Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On the History of Latin and Yoga

While in graduate school, the topic of "active" Latin (i.e. using spoken Latin in various ways) rarely came up, if at all, so it was something of a surprise to find so many proponents of it at the high school level.  In the various fora devoted to Latin discussions, it thus seems to be the case that every few months, a questions is asked about the linguistic status of the language by those who advocate its active use.  Namely, is Latin really a dead language?  It's typically asked, as I see it, with the expectation that the answer will be "no", given the wide breadth that the language and culture have in the modern world.
Image from The Guardian

Based on my training in Latin historical linguistics, however, I'm compelled to say that Latin is dead.  As far as we can tell, the Latin of Cicero and Caesar may have been no longer intelligible by as early as 500 CE, based on the testimony of texts like the Reichenau Glosses.  Sure, Latin evolved into the Romance languages and can be considered to be alive in their guise; but they are very different languages with different cultures.  Latin effectively died when its community of native speakers disappeared, since without them, there was no longer a full picture with which to reconstruct it.  Even though it continued to be used as a written language and even resuscitated orally for specific purposes (i.e. in the the form of Ecclesiastical Latin), Latin as an active linguistic entity has died.  From any objective perspective all claims to the contrary fail to stand up to scrutiny.

Without fail, declaring that Latin is objectively dead in these discussions incites vigorous attacks by those who dispute that it's dead, based on its active use.  Some have even alleged that dedicated oral Latin practice can lead to fluency at the proficiency level of native speaker, which is simply impossible.  I'm glad that there's so much enthusiasm for Latin around the world and that people defend their beliefs about it so vehemently, but I just don't think we can justify calling it a living language.  More importantly, I don't think that the death of Latin has to imply the death of active Latin today, which is the assumption that some have made.  All told, that Latin is dead doesn't need to be a negative thing at all.

To the contrary, oral Latin is gaining in popularity, and there are several active communities and enrichment opportunities with glowing reputations for speaking Latin actively.  In fact, one of my own students has participated at the Getty Villa's Academia Aestiva Latina program for two consecutive summers and hasn't a single negative word to say about the experience.  Approaching Latin pedagogy with more active principles in mind may actually lead to better experiences learning it, too.  We just need to divorce subjective feelings about what we do with Latin from the objective facts of its linguistic history.

Over spring break, I had a chance to catch up on reading.  In particular, I began +Carol Horton Yoga Ph.D, in which she analyzes the origins and transformation of yoga into what it is for many yogis today.  When she began her practice, she asked herself if the stories about yoga's supposedly 5000-year ancestry were true.  Many yoga teachers maintain its age to be true, and one teacher interviewed for the Enlighten Up! documentary even supposed that kundalini yoga can be traced back 40,000 years!  (For comparison, we generally believe that Proto-Indo-European was spoken as a linguistic entity sometime between 5000 and 4000 BCE.)  Horton shows us how the history of yoga has been homogenized, with very little ancient tradition to be found within the walls of modern studios, and more and more yogis are now coming understanding yoga as we know it is a very modern phenomenon.

But in her brilliant chapter on the duality of yoga, Horton doesn't dismiss its history as false and therefore useless.  Instead, she rather convincingly argues the need for a connection between the present and the past.  Although lacking a clear historical connection to India's ancient traditions, the difference from yoga's perceived history is valuable, in that "[b]reaking out of the box of our own cultural conditioning expands our sense of what's possible" (34).  Horton continues on the same page to say that "the more we use yoga to experience something deeper than our everyday consciousness, the more we're grounded in a sense that something significant connects human experience across the chasm of time and place".  Upon reading this a few nights ago, I was instantly reminded of the discussions about the linguistic lineage of Latin that I've been consistently returning to over past five years.  It would appear, then, that Latin and yoga share very similar histories, and I've found it very productive to compare my own experiences with the two.

When looking at Classical culture, we've also done a great job in homogenizing the past.  In the vast majority if historical depictions, Roman buildings look the same, the military looks the same, the elite are always the same gluttons, and most of all the Latin language is static and rigid.  Latin texts range from perhaps the 7th c. BCE to well into the middle of the 1st millennium CE, but we often take a myopic view of them within this span.  Classicists don't actually believe that this picture of ancient Rome is accurate, but in the same way that the ancient tradition of yoga is used as a foil for modern practice, according to Horton, active Latin can only thrive on maintaining a connection between the language we study today and the language that the Romans used 2000 years ago.

Because it's a dead language, there are several different pedagogical methods to approach teaching Latin, unlike what is done in modern language classrooms.  Some programs aim to read literature, while others teach students to speak Latin, and more programs are breaking away from the traditional mold, as far as I can tell.  I don't believe that Latin should only be taught actively, though, or that teachers necessarily need to adopt active methodologies, despite several claims assertions along these lines. Our program is relatively traditional in our overall approach, but we're also quite proud of it, since our students love it.  The unifying feature that makes Latin programs strong is the communal bond created in classes, when students believe they are part of something special and unique, much like what makes yoga communities strong.  This is certainly a driving force behind the oral Latin communities, I think, but in my experience a strong community can be built in a number of ways.
Image from VRoma

Next year, I've volunteered to teach Latin IA to the 7th grade, who will be the first at our school to begin a 1:1 laptop program.  I've never taught 7th grade before, but I'm excited to have the opportunity to build a communal foundation with new Latin students, who will hopefully continue through our program to Latin Lit. Honors and even take Greek.  Pounding grammar at this age is not the right thing to do, so I'm working toward other classroom activities, and I'm looking forward to continuing our department's use of technology in the classroom.  This is a large driving force behind the start of #latinlangchat, a Twitter chat devoted to Latin pedagogy, where I'm looking forward to meet other Latin teachers with great ideas about how to continue to build strong programs.  To my mind, the most important thing to do at this level is to foster engagement in whatever way it can be done, and I don't believe that there's only one correct way to accomplish this.

In sum, Horton supposes that she "can't help but feel that we're cheating ourselves out of something potentially valuable when we blithely assume that yoga's past was essentially the same as its present" (29), and this is essentially how I feel about Latin pedagogy and the more active uses of it.  Roman Latin is dead, and on account of this, there are certain things that we'll simply never know about it.  With only textual evidence available to us, mostly literary texts at that, no one will ever be "fluent" in Latin again.  It's important to me to acknowledge this and teach it to students, given that there's value in understanding what we're able do with Latin linguistically.  Our experiences with it, even if we encourage oral Latin, will always differ from what we read in original texts.  That knowledge and understanding, rather then serving as a detriment, can actually help us to build purpose and craft goals for our program.  And though we'll never create a community of active speakers in the same way that our Chinese, French, and Spanish programs can, we can nonetheless still build a strong, engaged communities and teach our students to enjoy learning Latin, while giving them the tools to continue their exploration of it subsequently, whether we're interested in reading ancient texts, conversing with each other in Latin, or doing some combination of both.