06 DECEMBER 2019

The Latin of 'the man on the street': exploring unfiltered Latin through Roman graffiti

The Latin of 'the man on the street': exploring unfiltered Latin through Roman graffiti

Image by Amadalvarez [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

When a student asks The Big Question at the beginning of class, “Quid hodie agemus,” we all strive to answer it with something cool, unique, and distinctive, and then we bravely plod on to the new grammar point, the new cultural point, or the new historical point, sometimes all three in the same class. We count on our enthusiasm to carry the day, and hope that everyone is tuned in to our dynamic lesson and not lost streaming a video on their laptop, tablet, or phone.

This is the new reality, not just for Latin teachers but for all teachers. Yet teacher enthusiasm can be a powerful force, and nothing can stoke such enthusiasm as teaching something in which there’s a strong interest, on both the teacher and students’ part.

I once made the suggestion in class that I’d love to have a recording of the Latin spoken by the proverbial 'man on the street.' I’d love to hear pure, unfiltered spoken Latin, the Latin of the common person, vulgar Latin, the Latin that became the Romance languages.

I think Vergil and Cicero, two of our Latin paragons, in their unguarded moments engaged in conversation that was very different to their literary style, and much more like the spoken Latin that I’m interested in here. In addition, Romans like Vergil and Cicero appeal to me because I think they liked a good joke, had a good sense of humor (except, maybe, the elder Cato), and probably laughed a lot.

You don’t see this lighter side of them in most textbooks, and any conversations shared by them, except for the plays of Plautus and Terence, are told in the stark, authorial style that is understood as classical Latin. But not to worry; there is a form of conversational Latin that we can pry into.

It’s a bit one-sided, but it’s there. It exists in the graffiti found in places such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. This is as unguarded and pure as it gets, and it was either painted or scratched into the surface of a wall to advertise a place of lodging, a bar, a person running for office, a gladiatorial contest, or any number of things.

If we want authentic unfiltered Latin, this is about as authentic as it gets. 

In the past several years, a few books featuring graffiti and Roman inscriptions have come on the market. Rick LaFleur’s book Scribblers, Sculptors, and Scribes can be adapted for use with almost any text. LaFleur divides his inscriptions and graffiti into chapters and in his usual droll way describes a unique setting for each. His book would work well on a Friday as a fun week-ending cultural lesson.

Another book, Matt Hartnett’s By Roman Hands, like LaFleur uses both inscriptions and graffiti, and arranges his examples into grammatical sections. So if you’re teaching the perfect tense, he features graffiti that uses perfect tense verbs.

And so, for the purpose of authenticity, for genuine spoken Latin, the raw graffiti posts can’t be beat. While some graffiti can get a bit lewd, just avoid those for classroom purposes and keep them for your own enjoyment. They prove something that’s important to me, that the ancients were very much like us, and laughed at the same things we do.

So the next time a student asks “Quid hodie agemus,” you can look him square in the eye and say, “aliquid ut tibi delectabit.”

Bill Geiger has been teaching Latin for 43 years. He has a BA in Classical Languages and Education and holds Master’s Degrees in Classical Languages, English, and Environmental Education. He has been teaching Latin full time at La Salle for the past fifteen years.

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