Sunday, August 7, 2016

Latin Novellas: Why attention to attested usage matters

When it comes to English, I try to be a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist. If I am in a store and I hear a kid say, "I should of broughten mo' money." (and yes, I've heard kids in my rural, lower income, largely white area say "broughten."), I don't correct them because I'm not a jerk. If however I were writing a novel about similar kids for an ELL audience, I would never ever write "I should of broughten mo' money." Why? Because I don't want to teach them weird things that aren't considered "standard" English by the community of English speakers at large.

(To be clear, I don’t think anyone has written anything at the level of “I should of broughten” in Latin, but I wanted to share that weird example of English doing its living language thing because I think it’s super cool.)

With Latin, the community of Latin speakers is MUCH smaller, and the community of native Latin speakers is dead. All the same, my goal for my kids is for them to be able to read Latin which was written by native speakers and maybe to communicate with other Latinists around the country and throughout the world. Why? Because Latin is a language, and it deserves to be treated as such, even if it’s dead. I’ve struggled a lot with the “point” of teaching a dead language. One of the conclusions I’ve come to is that it doesn’t matter if it’s dead, so long as my kids are still getting the language-learning experience that helps their brains work better (I’m not a neurologist, clearly.). To that end, I want them to be exposed to the things about Latin that aren’t like English: the word order, the morphology, the preference for verb forms compared to English’s love of substantives, everything, etc. Just as we understand other cultures by learning how they differ, I believe we benefit from understanding languages on their own terms.

Now, we’re not perfect Latin speakers. No one alive is, probably. You’re going to make errors. By all means, do so as you teach and in your TPRS stories and whatever you do in your classroom. I’m not saying every Latin teacher needs to be Reginald Foster himself. So long as you are working to improve, ideally by reading more Latin, there’s no problem. (More under the cut)

BUT I do think we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard when we publish things. There’s one very simple reason.

When you publish something, even if it's self-published, it gains authority.

Students are going to learn from your text. Bigger issue? Teachers are going to learn from your text. Teachers may, even if you don't want them to, teach FROM your text as a source of examples.

Someone remarked recently that they had a concern about the Latin in Cloelia due to a mistake in ch. 2 where I used an indicative cum clause (i.e. temporal) where it really should have been more of an undefined kind of temporal or even circumstantial cum clause.

Another teacher-- someone, somewhat recently-- I can't find the quote, unfortunately-- remarked happily that they'd finally understood cum clauses thanks to reading Cloelia.

What the heck do I do with this?

If it's just the former, I can (a) forgive myself for making a basic, small mistake and fix it in the next edition, (b) beat myself up for making a small mistake, or since I was raised Catholic, maybe both. But once the second comment comes in, I suddenly have (c) all of the above but also be seriously concerned that I've now taught a teacher something wrong, which the teacher may now pass on to students. Maybe they won’t, or maybe that second person will go on to look into cum clauses more because of what I wrote, and that’s awesome. What I’m trying to get across here is that when we publish things, people will learn from them, and we need to respect that enough to do our due diligence in making sure we get things right. This particular error is not actually that big of a deal and I know that. Little errors pile up, however, and I think we have an obligation to our readers to try to prevent there being too many, and to fix them when they’re pointed out to us.

Okay, okay, so maybe it doesn't matter, since in theory we're doing CI and not explicit grammar teaching. The goal is lots and lots of comprehensible input in the target language. With an appropriately high volume of input, we needn’t fear students’ fossilizing mistakes from one or two incidences. That’s true! Hooray! This is one of the many reasons CI is such a solid awesome tool for teaching with.

So long as you’re sure your work will only be used by CI-oriented teachers, you’re good. Once you've published something though, it's out there. Chances are, well, maybe not HIGH, but not low either, that a non-CI teacher might pick up Cloelia and decide to teach with it traditional G/T style. I have no way of controlling that.

Consequently, I have a responsibility to ensure that any Latin I publish is worthy of my readers’ attention.

Now, I’m not perfect, and I’m not really happy with everything about the Latin in Cloelia. One of the best things about making it self-published is that I can continue to fix errors and put out updated editions. I’m also having a lot of fun exploring nuances of Latin I never even knew about before. The more I learn about Latin, the more important it is to me to get things correct, because I really love the language.

I hope my own struggles won’t turn you off from writing in Latin. We really, really need you to. There is a serious dearth of material that’s compelling for students in 2016, with characters that are relevant to a global community of Latin students. Our audiences now are so different than they were at the beginning or even the middle of the last century, when a lot of our textbooks were originally written. Maybe we can’t compete (yet) in terms of Latin style with the older works, but with the collaborative tools now available and our awesome community, I think we can get ourselves up to that standard pretty quickly. Needless to say, as soon as our materials are at that level, certain more traditional elements in the Latin teaching community are also more likely to take the CI Latin movement seriously.

In the next post, I’ll share some of the ways I’ve been trying to improve my own Latin. That post will come out day after tomorrow.

(n.b. If you're just starting to write, don't let this discourage you. This has to do with the editing step of the process. See the previous post for some stuff to worry about before you worry about this.)


  1. You are correct that the beauty of self-publishing is that you can constantly and easily correct anything that comes to your attention worth correcting. Nine months after I published Itinera Petri, I've only received one set of feedback--from teachers in Poland who noted that I used personal pronouns when they really weren't needed. They also noted that since in Polish verbs conujugate with subject endings like Latin and since English did not that perhaps those pronouns were more supportive for English readers. They got my point exactly. I appreciated the feedback, and chose to make no changes. If, down the line, someone offers me some feedback that requires change, however, I can do that over night and issue a new edition which will be available to those who want to buy it.

    Any of us who have used Create Space for self publishing can make that kind of info available to others who are considering publishing, and this easy-fix should take some of the intimidation away. To echo what you said: we NEED you and your ideas in new novellas to read with our students!

  2. "If it's just the former, I can (a) forgive myself for making a basic, small mistake and fix it in the next edition, (b) beat myself up for making a small mistake, or since I was raised Catholic, maybe both. But once the second comment comes in, I suddenly have (c) all of the above but also be seriously concerned that I've now taught a teacher something wrong, which the teacher may now pass on to students."

    When you say this, I completely hear you and am seeing where you are coming from. This has been a struggle for me, since I am just starting out and I'm such an "infant" in my own Latin writing (and honestly other production aspects as well). I try not to beat myself up too much, but I have been realizing that the editing process and allowing others to help me out allows me to remain humble and to learn from others. Since I read this article over the weekend (, I've been trying my best to incorporate a humble, listening, and dialogic perspective to my errors and the expertise and experience of others.