BMCR 2007.08.52

Latin Alive and Well. An Introductory Text

, Latin alive and well : an introductory text. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. xv, 350 pages : illustrations, maps ; 28 cm. ISBN 9780806138169 $24.95.

During seventeen out of the eighteen years I have taught beginner’s Latin, three in the classroom and fifteen through correspondence, I have used several successive editions of Wheelock’s Latin. For the academic year 2005-6, the most recent year I taught the course at my university, I was ready for a change, so I turned to a newly published text, Susan C. Shelmerdine’s Introduction to Latin, which I had been able to preview well before the start of the fall semester. I liked its unapologetic primary focus on grammar, its exceptionally lucid presentation of the essentials—and no more—of the grammar needed for a beginner’s course, and, last but not least, its uncluttered format, very different from Wheelock’s Latin which, over the years, has accumulated more and more extra material (historical notes, sections on etymology—the most useful, I think—and an increasing number of illustrations) and thus has almost assumed the dimensions of an ‘introduction to Roman civilization’ text. I also liked the fact that Introduction to Latin provides plenty of self-correcting online exercises in grammar and vocabulary for students who wish to do additional practice work on their own, although I had the impression from my class that few students actually made extensive use of these.

The 2006 edition of Latin Alive and Well is the latest of earlier versions going back to 1987, and the author has also had considerable experience in preparing classical Latin texts (Aulus Gellius and Pliny’s Letters) for use as intermediate-level readers and grammar reviews. This is very explicitly intended as an altogether student-friendly beginner’s text, as is highlighted by a separate “Note to the Student.” The presentation of the grammar across the 36 lessons (Wheelock has 40 and Shelmerdine 32) is certainly a model of clarity, with a sequence of topics that is roughly comparable to that of the other two texts. Of the three, Shelmerdine strikes me as the most sophisticated linguistically in its explication of the grammar, introducing, for instance, the student right away (in ch. 1) to the different types of sentence structure and, quite early on (in ch. 5), to the so-called “Gap” as a recurring syntactic phenomenon to watch out for.

A major concern of mine with any introductory Latin or Greek text is that it should provide the student with a good range of stimulating readings based—with, of course, the necessary adaptations—as much as possible on classical authors. In its success in meeting this desideratum, Chambers’s text, with its readings ranging chronologically from Lucretius to the Vulgate Bible, is almost comparable to Wheelock, and seems to me, in terms of variety, to have a slight edge over Shelmerdine (who, for instance, draws on Ennius but not on Catullus), although it starts with connected readings a bit later (not until ch. 5) than the other two. The quality, both syntactic and lexical, of the adaptations is generally good or at least satisfactory. It is indeed a great challenge for anyone to fashion a reasonably literate adaptation of a classical text when the students’ Latin vocabulary and grammar are still minimal. I have two criticisms here. 1) The prose reading in ch. 5, which summarizes the story of the Aeneid, is misleadingly formatted so as to seem composed of verse lines. 2) More as a matter of personal taste, I do not take with great enthusiasm to the application of classical Latin (in combination with the necessary neo-Latin formulations) to contemporary fictions such as “Procurator Nihil Nihil Septem, Iacobus Ligamentum — Agent 007, James Bond”(ch. 11) and “Bella Stellarum” (ch. 27), unless this is done with the exquisite skill one finds in the Latin translations by Peter Needham of the Harry Potter novels. “Remanete tunatum” (“Stay tuned”) in the former comes close to being pidgin Latin (“Latin via Chambers,” as the author calls it in a note).

Latin Alive and Well is amply provided with exercises of the standard sort (filling in the blanks, Latin to English, and English to Latin translation), and the instructor is, of course, free to add more of his or her own making. The “Note to the Teacher” at the beginning makes it clear that use of this text requires a large amount of class time spent on going over the exercises as well as on translating the connected Latin passages. Self-correcting exercises, with the key provided at the back, start in lesson 12. Perhaps, these should start in a much earlier chapter, as in Wheelock and Shelmerdine. There is no indication of the availability of online (again self-correcting) exercises. However, as I mentioned earlier, my own experience tells me that the large majority of students do not bother with these, and, in any case, I am inclined to agree with Chambers that the weight of the work of practice, review, and translation (much of it, of course, to be prepared beforehand by the students) has to fall on the class sessions.

To conclude: Latin Alive and Well compares, in my judgment, favorably with the two beginner’s texts I have used in the past, and in plan and design is, in fact, quite similar to Shelmerdine’s Introduction to Latin. An instructor who likes the abundance of extra material in Wheelock, as noted above, will want to stick to that text; otherwise, she or he will be well served by either Chambers and Shelmerdine.