Connecticut Latin.

Via Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti, Dumas Malone reports on the attitude of Thomas Jefferson toward the classical languages:

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.”

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.

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.”

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. 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.”

Gilleland adds:

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.”


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Peeving about Tacitus’ grammar. Now that’s hardcore. (“These young writers of today, always missing words out. I don’t know what the world’s coming to. Now in my day we had proper Ciceronian periods. Went on for hours. These young ‘uns have got no attention span, from all this texting* … I blame that Sallust. It’ll lead to a decline and fall, mark my words.”)

    [Peeving about Livy’s style, at least as far as the grammar goes, is just weird. Did anybody actually do that, or did Jefferson make it up?]


  2. “Hypercritics”? Why don’t I and everyone use that word?

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Why, when Zoilists is so well established already?

  4. By the way, let me wish everyone a happy Dydd Gŵyl Dewi.

  5. David Eddyshaw says


  6. I’d never wondered about the etymology of ‘stickler’ before, and now I’ve learnt the pleasing verb ‘to stickle’. Result.

    So this ‘Connecticut Latin’ is basically the reconstructed classical pronunciation? I think then that Jefferson would have completely flipped out and regretted his curiosity when confronted with the reconstructed Greek.

  7. capra internetensis says

    The referee of a Cornish wrestling match is called the stickler.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Odd etymology.

    There is in any case a German verb sticheln “annoy all the time, troll”, former frequentative of stechen “sting”.

  9. Connecticut Latin? Isn’t that “Qui transtulit sustinet”? 🙂

    Actually, it should be a nearby academy where I send my non-existent scions before they break family tradition (of one generation) by going to that school down the road that starts with a Y.

  10. “I remember that one of my exercises in Latin Prose Composition at the University of Virginia was criticized by the instructor as ‘Yankee Latin.'”

    Classical Latin is a dead language and has been so for well over a thousand years. From the moment it became the second language of Europe’s medieval scholars and clerics, it became “German Latin” or “Hungarian Latin” – or the “Italian Latin” of the Church.

    And so, “Yankee Latin” is as legitimate an interpretation of Latin as any other.

  11. Not in Virginia it isn’t!

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    @Craig, the oldest currently-extant school in New Haven, Hopkins (est. 1660), was originally named Hopkins Grammar School, with “grammar school” being a more common designation going back to older times in England than “Latin school” — i.e. the grammar that a grammar school taught was not that of English but that of Latin and possibly also of Greek.

    Elsewhere in Ct., the school currently known as “Hartford Public High School” is even older than Hopkins (and unlike Hopkins is free to attend) but seems to have abandoned its 17th-century classical curriculum. The Hartford city schools do, however, offer a much more recently founded “Classical Magnet School” for those who want Latin to be a mandatory part of the curriculum. Apparently that was as of a few decades ago an optional “track” within HPHS but was spun out into its own freestanding building 15 or 20 years ago. Here’s a nice story about a teacher there who herself grew up in the projects and thinks the classical approach is suitable for kids from non-posh backgrounds.

  13. “I remember that one of my exercises in Latin Prose Composition at the University of Virginia was criticized by the instructor as ‘Yankee Latin.’”

    Given that we’re dealing with a prose composition, it makes more sense for this criticism to apply to perceived flaws in the Latinity of his efforts rather than his pronunciation.

    As for the legitimacy of different traditions of pronouncing Latin (or Greek), I don’t begrudge people the utility of whatever ‘pronunciation of convenience’ is prevalent in their country as long as it is explicitly presented as such. It’s pretty annoying to meet (as I have on quite a few occasions) even graduates in Classics (mainly Greeks and Italians) who have literally no notion that the ancient languages were not pronounced as the modern. I don’t know why, really, but I find there’s an immense beauty in studying the phonology of a long-dead language and in some cases (as with Latin and Greek) being able to arrive at a respectable enough pronunciation for words and phrases used thousands of years ago.

  14. David Marjanović says

    the “Italian Latin” of the Church

    Even that is (outside of Italy, obviously) a 19th-century thing, and it’s by no means as universal as it’s often portrayed in English-language contexts.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Here’s a nice story about a teacher there who herself grew up in the projects and thinks the classical approach is suitable for kids from non-posh backgrounds.

    EU cookie policy amounts to sanctions for some:

    Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in your country. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to your market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism.

  16. Does this archived link work for you?

  17. David Marjanović says

    Yes, thanks! Doesn’t mention Latin or Greek, though.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    David M.: It’s a passing mention that may presuppose some familiarity by the reader with the school (a local one for this news source’s core readership): “Being a Classical alumna also helps Perez relate to her students. When they complain about studying Latin or another part of the school’s curriculum, she can explain how it paid off for her.” Even that doesn’t explicitly tell you that Latin is required rather than just available, which you thus might have to know from another source. (Latin as a mandatory subject is unheard of in a 21st century American public high school, however prestigious, unless it’s a specialized one that students have to opt in to. And I don’t mean “specialized” in the sense that a Gymnasium is specialized in certain European countries, I mean “specialized” as in “only a handful in the entire country.”)

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