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'Living with a Dead Language' proves that Latin isn't really dead at all

Why one New York book publisher decided to spend her retirement years mastering the language of the Roman Empire.

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Living with a Dead Language:
My Romance with Latin
By Ann Patty
Penguin Publishing Group
256 pp.

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When the recession struck in 2008, Ann Patty’s employer downsized, forcing her to retire at 58 from her job as a high-powered editor for a major publishing house. She was financially secure, but the transition from Manhattan to a permanent home in rural New York proved challenging. There was, first and foremost, the question of how she would spend her time.

Patty decided to learn Latin, and Living with Dead Language is the chronicle of her odyssey to understand the language of the Roman Empire. If this doesn’t sound like a fun way to pass one’s golden years, then maybe it’s because Latin, as taught in grade school, has often been something to endure rather than enjoy. Patty says as much in recollecting her own Latin class in junior high, taught by a man considered “the weirdest, most boring teacher in school.”

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But as a longtime wordsmith fascinated by her native language, Patty thought of returning to Latin as a kind of homecoming. “I had missed Latin.... How much better would I understand words, grammar and syntax if I went back to the mother of Western tongues? I could, at long last, complete my education.”

Despite the title of Patty’s book, the abiding lesson of “Living with a Dead Language” is that Latin isn’t really dead at all. It runs strong and deep just beneath the surface of English, visible to anyone curious enough to pull up a length of prose, shake off the dirt, and see the roots that sustain modern speech.

These lovely italic strands wind through Patty’s memoir like lengths of ivy, a presence so common that we come to understand, page after page, how much we’re still living with Latin, day by day. Alibi, we’re told, comes from a Latin word for “elsewhere.” Alias comes from a Latin term for “other.” “Dilettante” derives from delecto, delectare, meaning “to delight, charm, interest.”  When we speak or read or write, we are, inevitably, connecting with a voice not that different from Plutarch’s, Pliny’s, or Cato’s.

Patty isn’t the first retiree to find anxiety in a country retreat, turning to the Latin masters as sources of insight and instruction. Michel de Montaigne did much the same thing in the 16th century, essentially creating the personal essay to record his experiences. Like Montaigne, Patty often writes about one subject as a way of writing about many others. “Living with a Dead Language” is ostensibly about Latin, but it also concerns Patty’s late mother, a talented Latin student who died too early because retirement bored her; Patty’s recollections of a lifetime in publishing; and vignettes from the new life and love she finds as a city mouse-turned-country-mouse. A narrative with this many spinning plates is a tough one to keep in balance, and there are times in “Living with a Dead Language” when Patty doesn’t quite pull it off. The story occasionally lags, as when Patty walks readers through the logistics of enrolling in Latin classes at nearby universities.

But bright bits of fact dot the landscape of “Living with a Dead Language,” teasing us forward. “The Roman day was divided into twelve daylight hours of unequal duration, depending on the season,” Patty tells readers. “A summer hour might last seventy-five minutes, a winter hour only forty-five....” In this way, Romans connected the perception of time to sunlight, a way of seeing that continues to shape our sense of an hour, even in the age of electricity. A summer day still seems longer, though we now clock it at 24 hours, all the same.

Learning Latin, as Patty’s book reminds readers, is a way of grasping not only how Romans spoke and wrote, but how they thought – and how, quite often, we still think today. She hints at that, too, in the title, when she refers to living with, and not simply learning, Latin. Her goal is not merely to understand Latin, but to inhabit it.

“Living with a Dead Language” invites obvious comparison with “Flirting with French,” William Alexander’s 2014 book about tackling a new language later in life. Although science reveals that learning a new language is tougher for those of us ripened by years, Patty and Alexander suggest the effort might be worth it.

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“Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgement,” the Roman orator Cicero wrote centuries ago. “And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age.”  Patty, in tackling Cicero’s own language, has proven his point.                                                          

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”