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Spoken Latin: Equus and What it Means to Live
By Alicia Lopez
In my senior year of high school, all seniors were required to take an English seminar, a one semester class that explored some “passion project” of a member of the English department. One teacher taught detective fiction, another taught Gothic literature. I signed up for Modern Drama. Throughout the year, we read modern classics like Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Thomas Albee’s absolutely stunning Who’s Afraid of Virgnia Woolf, and also plays I had never heard of, including Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which the class correctly deemed “really weird.” Yet, four years later, it is without a doubt the play we read in that class that stuck with me most.
The play, perhaps known to you because of its crucial part in getting oddly sensual Daniel Radcliffe horse pictures on the internet, centers around a young boy, Alan Strange, who is brought in for psychological evaluation after blinding six horses. Throughout the play (which you should really read or at the very least watch the 1977 film version of the same title), Alan’s psychologist, Drysart, who has a fascination with Greek mythology, struggles to determine the best course of “treatment” for Alan, all the while fighting his own admiration for the boy’s near-religious devotion to horses.
Alan has developed a ritual which he performs every three weeks. He reverently covers each hoof in burlap sack to keep the hooves from sounding against the floor, he sets up the reigns, then leads the horse to “the field of ha-ha,” where he feeds the horse a sugar cube and rides it around naked for an hour, engulfed in personal freedom and the feelings of pure ecstasy.
Obviously, Alan’s connection with horses and self-developed rituals are not “normal.” His passion, connection, and pure gumption to truly and unabashedly fully engage in an activity he loves, however, force therapist Drysart to come to a personal realization: while he, Drysart, builds his life around his passion for Ancient Greece, often spending his evenings flipping through books and adorning his home with statuettes of Greek divinities, he only truly lives during his three weeks vacation to the Greek peninsula. Drysart’s passion for ancient Greece, a constant love that is only really realized three weeks a year, stands in contrast to Alan’s once-every-three weeks midnight riding. I’ve found the divide between spoken Latin and traditional Latin teaching to be similar to that between Alan and Drysart.
In high school I first discovered spoken Latin through the Virginia Governor’s Latin Academy (GLA), a state-funded summer program for high school Latin students. I attended GLA the summer after my sophomore year, and there I took a class in which we tried to only speak in Latin. Our wonderful teacher, Magister Gallagher, encouraged us to try our best, and we quickly learned that while we knew about a dozen words for “sword,” we didn’t even know how to ask “do you have any pets?” We found Latin composition challenging; even though I had been taking Latin for five years, there were so many basics I didn’t know because I had never tried speaking.
Upon returning home at the end of the program, I decided to create a spoken Latin program and thus, Latina Loquenda was born. I organized meetings, made a Facebook group, gave announcements at state certamen events, and texted all the Latin kids I knew. Spectacularly, people actually came. 8 people, 12 people, even as many as 20 people traveled across the state (and sometimes from the neighboring state of Maryland) to eat dinner and speak only in Latin. It was exhilarating and I found my understanding of Latin grammar and knowledge of Latin vocabulary expanded greatly.
Granted, we were not speaking perfect Latin—far from it. Cicero would definitely not approve. But that wasn’t what was really important. We were there because we had fun speaking in Latin and as an added bonus, learned a lot. At these dinners, we discussed everything from our classes, to the weather, to our upcoming weekend plans, making up words for “cell phone,” “chocolate,” and other essentials that none of our Latin textbooks had taught us. The program expanded throughout the state, including programs in Richmond and Fredericksburg as well as within Northern Virginia.
Throughout my two years running the program, I talked to a lot of middle and high school Latin teachers. While some readily spoke in Latin in their classrooms, others never did. It seemed there were two main schools of thought. One, the group that taught in Latin or at least had a spoken Latin section, argued that there were major benefits of students practicing speaking Latin (e.g., grammar understanding) while the others claimed a more traditional, translation-based course ensured people read more of the classic Latin texts and that speaking Latin wasn’t worth doing because Latin in a dead language.
I really love Latin literature. I love reading Ovid, Seneca, Lucan, and all the other greats, but to me, my Latin education would not be complete without an aspect of speaking with real, living people. Reading the books and practicing translation is a crucial part of studying Latin, but without the addition of spoken Latin, to me, it is like only venerating the great Classical authors, holding them up on some high-up, unreachable pedestal without truly interacting with them on their own terms (i.e., in Latin).
I want to interact with the language and shape it to fit my own thoughts. I want to embrace the admittedly eccentric course and speak the dead language. The Latin language, like horses in Equus was not made to be examined and studied as a dead language, it was made to be spoken. I, like Alan, want to be able to truly interact with my object of passion by taking it off the shelf and putting it to use. I want to know the sensation of trying the ancient words out in my own mouth, of casually conversing in it, of taking Latin and using it not just to translate other people’s words, but to craft my own. For it is only through Latin composition—written and conversational—that we can more fully understand the language itself and with it those who wrote and spoke it.
Alicia Lopez (College ’22) is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who studied Classical Studies and English.