When I was in high school many, many years ago, the language I studied was Latin. (That should give you a good idea of just how long ago that was.) Some time in the fourth year, when we were reading Vergil and doing translation exercises, I noticed that no one’s translations sounded like anything we would normally say. Instead they sounded rather more like the English of the Bible and the the Prayer Book. (I was raised an Episcopalian.)
And it bothered me.
As you can imagine from my recounting this experience decades later, it was an ah-ha moment for me. I got an early glimpse into just how centrally important reference materials are to the student of a dead language.
But even with that it wasn’t until March of 1995 when Geoff Nunberg, doing his semi-regular piece on Fresh Air, reviewed the release of an album of Elvis songs in Latin, that the full implications hit home. (The piece can be found here.)
A short version of Prof. Nunberg’s review goes like this. He pointed out that we tend to think of Latin as a kind of polite, vaguely British exercise. (He called it Edwardian.) That view is possibly best epitomized by Winne Ille Pu (Winnie the Pooh in Latin — and, yes, I still have the copy I got in the 1960’s when it first appeared). But this is really not a true picture of Romans at all. We have lost sight of the fact that Romans were Latin, as in Latin lover and Latin America. Prof. Nunberg’s review pointed out that Elvis’s lounge songs translated into Latin do remarkably well, because the songs are, well, Latin.
This, of course, set me off re-thinking all of my classical education.
Suddenly Cicero’s Cataline orations sounded to me like the DA in Palermo bringing charges against a major Mafia don.
Caesar seemed like just another ego-obsessed Latin American dictator.
I started to hear Latin in my head sounding like it was spoken by the characters in Mediterráneo.
Why am I telling you this?
Because the thing about learning dead languages is that there is no corrective for misleading views of what the meanings, implications, and worldview are. If you study German and go to Germany, your mistakes are quickly apparent. There’s a lot of “Oh, so THAT’s what that means”. But not so with Greek and Hebrew. We have to supply the corrective ourselves.
That’s why I was so mad at Mel Gibson. He completely blew his chance to show us what it was really sounded like in The Passion of the Christ.
Aramaic from that era should have sounded like Arabic, both in having the pharyngeal sounds that make Arabic sound strangled to our ears, and in having a wide range of intonation. There should have been no Latin to speak of. Everyone in the Eastern Empire was speaking Greek as the lingua franca. And the whole thing should have been louder and much, much more emotional.
Keep this in mind as you study Greek or Hebrew. You can learn enough to read the Bible without a pony and still hear the KJV in the back of your head. You can read the Greek and still come away thinking in terms of twentieth century theology.
No, these writers were Jews, Italians, and Greeks. Much more Levantine. Much more animated and rougher around the edges than we take as proper in our churches nowadays.
Don’t get me wrong. There are great rewards for the investment in learning Greek and Hebrew, but the biggest lesson to learn is not how to parse the verb forms or how to recognize apparently odd uses of singular agreement with neuter plurals.
The biggest lesson is to learn how to let the text speak for itself, lest you think you’re hearing the original but you end up where angels fear to tread.