I was somewhat surprised to find so many relatively common languages missing from this list. My best languages would certainly have to be French and English, but as I did not learn either of those from zero, I perhaps should not talk about them. As such, on to the best thing I did actually learn from nothing...Lingua latina
(Latin) :Introduction :
With a continuous history beginning three thousand years ago, the Latin language is one of humanity's richest literary, historical and cultural vehicles and a central pillar of Western Civilization. Even long after it split and gave rise to the various Romance languages, Latin has remained widely studied and used as a language of science, literature, philosophy and even university instruction around the world. Even today, content of value
is still produced in Latin, and proficiency in it is still seen as a mark of education and intelligence.
However, at least in the Anglophone world, student after student gets turned out from university after four years of Classics instruction feeling that they know little more than they did when they entered and even many supposedly prestigious academics admit
that their own personal abilities in the language are shockingly poor. The oft' proffered excuse is that "knowing Latin is different". Rubbish. It was not "different" when various university students in Tirol composed, sang and compiled the Carmina Bruana
. It was not "different" when Sir Issac Newton wrote about calculus. It was not "different" when young John Quincy Adams attended university in the Netherlands, since his ignorance of Dutch prevented him from attending secondary school. And it does not have to be "different" for you.
Standard warnings about no material being a one-size fits all approach and the dangers of distraction on the Internet apply. Anyhow, there is a millennia-old literary tradition waiting, and it is not going to read itself. Let's get goingBeginning Resources :Lingua latina per se illustrata : Pars I, Familia Romana
(The Latin language by means of itself, illustrated : Part I, A Roman Family) by Hans Orberg :
This is a strong contender for my prize of best language text book I have ever used for any language ever. Why? First and foremost, it provides the student with something most Latin textbooks lack : Latin text in large quantities beginning with very easy sentences. In my experience, most Latin textbooks in English contain page after page of technical description of the grammar, followed by a few relatively complex sentences and thus nowhere near enough text to actually demonstrate and assimilate the vocabulary, syntax and grammatical concepts. Familia Romana
is not at all like that. The first lesson alone provides the student with 4 full pages of uninterrupted, but extremely simple text, beginning with sentences simple enough for just about any speaker of a modern Indo-European language to understand, such as "Roma in Italia est
. As they are introduced, the sense of each new vocabulary word is given through marginal notes, pictures, synonyms or other such aids. Following the lesson text is an explanation of the gramatical point introduced in the chapter and then three pensa
or exercises, including such things as figuring out the correct case and gender endings for a word from its context in a sentence, completing sentences by inserting missing vocabulary implied by the rest of the sentence (eg. "Sicily is a ____." where you supply the word "island", but obviously in Latin.), and, best of all, comprehension questions in Latin to be answered in Latin. The book continues as such through 35 chapters introducing to you all the grammar of Classical Latin and, by the end, bringing you to complex, natural sounding dialogues as well as excerpts from real Latin literature, including the Vulgate, Catullus and Martial. It should also be pointed out that the plot of this book, with a few chapters excepted, is a unified story surrounding a patrician family towards the middle of the Empire.
This book also has audio available, read in a Classical pronunciation which is actually surprisingly good and pleasant to hear. In addition, there is an exercise book available, although I do not own it. Lingua Latina : A College Companion
by Jean Marie Neumann :
I would also recommend getting this book to accompany Familia Romana
. The College Companion
functions much more like the "typical" descriptive-grammar-cum-textbook commonly seen for Latin. Each chapter of it corresponds to a chapter of Familia Romana
and contains much more extensive description of that chapter's grammatical point with examples drawn from the text, more charts of inflections and a full Latin-English vocabulary list of that chapter's words with all the principle parts and normal dictionary information. This can be quite helpful for false beginners or advanced philologists, as Familia Romana
does not provide all of the principle parts of verbs in the first few lessons, not wanting to drown new students in information they neither need nor understand at the beginning. Useful Reference Materials for the Start : Assimil : Dictionnaire Latin :
If you can read French, get this dictionary. It is my go-to dictionary for reading Latin, and is, in my opinion, the best general dictionary for Latin short of buying a much larger, much more expensive, scholarly dictionary. At over 900 pages it contains more than enough words for most uses, the formatting makes finding what one wants easy and each sense of each word is given an example sentence in Latin, which is then also rendered into French, allowing one to see that sense in context.Cassell's Latin & English Dictionary :
If you do not speak French, get this. In fact, even if you do speak French, I would still recommend getting this as it has one very useful feature : it contains both a Latin > English section as well as an English > Latin section, thus allowing one to look-up how to say English words in Latin, which can be quite useful. Other than that, though, it is not as good as the Assimil dictionary. It does, however, contain a quite substantive grammatical introduction featuring numerous reference tables and a brief explanation of Latin grammar, which could be useful. What to do Next :
There is a Pars II
of Lingua latina per se illustrata
. Entitled Roma Aeterna
, it narrates Roman history beginning with the voyage of Aeneas and concluding with selections from the De re publica
of Cicero. I do not recommend going straight from Familia Romana
to Roma Aeterna
if you are self-studying (in a class it would be fine). This is because, although you will have learned the grammar of Classical Latin through Familia Romana
, the syntax of the native Latin in Roma Aeterna
is much more complex, and the marginal method of explaining vocabulary used throughout the series works markedly less well with significantly more complex topics.
This is not to say that Roma Aeterna
is a bad book : it is not. It is simply not a good idea for a self-teacher to go directly to it after Familia Romana
. Instead, I would advise doing dedicated vocabulary work if you have not been already, and starting to read something easier to increase your comfort with "real Latin". This brings me to...
Bilingual Texts :
Harvard University Press publishes three series of bilingual texts containing works in Latin : the Loeb Classical Library
for Classical and pre-Classical Works (also containing Greek works from the same period), the Dumbarton Oaks Mediaeval Library
containing Mediaeval and late-Classical texts (also containing works in Greek and Old English from the same period) and the I Tatti Renaissance Library
for Renaissance works, with a specific focus on works from Italy. Although these books seem somewhat expensive, the physical quality of them is extremely high. It is worth pointing out that many Loeb volumes are old enough to be in the public domain and it is possible to subscribe to an online version of the Loeb Classical Library. The cost of doing so is rather expensive for an individual, but it is possible that you may be able to access it through a library, school or university. In addition, the University of Dallas has their own series, the Dallas Mediaeval Library
which has the distinctive feature of containing only Latin texts, and contains both some of the classics of Latin literature as well as more obscure and harder to find works.
If you will be patient with me for a moment as I indulge a bit in my passion for mon autre langue
I would like to draw the attention of all French readers to the Collection des universités de France
also known as the Collection Budé
. This is pretty much the French equivalent, to the Loeb Library except in French and with the orientation of the pages inverted. If you are looking for a specific obscure text I highly recommend checking both series, as, even though they are both a century old, there are still things which one has published and the other has not. For a more specific interest, there is also the series Sources chrétiennes
which, as the name suggests, publishes specifically Christian works.
Steadman's Readers :
Geoffrey Steadman's series of readers for classical works in Greek and Latin are a labour of love sufficient to restore hope in humanity in even the darkest cynic. Available for an ever-expanding series of works, each reader consists of an introduction explaining how to best use the contents, an extensive introduction to the life and context of the author and work, a core vocabulary list, a list of all the grammatical points in the text, the given work with macrons and nearly every word glossed, extensive notes explaining expressions, syntax and grammar as they come up, even more grammatical explanations at the end, a list and explanation of rhetorical devices, a breaking down of the uses of the subjunctive and an alphabatised vocabulary with frequency of every word in the given work. All of these are available for free
as pdfs on his website
and physical copies can also be bought.
So then, what should one read:
Although some might find this offencive, I believe that the Vulgate New Testament is the best thing to read after finishing Familia Romana
. When the translation was made it was specifically designed to be easy to understand and, as such, it provides hundreds of pages of Latin text which, although often easy, is still "real" as opposed to contrived textbook dialogues. I would advise you to get the English-Latin New Testament published by the Dumbarton Oaks Mediaeval Library. The Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Mark are the easiest parts of the New Testament, the two books of St. Luke are probably the most difficult both in terms of vocabulary and syntax with everything else falling somewhere in the middle.
Another recomendation would be the Carmina Bruana
, which is again avaiable in bilingual format from the DOML. This is a collection of songs written by Mediaeval university students in what is now South Tirol in Italy. These songs are all relativly straightforward, fun, offer remarkable insites into the Mediaeval worldview and are in many ways the polar oppisite of the "classics establishment" view of Latin as dull drugery, labourously translating one's way through some text talking at length about the minute details of some place of which one has never heard. Also, if you look up many of the more well known poems from this collection online, you can often find them sung, which enhances one's learning experience. Conclusion :
By the end of Familia Romana
book alone, you will have read more Latin text than Classics majors do at some Anglophone universities. If you read all the books listed above you will have surpassed what some university professors have read. More importantly, however, you will have made solid progress towards what should be the goal of Latin instruction as it should be of all language instruction : being able to think, read, write, understand and speak in Latin with the same fluency, ease and spead as any other language. Do not be satisfied with the level of compitence of the modern classics establishment which teaches students to translate everything and to take an hour to progress through a page. The Latin language deserves to be treated better than that. You deserve to get more than that from your studies.
There is absolutely no reason why it is impossible to learn Latin to the same levels of proficiency as one learns a modern language. Throughout history tens of millions of people have done it, even after the last native speaker died. Even today, if you know where to look, there are large numbers of fluent speakers and many, many more fluent readers. You too can do it. It only requires dedication, the proper mindset and the appropriate method.