Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

Latin is a Language (Not Quite as Dead as Can Be)

In my column for the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I shared the new discovery that’s helping me to learn Latin: Duolingo

For a couple of years at secondary school, I studied Latin using what was then considered a revolutionary new system.

The Cambridge Latin Course tried hard to make learning fun and Latin funky. The first year’s course book had a bright orange cover – very right-on in the 1970s, when I chose to paint my bedroom walls bright orange too.

The course revolved around the story of a real-life family, headed by Lucus Caecilius Iucundus, a rich banker, living in Pompeii just before the devastating eruption of Vesuvius.

Call me suggestible, but Lucus Caecilius Iucundus and his family came to seem very real to me, and I cared about them.

When I changed schools at the age of 14, to my regret Latin was no longer an option.

Now, decades later, I’m making up for lost time with a very 21st century route to fluency: a free app called Duolingo. With an estimated three million users globally, Duolingo aims to please its students wherever they are in the world.  Thus I find myself translating surreal conversations featuring New York, Philadelphia, Boston and California, none of which existed when Latin was a living language.

screenshot of Duolingo's Twitter home page
Duoloingo’s Twitter home page indicates its popularity

Having always wondered what happened to Caecilius and family, I decided to investigate. To my surprise, our experimental texts have since become a classic teaching method, celebrating 50 years in print. The particular book I used, albeit now published with a less startling coloured cover, is currently Amazon’s #1 bestseller in Latin.

cover of first book in Cambridge Latin series showing Amazon bestseller orange flag
I was astonished to find my old school Latin textbook is currently a bestseller on Amazon – bestseller n the Latin category, anyway!

Even more surprising is that Caecilius and family have since featured in an episode of Dr Who, which my daughter kindly found me on Netflix. Their adventure opens just as Vesuvius is making ominous noises, portentous of imminent eruption and mass destruction. What becomes of my chum Caecilius? You’ll have to watch it to find out. (Here’s the link to its IMDB page: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1173173/)

But I have one remaining question: had I had been able to persevere with my Latin studies, would Dr Who have popped up in the A Level textbook? Now that would have made Latin cool.


PS Added Duolingo fun can be found on this alternative Twitter account: @shitsduosays, which highlights the more bizarre and surreal phrases it teaches you. Here are a few screenshots to whet your appetite:

screenshot showing the phrase "You are already dead" screenshot of phrase "Were did those horses learn French?

tweet in response to a phrase "This is a matter of life and death" saying "Duolingo owl, I only missed a day, oh god I'm sorry"

 

Author:

English author of warm, witty novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, set in the Cotswolds. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors and for the children's reading charity, Read for Good. Public speaker for the Type 1 Diabetes charity JDRF.

4 thoughts on “Latin is a Language (Not Quite as Dead as Can Be)

  1. Not for the first time, Debbie, you have inspired me! I’ve signed up to Duolingo to push forward with my basic Italian – the only comment I would make so far is that they give it away by capitalising the first word of the sentence in the translations! Mind you, I’m grateful for any hints I can get…

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