Stopping by: At Linfield, Latin lives on

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.


Linfield College Latin class

Marcus Larson/News-Register
Latin offers students “a better handle on the power of their own language,” Richardson said. “The stronger their English, the better off they’ll be about getting their ideas across.”

By Starla Pointer of the News-Register


By both its own definition and the definition of Linfield College language students, Latin is fabulous.

“Fabulous literally means ‘worthy of a story,’” said Malley Nason, one of 10 students studying beginning Latin this winter. Like many other commonly used English word, it comes directly from a Latin one — fabulosus.

“That’s something that makes this class fascinating — learning the entomology of words we use every day,” she said.

Nason and her classmates don’t plan to walk around speaking Latin on campus, and they won’t be able to find any movies in Latin on Netflix. But they see it as an invaluable asset to their other studies and their everyday command of English, as well.

“Latin is teaching me about how we build sentences, why this is the direct object, what the verb is telling you,” said Nason, a chemistry major. “It’s like a magnifying glass for the English language.”

Caren Siegel, a creative writing major, added, “I’m learning there are more words I don’t know than I thought. And I’m learning more about the words I thought I knew. It’s fascinating.”

And Michaela Duffey, a French major, said Latin also fits in nicely with her other language studies. French, Italian and Spanish are directly descended from Latin.

“Taking Latin has been on my bucket list,” said Michaela Duffey, a freshman majoring in French.

Professor Peter Richardson, who teaches the winter course and other, more advanced, Latin classes, would be pleased to hear students credit learning Latin with improving their English. The ancient language is a creature quite distinct from the foreign languages taught in other Linfield classes.

Students learn German, Spanish, French or Japanese so they can speak them for traveling, translating and doing business. “Latin is different. They won’t all be ambassadors to the Vatican,” he said.

Latin is more about the thought process, he said. It makes students look very carefully at the parts of each word.

“It gives them a better handle on the power of their own language,” he said. “The stronger their English, the better off they’ll be about getting their ideas across.”

If the professor and his students had a rallying cry, it would be this: “Vivat lingua latina!”

In other words, “Long live Latin.”

Students started on the first page of their textbook, “Pan et Syringa,” on Jan. 6. They spent three hours a day in class, two in the morning and one after lunch; after class, they may spend another six hours a day on homework. The pace is rapid: one chapter a day.

By the end of the second week, they were able to translate sentences such as “Today, good father, the power of the queen’s palace will freeze the gods’ flames and change Thebes into a sacred town” — “Hodie, pater bone, potentia regiae reginae flammas deorum congelabit et Thebas in oppidum sanctum mutabit.”

Although not a sentiment they expect to use outside Latin class, they’re proud to have the skills to write it. And they love the class — and the professor — even though both are tough.

“I don’t think my brain has worked so hard in awhile,” Siegel said.

Indeed, the syllabus for Elementary Latin I warns students numerous times that they’ll need to apply themselves.

“STUDY HARD!! VERY HARD!!” Richardson writes in the syllabus. “Study every second that you’re not in class. If not, you will do horribly. Believe me! Not for one second think you can slack off.”

Richardson explained that learning Latin requires memorizing many, many vocabulary words, which is why he recommends students make flash cards in order to practice. It also requires training oneself to pay close attention to words and parts of words, and practicing critical thinking.

“Native speakers of the language are hard to come by these days, and there is a general lack of taped broadcast material,” he writes in the syllabus. “Thus we will not be doing much speaking of Latin or listening to things like the debates in the Roman Forum or divine discussions on Mount Olympus. One could say that our task will be to learn to decode.”

Richardson started a recent class like always, with a song — “Gaudeamus Igitur,” which he described as an old student song sung for centuries throughout Europe’s universities.

Next, students worked on vocabulary, sentence structure, verb tense and agreement, pronunciation and other aspects of language. They translated sentences from English to Latin and created original sentences. They talked about how changing one word — make a noun plural, for example — requires other words to change.

“What makes a whole thought?” Richardson asked as the class reviewed translations written on the chalkboard. “What’s the difference between a declarative sentence and a question?”

As students continued working, the professor pointed out a plural here and reminded about the nominative case there. He paused to discuss the translation of another of those sentences only heard in Latin class, “There was a bull whose shapely limbs were very pleasing to the women.”

“Are the women pleasing? Or is it the limbs that are pleasing?” he asked, noting that a slightly different ending can vastly alter the meaning of a word and a sentence.

He also focused on “there.” While English speakers use “there” to mean either location or existence, Latin has two separate words.

Later, students took turns reading and translating a story written in Latin, “Marcus et Samis, pueri mali,” which could be titled in English, “Two Little Thugs.” They groaned with disappointment when class ended before they’d learned the fate of Marcus and Samis.

Throughout each session, Richardson helps bring Latin alive for the students. He said he tries to help them visualize the language — using a role of wax paper, for instance, to explain he word “cera,” which refers to wax, like the paper; and “secare” which refers to cutting, like the serrated saw-toothed metal strip used for tearing paper off the roll.

In another visual example, Richardson crossed his arms like a praying monk. “The pretzel talk!” Nason and Siegel recalled, laughing.

Students remember it well: How discussion of the word brachium, meaning arm or limb, led to a story about monks making beer and, to accompany it, baking crusty pretzels shaped to remind them of prayers.

Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all.

“I want to talk about culture, history; give them as much as possible,” Richardson said.

He also demonstrates real-world uses of Latin through Phillip J. Pirages’ Fine Books and Medieval Manuscripts catalog, which contains photos and descriptions of pages that are hundreds of years old. Some of his Latin classes take field trips to Pirages’ local studio, as well — a reward at the end of the term, the professor said.

Freshman Brett Tomlinson, who is majoring in the classics, said he’s intrigued by the historical and cultural aspects of the Latin class, as well as the language part. He plans to continue studying the language next semester and later add Greek, as well.

“This is the basis of all Western culture,” he said. “How could I not be interested?


Starla Pointer has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or