BMCR 2009.06.16

Profession latiniste. Profession

Jean-François Cottier, Profession latiniste. Profession. Montréal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2008. 66. ISBN 9782760620971 $9.95 (pb).

This short pamphlet forms part of a series published by the University of Montreal Press which covers various areas of the academic professions, giving those hoping to enter the profession an idea of what exactly is involved. Other areas include astronomer, musicologist, lexicographer and translator. Its target audience is therefore francophone Latinists who aim to become professional academics in any French-speaking university.

The epigraph from Jacques Brel sets the tone: ‘Rosa, rosa, rosam. . . C’est le plus vieux tango du monde.’ Francophone Latin begins with the rhythmic repetition of the noun table; clearly the abstract nature of language comes first. Contrast this with the way Caecilius est pater takes the learner into a different world where we meet someone with a strange name and his family. A mention of the church also reminds us that francophone Latin has a not always easy but close relation to Catholicism.

Passing elegantly and wittily with a reference to Montesquieu from the question of what it is like to be a Latinist, the author explains his own background and experience in the major centres of francophone Latin: he is from Belgium where he was an undergraduate, studied further in France and is now director of the Centre of Medieval studies at Montreal.

Chapter 2 is a rapid, impressionistic view of Latin and the Romans: Latin as the language of love, with an example from Rimbaud; Rome, the centre of the world (St Paul); the language of empire (César, Astérix); the heritage of the Roman world passed on to us (Charlemagne, Napoléon). We conclude that the Latinist is an interpreter and ferryman who transmits the accounts of the past and makes them understandable by editing them, translating them and commenting on them.

Le latiniste est avant tout un philologue. Chapter 3 makes it absolutely clear what it means to be a Latinist: the emphasis above all is on the language and the literature. In addition Latin itself is not just the mother tongue of the ancient Roman world: it is also the paternal language of the western medieval world, of humanism and of the later classical era. Although archaeologists and historians are expected to know the languages of their documents, the profession of the Latinist is seen throughout as distinct and separate. The Latinist is expected to be involved with paléographie, codicologie and l’ecdotique. These traditional skills of textual criticism, editing and comparing manuscripts, translating texts and writing commentaries are then developed individually. The emphasis in the translation section is on a high level of mastery of the target language (French). Again the remit goes well beyond the classical age into late antiquity and the medieval and humanistic period, with a glance towards new areas of study such as gender studies and reception.

After a special look at Latin in Québec and Nouvelle-France Cottier concludes that Latinists should not just confine themselves to the pure classical Latin of Cicero, but that they should be aware of the changes that the language underwent and the extent of the literature from early Rome to the Renaissance. He discusses the position of Latin in schools and laments the present standard of French language usage, putting forward a link between the two phenomena. The task of the Latinist, among others, is to preserve the purity of the written language and to pass on correct and elegant usage. He even recalls a proposal that Latin should be the official language of the European Union. (A proposal that makes this Brussels-based Latinist shudder: imagine the complaints when a document on annual Belgian meat production contained a grammatical error. And what is the Latin for annual Belgian meat production?)

Perhaps the main interest for non-francophone readers of this text is an anthropological one, for the viewpoint it opens up of French-language Latin. The worlds of Classical studies are many and one may speculate how much cross-over there is between them. This book will give an excellent brief snapshot for anyone who wants to find out quickly what it is like to be a Classicist whose first language is French. The first clue is in the title: Profession Latiniste. The emphasis is on Latin only, with a great deal of importance placed on the acquisition of language-skills. Other professionals might prefer Classicist to Latinist and would include Ancient History and Ancient Philosophy as being within the remit of Classical Studies. For Cottier these are clearly detached from the Latin faculty and are to be placed within their own faculties of History or Philosophy, as are Archaeology and Art. On the other hand Latin as a subject for Francophones extends for a far longer period than would be normal in an Anglophone university, where the second century CE is regarded as a bit late. French-speaking Latin, however, includes Christian writers such as Macrobius or Lactantius and goes as far as Erasmus; a medievalist is also a Latinist. In addition Cottier takes time to explain and promote the role of Greek in the life of a Latinist. I had a similar experience recently where a French Classicist (or rather Latinist) at a conference spoke at length of the importance of Greek language and culture to the teaching of Latin. This was rather to the puzzlement of not only my English-speaking colleagues but also to Dutch and German colleagues, to most of whom, as classici or Altphilologen, Greek language and culture is just as important as Latin and Roman culture and who were trained in the two equally. Yet the close link between the teaching of French in schools and the teaching of Latin (often by the same teachers) means that Latin and French language work tend to come first in the minds of professeurs de lettres classiques.

In conclusion, a pamphlet of interest to French-speaking graduates thinking of becoming professional Classicists, but also of interest to anyone involved in comparative education who wants to know what unites and what divides Latinists over language and cultures.