is it possible to listen to classical latin prose and understand it on the first try?

kylefoley202

New Member
I can listen to modern Latin and understand most of it on the first try. More precisely, I can understand about 95% of Saturna Lanx's podcasts, 60% of Nuntii Latini (the Finish Broadcast 1998-2018) and about 75% of the Vulgate. I'm not worried about poetry because I can't even understand English poetry such as Shelley's Mask of Anarchy on hearing it on the first try. However, for me there is a huge difference between modern Latin and Classical Latin. The most essential difference is that classical authors will separate the adjective from the noun its modifying by more than 2 words sometimes, likewise for a genetive and the noun that it belongs to. I simply can't understand that. For example, take the following sentence from Quintillian:

Prima est eloquentiae perspecuitas virtute (quoted from memory), which translates to

Clarity (perspecuity) is the chief virtue of eloquence.

So a modern word order would be:

Perspecuitas est prima virtute eloquentiae

For me, it is too difficult to put those words in the right order before the author moves on to the next sentence, and I'm quite skeptical that I will ever be able to surmount this obstacle. Can anyone out there listen to someone read classical prose and understand it on the first try or should I just give up on this goal?
 
Can anyone out there listen to someone read classical prose and understand it on the first try
I personally don't bother with any of this stuff, that is to say speaking & listening to Latin, but I will say:

For us native speakers of English, myself 'monolingual', (I'm assuming you're part of that club), we simply don't have an ear for the sort of inflectional data communicated to such a degree as it is in Latin. That is, for us it is immediately apparent that a speaker has done something "wrong" when he says 'I is very hungry.', but the more intricate parts of morphosyntax (such as you're describing) escape us. Presumably, this stuff is easier for speakers of certain languages, whose morphological complexity is similar to Latin's, to acquire. Maybe Latvians? Who knows.

But its being easier for them certainly doesn't mean it's impossible for you, my friend. I've heard wondertales of people from all over the world doing just the sort of thing we're talking about, but it's anyone's guess as to how obscenely many hours of work they put into it.

Certain authors are inclined to put things a certain way; attuning yourself to the favorite idioms & constructions of a given author would be, I imagine, one of the first & most crucial steps in becoming able to fluently listen. Just as in English you will probably stumble & lose focus if someone uses the word 'behoove' & you don't know what it means/how it works, the same is bound to happen in any language.

Good luck, fellow struggler. :hat:
 

LCF

One of "those" people
Like with anything - it takes time. When I started I was listening to an obscene amount of Latin to the point of having massive headaches. The understanding came much later when sufficient vocabulary was acquired. Good luck.
 

kylefoley202

New Member
@LCF, are you saying that the answer is 'yes'. If so, roughly speaking, how many hours of study did it take before you could understand spoken classical latin?
 

LCF

One of "those" people
@LCF, are you saying that the answer is 'yes'. If so, roughly speaking, how many hours of study did it take before you could understand spoken classical latin?
A few years. With intense study - listening, reading and speaking.
 

cinefactus

Censor
Staff member
I found I could understand Caesar just by listening to it. I find other authors more difficult.
 

kylefoley202

New Member
Quasus, you're going to have to be more precise. I don't know what you're asking.
 

Quasus

Civis Illustris
Uhm... Suppose we've got a classical passage that takes 1 minute to read it out. Can you simply read and understand it in 1 minute? Preferably, following the linear structure of the text, i. e. without occasionally going back. No dictionary, of course.
 

Anbrutal Russicus

Active Member
I suspect I have an answer to this written already at some other internet venue, but basically this comes down to understanding the link between word order, prosody (intonation) and information structure - the latter is conveyed by the former two. If you cannot convey information in Latin the way the natives did, you cannot predict the way those natives conveyed information. Therefore you cannot predict what's going to follow in the text; and if you can't do that, your comprehension is severely impeded. Most of speech is formulaic and most of understanding is predicting via disambiguation and elimination - as you listen, you discard the impossible options based on context, even syllable by syllable, and most of the time you arrive at the correct option well before you hear the finished segment of speech. Mishearing what the other person has said is nothing more than arriving at the wrong option, normally because your brain makes an associative leap to something recently on your mind. It would be unfeasible to understand spoken speech only after hearing the entirety of the sentence, cross-checking all its possible interpretations and finally arriving at the correct meaning, the brain is far too non-linear and slow for this. Besides, there's much inherent ambiguity in ordinary speech which in reality your brain doesn't even register - puns exploit this.

Well, I hope you understand what I'm saying, and if this seems like too much speculation, what I'm saying is theoretically informed to at least some degree, and I find that laying stress on coming to grasp with just that link between word order, prosody and information structure has allowed me to think along with most classical texts the subject matter of which doesn't take me by complete surprise. I wouldn't go as far as saying I can listen to any prose and understand it on the first try though - I don't even necessarily understand all written English prose on the first try, or Russian for that matter.

To take your example: Prima est eloquentiae perspecuitas virtute is a non-sentence - the correct sentence is Nam et prīma est ēloquentiae virtūs perspicuitās, et... The only notable thing happening here is that prīma is contrastively fronted in order to give it informational prominence: 'Clarity is both the main <and not just any> virtue of eloquence, and <moreover>..."' English has contrastive fronting too, but under different circumstances ('I saw that > That is what I saw'), while here it marks the prominence by intonation, which in Latin was probably way less flexible. est regularly follows any fronted word, and otherwise tends to stick to the end of the more prominent phrase. The whole is preceded by the continuity-of-reasoning discourse particle nam and by the conjunction et (coordinated to another et later).

But in the absence of fronting this same word order is still totally standard: in Prīma ēloquentiae virtūs perspicuitās (est) the topic (the given, what the sentence is about) would be prīma ēloquentiae virtūs, the comment (new information, the answer to the question) perspicuitās. The topic precedes the comment, as is usual. The genitive precedes the abstract noun, which is again normal, though virtūs ēloquentiae prīma might actually be the more basic underlying order, with prīma being fronted as more prominent - only this time the fronting concerns the noun phrase only instead of the whole sentence (this is still a debated subject in linguistics). est comes at the end (and can easily be left out) because there's an intonational break between perspicuitās and the rest of the sentence - intonation rises or remains raised up to virtūs, and falls on that word as being the comment. If you wish to give the comment more prominence, you front it (together with est) and get a structure analogous to 'It's clarity that's the main virtue of eloquence', 'It's John whom I saw', only Latin doesn't need the dummy subject it's...that ('John is whom I saw') or even the is whom structure: Gāium Gāia vīdit, nōn Jūlium.
 
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kylefoley202

New Member
@Quasus, I see what you're saying. You're saying that if you can't read Latin and get it on the first try without a dictionary or any other aides then don't expect to be able to listen and understand it on the first try. Good point. So, I guess I'll just wait and see that when/if I get to that stage of being able to read quickly if I can understand quickly.

I should also point out that I can only understand non-fiction in English when listening to it. When I try to listen to an audio book of fiction in English I just can't get it. I can follow along for about 2 minutes, but inevitably my mind drifts off. And this is in spite of having read the most difficult books in fiction that there are.
 

kylefoley202

New Member
@Anbrutal Russicus

I see what you're saying. After a while it gets to a point where you can complete someone's sentence. I can basically do that with the Book of Revelations in Latin. So hopefully, I'll be able to do with other texts soon.
 

Quasus

Civis Illustris
You're saying that if you can't read Latin and get it on the first try without a dictionary or any other aides then don't expect to be able to listen and understand it on the first try.
Well, I don't claim this is universally true. But I've got the impression that when one learns a foreign language in a traditional way--with textbooks, exercises, etc.--reading is the easiest skill. Time constraints are relaxed and the input comes as a finite set of recognizable characters.
 

Anbrutal Russicus

Active Member
What you say about the difficulty of listening to fiction as against reading it, I have a pertinent observation. Classical Latin was written to be recited out loud, preferrably by a trained servant. Modern books probably without exception represent artificial, conventionalised speech intended for visual consumption - compare "he talks like a book". Latin authors had to come up with the conventions of writing largely from oral tradition, at a time when the only Latin written tradition beyond short inscriptions on tableware was legal and religious (no sharp distinction). As such, written Latin is highly representative of the spoken style, even if often elevated. Only Greek could serve as a basis for technical writing due to having had a written tradition spanning half a millenium, but that too I suspect remained mainly oral-based and written to be recited - Cicero's and Seneca's philosophical works in particular borrow from that tradition. The first evidence for silent reading comes from 5th century church fathers iirc.

You know how certain highly functional and successful people can't seem to write two coherent sentences in a row? That's because we don't talk in coherent sentences; almost all modern European languages are highly backwards compatible in translation because they basically have the same well-developed logic of written style, whose origins lie in medieval scholasticism (Medieval Latin often reads like Italian). All the European written traditions are interconnected.

Classical Latin on the other hand is basically rehearsed oratory put on pa...pyrus. Christian writings in contrast represent a later development and are often techical philosophical language rooted in Greek. The Bible is outright a translation from Greek and later from Hebrew, replete with things no native speaker was likely to produce by themselves, sometimes bizzarely so (the translationese all too familiar to non-English natives who consume Anglo-American culture in their language). This is when the analytical, literalistic and logical written style began to take shape in Latin, and a lot of the vocabulary started to acquire the precision familiar to us.

If you read the linguists' transcripts of spoken language, the usual written coherency quickly goes out the window; and that's what happens with those otherwise successful people. What takes the central role is precisely information structure, intonation and unconscious euphony, words come not in some rigid logical order, but in the order of their importance, and how you say things becomes as important as what you say. Sudden parenthetics, asides and topic switches are a constant. It's a language of proximity intended for the in-group, much is left implied, and not saying things can be more powerful than saying them. In this situation gaps in background knowledge acquire an importance comparable to reading modern technical literature, another type of in-group speech.
 
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