Lingua Latina viva est. ‘The Latin language is alive.’ Most English-speakers reading the Latin phrase will have a ready understanding of the individual words (lingua, viva), and the simple sentence might even arouse a recognition that this is a language one can learn to speak as well as read. I was introduced to Latin at the age of seven by an inspiring schoolmaster called John Evans, who strode into the classroom, sketched a profile face on the blackboard, and declared: ‘Haec est puella. Amo puellam.’ I was elated to realise that I immediately and without instruction understood this to mean: ‘This is a girl. I love the girl.’ The change in form from puella to puellam struck me as no less obvious than the change in the English pronoun in ‘He is the teacher, I love him’ (Ille magister est, amo illum).
I was instantly hooked on Latin. But the idea that Latin could be a spoken language receded as, over the years that followed, I immersed myself in Latin grammar, syntax and vocabulary, and in translating literary and poetic works with pen and dictionary at hand. To me, Latin no longer meant ‘Amo puellam’ but Amo, amas, amat. I gradually imbibed a deep-seated prejudice about the idea that Latin could or should be spoken as a living language. How could one imagine that a supposedly ‘dead’ language, which had evolved into living French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and Portuguese, might be used for oral communication? How should one pronounce the cae- in caelum (sky): kai, as it was in Rome of the 1st century BCE, or che, as used in Christian liturgy and modern Italian? Should one adopt the style of Cicero or Seneca, the colloquialisms of Catullus or Petronius, or would one have to be resigned to a neo-Latin mixture?