"The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education"

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The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education

Dorothy Sayers explains why Christian, rather than classical Latin should be the focus of a Christian education.

Part I: Dorothy Sayers speaks about her experience learning Latin

...I was born at Oxford, in the fourth year before Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. My father was at that time Headmaster of the Cathedral Choir School, where it was part of his duty to instruct small demons with angel-voices in the elements of the ancient Roman tongue.

...I was rising seven when he appeared one morning in the nursery, holding in his hand a shabby black book, which had already seen some service, and addressed to me the following memorable words: "I think, my dear, that you are now old enough to begin to learn Latin." ... In those dark ages, half a century ago, before modern educational improvements had set in, that was the age at which one did begin to learn Latin. My father, seeing his offspring approach that age, reacted automatically to the situation. In the absence of little boys, he seized upon such infant material as was at hand, and went to work with the customary tool, which was, in fact, Dr. William Smith's Principia.

I was by no means unwilling, because it seemed to me that it would be a very fine thing to learn Latin, and would place me in a position of superiority to my mother, my aunt, and my nurse-though not to my paternal grandmother, who was an old lady of parts, and had at least a nodding acquaintance with the language. My father sat down in the big chair, put his arm round me to restrain me from wriggling and, opening the book, confronted me with the mysterious formula:

mensa: a table

mensa: O table!

mensam: a table

mensae: of a table

mensae: to or for a table

mensa: by, with, or from a table

Presumably at this point he explained that the ancient Romans had had the un-English habit of altering the endings of their nouns according as the case was altered. I have no recollection of finding anything particularly odd about this: I was far too young. Life was full of odd things which one accepted without protest, as simple facts. A dog had four legs, a beetle six, a spider eight: why not? I do remember wondering why anybody should ever want to say "O table"; and I also remember finding it, at some later point, entertaining that a sailor, a poet, or a husbandman should have feminine endings. However, the first three sentences of Exercise I raised none of those social problems, consisting as they did of the simple statements, Filia currit, Filiae currunt, Puellae rosas habent.

The book has now vanished into Limbo along with many other familiar objects of my childhood; but I think that in the course of that first morning's work we arrived at a slightly more complicated and romantic situation, in which Poeta puellae rosas dat

... When we had rendered Exercise I, Part 2, into Latin, my father rose up and went away, leaving the book with me, and recommending that I should commit the declension of mensa to memory. This I immediately did, being at that time of life when the committing to memory of meaningless syllables and inconsequent lists of things is as easy as "Hey-diddle-diddle". I chanted the rigmarole aloud until I was familiar with it, and hastened away to show off my prowess in the kitchen.

From that time on, the Latin lesson became a daily event. I will not pretend that the first fine careless rapture of achievement endured for ever. Dominus, I seem to remember, was well-received, though slightly complicated by neuters; and a new and highly satisfactory chant was soon added to the repertory, which went with a noble swing:

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