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Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language by Nicola Gardini

Who knew a book on language could be so freshly informative and inspirational?

At first glance, Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language seems like an odd language primer, or an academic’s attempt to glamourise an obscure subject. But once you read it, you’ll see yourself falling in love with it rather quickly. It is a passionate defence of the study of Latin, and an ode to the enduring cultural legacy of Ancient Rome.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education made known its plans to modify the NCEA curriculum, counting Latin and Classical Studies as some of the subjects to be scrapped from the syllabus altogether. After all, for most utilitarians, Latin is a “dead language” and of no real use to the modern world. For some sentimental scholars, Latin is an essential aspect of Western Civilisation, and therefore of value to the education of future generations. This debate, which has been going since the last century in other parts of the world, could very well profit by critical perspectives like those shared by Gardini, a professor of Italian Literature at the University of Oxford and award-winning novelist and poet.

Measuring knowledge through the index of “usefulness,” is problematic, Gardini argues. It is essentially a reductionist approach because it hardly considers the true meaning of education: the formation of the human individual. The humanities and the sciences are fields of knowledge that differ but can also interconnect in some ways. Each area offers something the other cannot.

In Long Live Latin, Gardini articulates the intricacies of Latin grammar and vocabulary, the complexities and pleasures of language acquisition and translation, the joys of reading and contemplating Latin, and the Latin foundations of Western civilisation and its lore. Shakespeare’s writings depended heavily on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and John Milton’s Paradise Lost were modelled on the epic par excellence, Virgil’s Aeneid.

Gardini guides the reader through his argument by paying tribute to the rich Classical literary tradition, reminding us that literature in Ancient Rome was an essential way of transmitting memories and shaping thought. Amongst the cultural gems that Gardini analyses are the poetry of Ovid and Horace, the satire of Juvenal, the rhetoric of Lucretius, the profanity of Catullus, the reflections of Livy, the Stoic philosophy of Seneca, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine. Gardini maintains that Latin is indeed still relevant today, ever-present in all fields of knowledge and areas of life ranging from scientific terminology to the prayers of the Catholic Mass.

In his reflections, Gardini’s reveals how unlocking a language led him down the rabbit hole of its literature, history, politics, religion, and ways of life. Learning Latin transformed him and his life, and his curiosity and passion for the language is palpable. He provides a plethora of passages, insights into literary analysis and translation, helpful etymological notes, and pointers for beginning Latin language study.

Gardini’s musings on the Latin language are a glorious harmony of light-hearted personal memories, cultural history, and linguistic commentary. While literati and students in the Humanities would be the first to appreciate it, I believe everyone should read Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language, regardless of their chosen subjects, university majors, and professions. Learning the language of Ancient Rome is an invitation to expand our knowledge and understanding of self by examining a vast, unique compendium of thought and tradition. Latin is good for the soul, so demonstrates Gardini, and now would be the time to start saving it and savouring it. The ideas, emotions, and images of Latin thinkers and creators are a formidable chapter in the great palimpsest of human history.

Reviewer: Azariah Alfante

Allen & Unwin, RRP $36.99


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