BMCR 2007.09.14

Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency

, Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency: Phrase Book and Dictionary, Classical and Neo-Latin, Fourth Edition. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2007. 411 pages. ISBN 9781435603448.
, , Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency: Audio Conversations. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2007. 2 audio CDs and 1 booklet. ISBN 978865166356.

Table of Contents

John C. Traupman (henceforth T)’s Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency (henceforth CL) has been a popular introductory reference and exercise text in U.S. Latin-speaking circles since its publication about a decade ago. The fourth edition of this work contains major additions and revisions which significantly enhance its value. A separately available companion CD set should also be especially useful to neophyte Latin speakers as well as teachers and students of elementary to intermediate Latin.

When comparing it to the 2nd edition of 1997 (this reviewer was unable to get hold of the 3rd ed.), the following developments may be noted: 1) Major augmentation of General Vocabulary, 2) Addition of Suggested Classroom Activity, a couple of Appendices, and Selected Bibliography, 3) Minor revisions in Conversations, and 4) The new set of companion CDs. I will now discuss each of these items in turn.

1) The length of the book is nearly double, due mostly to the greater bulk of the General Vocabulary placed at the end. The increase in General Vocabulary is welcome. Instead of being a very short (c. 15 pages in the 2nd ed.) English-Latin list of the most basic words, it now has nearly 150 pages and repeats all the entries in Topical Vocabularies. While this repetition may seem unnecessary to some, it will actually be extremely helpful to those who are scrambling for a solution quickly, say in the middle of a conversation or while doing composition in class, since they will not be forced to think first where to look in the 25 separate chapters with their Topical Vocabularies, but be able to go to the General Vocabulary right away. Beginning students would probably still want some basic reference (such as T’s own Bantam New College Latin and English Dictionary) on the side, but with this expanded General Vocabulary, intermediate users can now rely on CL for vocabulary help much more consistentlyinstead of having to carry around the very bulky Copious and Critical English-Latin Dictionary (William Smith and Theophilus D. Hall, Bolchazy-Carducci reprint, 2000) or the very useful but much scarcer Imaginum Vocabularium Latinum (Sigrid Albert, Societas Latina, 1998).

2) Latin instructors may especially welcome the Suggested Classroom Activity appended to Chaps. I and II, as well as the Latin Pledge of Allegiance (which I imagine may be more pertinent than ever in today’s schools) on p. 27. It were perhaps to be wished that similar hints for classroom exercises would appear in the subsequent chapters as well. The Appendices are also more useful than ever. Not only do they retain the very necessary discussions of Yes and No in Latin (App. I) and Colors (App. ιἰ, but there are new ones which are again helpful especially in a school setting, i.e. Computer Terms (App. V) and Cantūs Latīnī or Latin Songs (App. VI). Two of these songs may be sung to the accompaniment of piano music recorded in CD2. The tunes however and most of the songs themselves are modern or, at most, mediaeval, not reconstructions of ancient music. I also note that Appendix III: Numbers is simply a list of cardinals and ordinals; beginning to intermediate users of Latin may require more help with numerical adverbs, distributives and their sometimes obscure rules of usage. The appearance of Selected Bibliography on p. 411 is very welcome as it demonstrates the existence of, and may guide users to, some major publications by modern and contemporary users of Latin both in the United States and in Europe.

3) The main chapters and conversations are mostly the same as in the 2nd edition. Chaps. III and XIII are transposed, but otherwise the content and organization of three conversations per chapter ranged in the order of difficulty are retained. There are some minor changes in the phrasing of Latin texts, generally toward greater simplicity and consistency. In Chap. IX, the modern method of indicating time is explained in addition to the Roman fashion, which is probably helpful to ordinary users since the majority of them would not use sundials or vary their hours by the season. On the other hand, the terminology concerning Latin grammar in Chap. XXV remains thoroughly ancient and Roman — which to be sure would appear arcane to most Latin users of today, even of the advanced level. But if so desired, the more modern (and still Latin) fashion of discussing grammar would not be difficult to get at from a combination of CL’s ancient terminology and the terms we use in classrooms today. The grammar, vocabulary choice and general style of the conversations are of a very high standard. I might personally have used somewhat more connective particles like autem or enim and omitted some of the pronouns, but real Latin can be very flexible in such matters. All long vowels, including those preceding consonant clusters, are so marked in the text. Accents are also often marked.

4) The two companion CDs, sold separately, consist of an audio recording of all conversations in CL as well as the Pledge of Allegiance, Proverbs, and piano accompaniments for two songs ( Ecce Caesar and the perennial favorite Gaudeamus Igitur). The Latin passages are performed by three speakers who follow the “Classical Method” of pronunciation as outlined on pp.10-13 of CL (I note however that one of the speakers does not consistently distinguish long vowels and tends to leave gaps between words). This is slightly different from the restored historical pronunciation advocated by Stephen Daitz and others, in the rendition of final m for example. Purists may object, but it must be conceded that most Latin speakers in America today do pronounce Latin the way it is done in these CDs. Therefore those who wish to join a Latin speaking group in the near future may do well to listen to these recordings and see how much they can understand.

The world of conversational Latin has expanded considerably since 1996, the date of the 1st edition of CL. The Conventiculum Aestivum in Lexington, Kentucky, which is incidentally about as old as CL and is being celebrated just as I am writing this review, has become an established and vibrant tradition, along with the UKY Institute of Latin Studies. Other groups are continuing or beginning to be active in California, Washington State and elsewhere. In Europe, there is the Academia Latinitati Fovendae, the Fundatio Latinitas of the Vatican, various groups in Germany and Finland, as well as the Vivarium Novum near Naples which is attracting increasing numbers of young and devoted students of classical languages from all around the world.

What is needed now more than ever, not perhaps necessarily formulated in a book like CL, but to be thought out carefully in the minds of all of its users, is a clear sense of purpose. After all, active use of correct Latin in writing and speech requires great and steady investment in effort and time. CL can be a starting point, but one must also get a thorough grounding in Latin stylistics of the kind offered by the Introduction to Latin Prose Composition (Milena Minkova, Bolchazy-Carducci, 2002), Readings and Exercises in Latin Prose Composition (Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg, Focus Publishing, 2004), and Menge’s Repetitorium. The rest is a lifelong process of mining all the ancient authors as well as the best mediaeval and modern Latinists for both specific linguistic information and general stylistic sense. It is exhilarating to be able to produce good Latin extemporaneously, but if an incoherent sense of fun is the only motive, one may be in danger of becoming just a “well-meaning carnival barker”1 in the words of a rather unkind critic.

I do believe that intense exercise in using Latin and Greek is very pertinent to the mission of classics, which after all is to acquire and communicate an intimate understanding of the ancients while at the same time keeping one foot in the modern world and maintaining critical distance.2 Although the conversations of the Romans or the ancient Athenians cannot be recreated with complete accuracy, at least not any more than the original performance of Homer or of Greek tragedy in its entirety can be, the effort nevertheless is worth making, so that we may not “lose sight of the intriguing ways in which the Greeks (or Romans in our case) differed from us,” yet gain a definite sense that “at the most fundamental level, there are certain experiences, attributes, and feelings that are part of the common experience of our race,”3 an endeavor which can only be enhanced by the acquired habit of thinking in their language(s) about things both ancient and modern. Or, if our focus is firmly on the world we live in now, we may still wish to follow the example of those who, in the words of a humanist educator and no mean user of Latin, ” nostra tempora cum praeteritis comparantes, et perpetuum volunt cum maioribus nostris instituere colloquium, et nostrae ipsorum aetatis meliorem consequi intellegentiam.”4

Let us also not forget that using Latin in writing and speaking has been a longstanding humanistic tradition in Europe. As participants heard in a recent academic conference (Humanitas) in Naples, in which all presentations were delivered in Latin, Latin was the primary language with which the most influential thinkers of Europe ranging from mediaeval cosmographers to 17th-Century Jesuits and 18th-Century Linnaean apostles communicated. In literature, the tradition of Latin versification continues unbroken from Ennius and Ovid to the contemporary Mexican poet Francisco Caprario. Classicizing Latin was the language of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and it was a major channel through which contacts were established between the West and the non-West by European missionaries, scientists, diplomats and educators.

Thus, in using good Latin, one is not only acquiring a more intimate understanding of the minds of the ancients, but also continuing a venerable tradition of European humanism. It is to be hoped then that more students in the future willcultivate Latin, not as some impersonal code, but as a human language and a means of communication not only with the ancients but also with contemporaries in the U.S., Europe and around the world. There are some good places both in the virtual and the real world to start such conversations,5 and T and his assistants must be thanked for their fantastic contribution in facilitating one’s entry to the community of Latin users.


1. Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001: 169.

2. Cf. Lee T. Pearcy, The Grammar of Our Civility: Classical Education in America. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005, esp. pp. 38-39.

3. Simon Pulleyn, Homer: Iliad, Book One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000: 2-3.

4. Program for HVMANITAS: Convegno internazionale sull’attualit dell’umanesimo. Napoli, 15-22 Iuglio 2007 : 5.

5. See e.g. Grex Latine Loquentium and Index Circulorum Latinorum. See also Neo-Latin Colloquia for a good sampling of 15th to 16th Century humanistic Latin conversations.