'consectatio excellentiae'? Despite Woodman, 'excellentia' is not restricted to late Latin, being on show in Cicero, Pliny, Seneca, and Vitruvius. More recently (July 1997), an understandably anonymous Glaswegian classicist ridiculed the Royal Troon golf courses's motto 'tam arte quam marte' by denying the existence of the word 'marte' in Latin. O really? O really! Hasn't this person heard of 'Marte', ablative of Mars, a noun often used in the figurative sense of effort and attack? An F to both of these sciolists. But to the present author and his publisher, I say in the Jonesian idiom, Well Done That Man And That Duck.