In Which I Regret Not Knowing German

For those of you not familiar with the Classics community or who have never taken an upper-level Latin course, allow me to explain one unhappy truth for English-speaking students of Latin: in Classical philology, the Germans reign supreme. Philology, translated loosely from Greek as “the love of learning/reason,” has come to mean the study of a language’s grammar, history and literary tradition, and thus Classical philology deals with the historical and literary tradition of Ancient Greek, Classical Latin, and occasionally Sanskrit. Apparently the 19th century Germans loved this particular vein of learning so much that they made Classical philology a tenet of any complete German higher education. So if a modern-day student is, hypothetically, researching the transition of the Latin language between two different eras as it appears in a particular inscription, a simple search through the Swem article database will yield more than a few results beginning with “Handbuch der Lateinischen…” or “Ausfuhrliche Grammatik der lateinischen…”

Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t carry a personal vendetta against the German language. However, I profess zero familiarity or skill with the German tongue…which has turned out to be quite an unfortunate flaw. Going into this research, I was confident that my four semesters of college-level instruction was enough for me to skillfully navigate any epigraphical territory, even if it meant testing my limits. Imagine my dismay when I discovered while searching through Gordon’s bibliography that many of the explanations and references for the archaic Latin forms found in the Laudatio Turiae come from German authors, authors who hadn’t published since before WWII. Forging ahead, I decided to visit the Library of Congress in the hopes that their resources would help me further my research.

Although I was unable to locate the correct edition of “Handbuch der Lateinischen…,” I did have much more luck with the Oxford Latin Dictionary. Long the savior of Latin scholars, the OLD not only includes the typical definitions of each Latin word but also all variant definitions and connotations, and as if that wasn’t enough, it also lists the ancient works where each variant use can be found, from Apuleis to Vergil! There is a quite a large amount of the Laudatio Turiae that deals in legalese and the separate connotations involved with these legal terms are extremely helpful for developing my research in terms of the content of the inscription. Even with the OLD in hand, I still worried about my inability to translate the German explanations so I reached out to my advisor, Professor Swetnam-Burland. As is her wont to do, she provided me with some amazing advice and thought-provoking questions that have led me to turn my research more towards the cultural context of the tablet and my own interpretation as to why such archaic or unusual forms were used. Thus I believe I am moving into my third phase of research, focusing less on the Latin itself and physical features and more on the meaning carried within the words.


  1. Shannon Fineran says:

    That sounds like an incredibly frustrating problem to have. I can definitely relate to the struggle of language, as a part of my research was conducted in Spanish. It’s funny how semesters of collegiate level language instruction can often still leave you unprepared to deal with certain circumstances. I love idioms of different languages because I believe that it unlocks a lot about the culture of that place. Have you found that these old expressions reflect any important values of the time?