“Human Life Is Punishment,” and Other Pleasures of Studying Latin


On Language

From the Cambridge Latin Course 4th Edition.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently enrolled, doesn’t require you to do much of anything. Time is largely unstructured here; as long as your writing gets done, you barely have to get out of bed for two years. When I first realized this, I panicked, and then I registered for an undergraduate course in elementary Latin. I don’t even get academic credit for it. I just wanted something in my life, amidst the subjective muck of the creative process, that I could be objectively good at—the occasional dopamine rush of a check mark, an A grade, a scribbled Great job! from an authority figure—and I remembered being good at Latin.

It had been almost two decades since I last looked at a Latin textbook, but I was optimistic that I’d retained a lot. My seventh-grade Latin textbook left a vivid impression on me. It followed the fictionalized adventures of a real-life Pompeian household (vocab words for the final chapter included volcano, to erupt, smoke, ashes, in despair), and to this day, I remember the whole cast of characters: Caecilius, a banker; Metella, his wife; Grumio, their cook; and Cerberus, the dog, who stays by his master’s side to the very end (RIP, little buddy). I’ll never forget the passage in which Melissa, a newly purchased slave girl, is first presented to the household: my translation was “Melissa pleases Caecilius. Melissa pleases Grumio. Uh-oh—Melissa does not please Metella!” It was pretty juicy material, by seventh-grade standards. (I just Googled these names, so I can tell you that the book was The Cambridge Latin Course: Book 1, and that it has a surprisingly robust fandom on Tumblr.)

My middle school required two years of Latin, and the worse I did socially, the better I did at Latin. At the social nadir of my seventh-grade year, on the heels of my thirteenth birthday and my parents’ divorce, my best friend unexpectedly dumped me dramatically in a crowded school hallway. “You’re a BITCH from HELL,” she shouted in my face, “so FUCK OFF!” I had never had such language directed at me before, and over the following weeks, as I reeled from the shock of the incident, I found myself thinking about it in Latin. The verb vituperare, which can be translated as “to yell at,” “to find fault with,” “to reproach,” “to castigate,” et cetera, summed it all up in a way that no English word could. Amelia me vituperavit, I whispered to myself on the subway, in the crowded school hallway, in the cafeteria where I now ate lunch alone. O Amelia, cur me vituperavisti?

From The Cambridge Latin Course: Book 1.

This obsession continued to the point where I eventually composed an entire Latin paragraph asking Amelia why, indeed, she had me vituperavit. Playfully, I coined the word Cerbera, a feminized form of Cerberus: literally, “female dog from hell”. Idne est verum? Num Cerbera sum? In Latin, I was more vulnerable than I allowed myself to be in English, and though I was angry, at the end of the passage, I surprised myself by asking Amelia to be my friend again. The process was very therapeutic.

Then I emailed her the whole thing over AOL.

I don’t know what I had expected, but I was crushed when she wrote back informing me that there was no way she was going to translate all that (somehow, I had lost sight of the fact that she would have to), and that, furthermore, I was “so weird.” We never spoke again.

At the end of that year, I scored 110 percent on the Latin final. Even the teacher, a kind, soft-spoken man named Kai Ashante Wilson, seemed concerned by the fervor with which I’d thrown myself into this dead language. He never played favorites, but on the last day of school, he took me aside and gave me a special present: an illustrated Latin guide for kids, so that I could study Latin on my own over the summer. I was moved almost to tears. But when I got home and opened the book, I realized it was a poorly edited entry in a cheap series designed to teach non-dead languages. Each chapter contained increasingly surreal instructions for achieving oral fluency: visit Latin-speaking communities, the book suggested, and practice conversation with native Latin speakers. I’d make Latin-speaking friends in no time!

I decided not to continue studying Latin in high school. It met at the same time as chorus, and of the two, Latin seemed more dangerous—a seductively solitary pursuit that could, like drugs, swallow up anyone who enjoyed it too much.

The University of Iowa uses a different textbook, Wheelock’s Latin, for the beginner classes. I miss Caecilius and Metella and the whole doomed Pompeian gang, but Wheelock (as we chummily personify the text) has his own pleasures, especially for those of us who spent the bulk of our academic careers studying living languages. Here are some sentences you’re likely to encounter in beginner French or Spanish:

I would like a salad.

This is a pencil.

Where is the library?

Here are some actual sentences that appear, context-free, in the first few chapters of Wheelock:

You are in great danger.

Few men have true friends, and few are deserving of them.

Human life is punishment.

Our translation exercises are epic, portentous, full of grandeur and violence. Wheelock is particularly preoccupied with the idiom poenas dare, which he translates as “to pay the penalty.” People in Wheelock are always paying the penalty for their anger, their greed, their foolishness. “You are all to blame, thunders one sentence, “and tomorrow you will pay the penalty. As with all of Wheelock’s sentences, you can easily imagine it delivered by a Hollywood super villain. Seize him, you fools!

The author’s desk in Iowa City

My class meets for an hour at ten thirty every morning, and as I labor to decipher our daily Wheelockian pronouncements, I remember why I loved Latin to begin with. Each sentence is a little puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube of words to be rearranged into their proper order based on arcane rules and hidden clues. There’s a creative thrill, too, in the task of transforming Latin into English, the miniature power trip of deciding whether to translate superare as “to rise above,” “to overcome,” “to conquer,” or even—if I’m feeling saucy—“to fucking crush.” The relative sparseness of Latin vocabulary makes me savor the richness of English all the more.

English is constantly on my mind in Latin class. Unlike non-dead languages, Latin places no pressure on the beginner student to outgrow the training wheels of one’s native language. Spontaneous conversation is not the goal, and thank the gods for that. Even at the highest levels, all Latin study is undertaken with an eye toward translation. In this respect, it hardly qualifies as “learning a language” at all; it has more in common with my mother’s addiction to those maddening cryptic crosswords in The Nation. Or, for that matter, her fondness for the crime novels of Walter Mosley and Michael Connelly. Every Latin sentence is a mystery to be solved, and the joy of translation, as with all detective fiction, is the promise that life can be untangled and reorganized into something neat and orderly.

More than anything, though, I love Latin because it has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with anything in my life. Classics evangelists who argue for the practical utility of Latin, its historical significance and English vocabulary-building potential, are profoundly missing the point: Latin is fun because all its native speakers are dead and will never have to meet you. Even if you could communicate with them through space and time, and even if your Latin skills were up to the task, what could you possibly say that would mean anything to them? You, personally, have no place in Latin. As far as Latin is concerned, you don’t matter; you don’t even exist. Studying Latin is an exercise in ego death.

I’m realizing now that this must have been what drew me to Latin in the seventh grade, when I wanted nothing more than to flee my own existence. Today, at the age of thirty, I enjoy my existence much more, but there’s still something to be said for starting every day with an hour of structured self-annihilation, especially when one is meant to spend the rest of the day working on a novel. I suspect that Kai Ashante Wilson, my gentle Latin teacher from middle school, would agree: I just Googled him and discovered that he is now a Hugo- and Nebula Award–nominated science-fiction author.

Seeing this news, I laughed with delight—who’d have guessed it?—and felt a new appreciation for the best part of Latin: not studying it, but leaving it behind. At the end of every class, when I pack up Wheelock and step into the bright light of an Iowa City morning, I am ready to inhabit the world again. I am ready to superare it all. I might even be ready to write about it.


James Frankie Thomas is the author of The Showrunner, which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. His writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.