Sunday, February 20, 2022


Connecticut Latin

Dumas Malone, The Sage of Monticello (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981), pp. 190, 192 (the Sage is Thomas Jefferson):
During his presidency he stated that he never read translations, but, since he had a good many of them, it would doubtless be more correct to say that he much preferred to read originals. He was at home in French, Italian, and Spanish, and stressed their importance, but he regarded Greek as the finest of human languages. He said that Homer must ever remain the first of poets until a language "equally ductile and copious shall again be spoken."20

He was much interested in the pronunciation of classical Greek, and had made special efforts to ascertain this in Paris, where he learned the pronunciation of modern Greek from persons who spoke it. Though he accepted this as something of a guide, he fully recognized that, since sound is "more fugitive than the written letter," there must have been very considerable change after so long a time. He did not really hope ever to recapture the voices of Homer and Demosthenes, but he never ceased to regard Greek as a notably euphonious language. He quoted it frequently to John Adams, though in letters to persons of lesser learning  he generally contented himself with Latin.21

He accepted the Italian pronunciation of Latin and seems to have harbored little doubt of its authenticity. In the last year of his life he bemoaned the necessity of admitting "shameful Latinists" to the classical school (department) of the University of Virginia, being specially disturbed by the pronunciation they brought with them. Thus he said: "We must rid ourselves of this Connecticut Latin, of this barbarous confusion of long and short syllables, which renders doubtful whether we are listening to a reader of Cherokee, Shawnee, Iroquois, or what."22

He appears to have said much less about Latin as a language than about Greek, but, while something of a stickler about its pronunciation, he was not one about its grammar. Outside the realm of poetry his favorite among the Roman writers was Tacitus, of whom he said: "It is by boldly neglecting the rigorisms of grammar that Tacitus has made himself the strongest writer in the world. The Hypercritics call him barbarous; but I should be sorry to exchange his barbarisms for their wire-drawn purisms. Some of his sentences are as strong as language can make them. Had he scrupulously filled up the whole of their syntax. they would have been merely common.23 He was nearing eighty when he said this. A decade earlier he had made a similar observation: "Fill up all the ellipses and syllepses of Tacitus, Sallust, Livy, etc., and the elegance and force of their sententious brevity are extinguished."24

20 TJ to John Waldo, Aug. 16, 1813 (L. & B., XIII, 341; cited by Sowerby, IV, 412).

21 The appearance of a pamphlet on the pronunciation of Greek occasioned him to discuss the subject with Adams, Mar. 11, 1819, with John Brazier, Aug. 14, 1819, and with others.

22 To W.B. Giles, Dec. 16, 1825 (Ford, X, 357).

23 TJ to Edward Everett, Feb. 24, 1823 (L. & B., XV. 414-415).

25 To John Waldo, Aug. 16, 1813 (L. & B., XIII, 339).
I was probably one of Jefferson's "shameful Latinists." I remember that one of my exercises in Latin Prose Composition at the University of Virginia was criticized by the instructor as "Yankee Latin."

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