For the past few months, I have been teaching Stephen Latin and we've both been trying to learn some British Sign Language.
Somehow, Stephen managed to get a degree in Classics without any Latin learning so he thought it was about time he got some. I did three years of Latin at high school and loved it. I also enjoyed German and French, but you don't ever have to speak Latin. There were no spoken exams based on the premise that you're a tourist visiting ancient Pompeii, your friend has really annoyed you on the coach trip there and now you want to find the Coliseum so you can feed him to the lions. We sang Latin in the school choir but we knew that, whilst nobody can say for certain, it's unlikely that Italians from two thousand years ago pronounced things in much the same way as BBC presenters from the 1950s.
Our Latin books were also brilliantly designed and so when Stephen expressed his wish to get on an learn some Latin, I found a copy of part one of the Cambridge Latin Course on eBay. Most British people reading this who learnt Latin at school will have learnt with these books, starting with stories about Caecillius, a merchant who lives in Pompeii up until the point Versuvius erupts. These stories had such a strong influence on the those who studied them that the screenwriter James Moran wrote a Doctor Who episode The Fires of Pompeii in which the Doctor and Donna meet Caecillius, his wife Metella and son Quintus, as well as a daughter who wasn't there in the Latin books but is involved in some alien cult or other which brings about the eruption of Versuvius. It rocked.
But every bit of Latin you're given is part of the story. It starts off very basic - Caecillius is in the study, Caecillius is writing in the study etc. - but pretty soon you're learning about the affairs of slave girls, gladiators, what goes on at the baths and even werewolves. There's a lot of humour – the very first story, told in very simple sentences and entirely in the present tense is about a dog who creeps into the kitchen while the grumpy cook is asleep and startles him. The characters die very Roman deaths, and there's some gentle titillation, although not nearly so much as a classroom of eleven and twelve year old girls found in it when we read it in the first year of high school. The mere concept of public baths was enough to set us off giggling for a full half hour.
So when I say I've been teaching Stephen Latin, we've really been working through the book together and I've been trying to remember my vocab when he gets stuck.
Latin has a surprising amount in common with British Sign Language. This was something we both fancied doing, partly because we eventually want to be able to communicate in all the languages of the British Isles, but it also gives Stephen and I another means of communicating when talking or typing is difficult.
Both Latin and BSL do, in a sense, simplify language – there are less “words” (although in Latin, this is compensated for by many many more word-endings). There are also different word-order to English, something that surprised me about BSL - I think I'd seen people in movies speak and sign at the same time, which I realise now would be extremely tricky*. But it's funny how easy the rearranged sentence is to cope with; Stephen went to hospital school, where the only non-English language he learnt was that mysterious jagged script employed by doctors and whilst he learnt how to read and write beautifully, he learnt nothing about the formal mechanics of grammar. Yet he doesn't start talking like Yoda when the verb appears at the end of the sentence.
To English readers, meaning in both Latin and BSL implies itself in the same kind of way. In BSL, meaning obviously implies itself through the action - verbs often look like the action they refer to. The action for eating and drinking, for example, look like a mime for eating and drinking. In Latin, eats is consumit, like consume, and drinks is bibit, like imbibe. In fact, I reckon perhaps two thirds of Latin verbs have some English word or words derived from them, which can give us a clue as to what they mean; sedet (sits), dormit (sleeps), spectat (watches) clamat (shouts) and so on. To an English reader, reading Latin is a little like looking at strangers in our family photographs from 1920 and recognising the eyebrows, cheekbones and jaw-lines of people we know intimately.
Except, you know, Latin is a wee bit older. British Sign Language is also many hundreds of years old. Both of them are great languages, made relatively easy by being restricted to one medium (Latin is always written, BSL is always signed). Both of them teach us things about writing and speaking in English.
By the way, here I am this week over at the BBC Ouch!
*As an after-thought, it occurs to me that this might not apply to American Sign Language, but ASL is based on Langue des Signes Française, so I have no idea. Any ASL-users about?