By Ian Frazier
Joshua Katz, professor of classics at Princeton (dark suit, high forehead, merry eyes behind Santa Claus glasses), lectured to a group of eighteen New York City high-school Latin teachers on a recent morning in a room at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, on East Eighty-fourth Street, and revved their brains to almost redline speed. These teachers could easily handle it. They sat and listened and asked pertinent questions like the students whom teachers hope to have. Sam Swope, the white-maned president of the Academy for Teachers, made a welcoming speech telling them how outstanding they were. The academy regularly rewards the best city-area K-12 teachers with high-powered daylong enrichment gatherings like this one.
Subject of lecture: The Proto-Indo-European roots of the Latin language. Professor Katz loves a blackboard, but will settle for a whiteboard in a pinch. As he talked, he tossed a blue felt-tipped marker from hand to hand. On the smooth white, his rapidly sketched blue lines veered, with occasional squeaks, this way and that—from modern English, which we understand, to Shakespearean English, which we pretend to understand but kind of don’t, to Chaucerian English, which we don’t pretend to understand, and then to Old English. The lines then went from German to Middle High German (close relative of Yiddish), to Old High German, connected somehow to East Germanic Gothic, to West Germanic, to Dutch and Frisian, and onward to North Germanic, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic. Languages and facts flew like sparks from a grindstone and skidded bluely onto the board.
A few swipes of a cloth, and many centuries of Northern European language evolution disappeared. Then, “LATIN,” he wrote, near the bottom of the board. The Latin that Latin teachers teach is the classic form that prevailed in Rome for about three hundred years—from 100 B.C. to 200 A.D. Professor Katz sketched lines connecting it to Old Latin, then to Older Latin, then to Very Old Latin, which dates to about the eighth century B.C. Very Old Latin is as far from Cicero and Julius Caesar as Chaucer’s English is from us, said Professor Katz. Passing mention was made of Plautus Livius Andronicus, who created the first Latin literature by translating Homer from the Greek, in 240 B.C.; of the familial connection between Latin and Gujarati and other languages of India but not between Latin and Hebrew; and of the word experts at NASA who have tried to find ways in which humans may communicate with space aliens, should that ever become necessary.
To illustrate the morphological nature of Very Old Latin, Professor Katz handed out photocopies of a drawing of a gold pin called the Fibula Praenestina, which dates from the sixth to the eighth centuries B.C. The pin had been used, possibly, as a fastener for a garment. On the pin’s shaft were marks that were apparently letters but looked like what you might scratch on a lawn tool so that you could reclaim it after lending it to your neighbor. “If those are letters, what do we want them to say?” Professor Katz asked. “It’s unlikely they say something like ‘I’m with Stupid’—right?” By Socratic questioning, he led the teachers to discern Latinate forms in the letters. To do that, the inscription had to be read from right to left, the usual direction for Very Old Latin. “And what, by the way, is the word for writing that goes in one direction, gets to the end, turns, and then goes back in the other direction? Our favorite Greek adverb? Comes from the words meaning ‘as the ox plows’?” asked Professor Katz. All eighteen teachers answered, as one, “Boustrophedon!” He repeated the word, happily, because it is fun to say. Accent on the last syllable: “Bou-stroph-e-DON!”
Another key to translating the Fibula Praenestina’s inscription was making the intuitive leap that it had been written in the voice of the pin itself—that is, like “I’m with Stupid,” it is in the first person. Thus the words on the pin read “Manius made me for Numarius.” The pin’s Very Old Latin used case endings similar to those of Greek, showing both languages in the process of evolving from a common Indo-European source.
During lunch, the teachers talked about how the definition of the Latin word praeda, which means “plunder or booty,” causes students to laugh hysterically (cf. a more recent meaning of “booty”), and how useless the A.P. Latin exam’s Virgil section is, and how boys don’t like to sit still. “Amazing program!” said Alexa Jervis, teacher of Latin I-III at the Buckley School. “And it was great just to be in a room with grownups all day.”