Lexical registers

Lessons learned in Latin class: don’t jump from Caesar to Ovid and expect a smooth transition.

My second-year Latin students have a short (~10-page) vocab list of words in Gallic Wars 1. For their exam, I’m glossing all words that don’t appear on that list. Because sometimes, you need a word that’s not in Caesar.

We’re reading Ovid for verse exposure, so most of what isn’t Caesar comes from the Amores (their book is mostly the Amores with about 50 lines from the Met). Since we’ll have read at least two of the poems by the end of term, there’s a sight passage from the Amores as well as a sight passage from the Gallic WarsAs I went to put some of the Amores on their exam, I started to realize just how different the registers are: every starred word is a gloss.

  1. Ovid, Amores  proem

Qui modo Nasonis* fueramus quinque libelli*,
tres sumus; hoc illi praetulit auctor* opus*.
ut iam* nulla tibi nos sit legisse* voluptas*,
at levior* demptis* poena duobus erit.

(The later passages are more extreme, but also made the ‘real’ exam — this was from the practice section. So this post might get updated in December!)

I know that we all know that military and erotic writing uses different vocabulary (omnis amans miles? Yeah, right). But I came up through a system that required me to learn a lot of different vocabulary words — the assumption was that you’d read Cicero and Vergil and Ovid and Nepos and so on. My students had a slightly different learning experience, and their vocab is more limited. They can tell you what a deditio is, but not a dura.

This isn’t meant to insult my students — I chose their vocab list, after all. But I didn’t realize at the time that I was limiting their knowledge so severely. In general, Latin has always seemed to me to have a relatively limited set of core terms that were frequent enough that choice of author didn’t matter. Clearly, I am wrong (although compared to Greek, Latin still seems limited — and in a way, more accessible). Making this exam has made it pretty clear that those “core” terms do exist — but they are forms of esse, posse, hic, and ille, or conjunctions and adverbs. The key terms of love poetry, like levis, ars, or iuvenis, don’t appear on my students’ list.

I guess Caesar was reading a lot of epic (or drama?), not elegy, in Gaul.



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Lexical registers by https://libraryofantiquity.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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