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Latin courses in cathedrals prove a hit

19 February 2016

Cathedrals across England are hosting one-day courses in Latin. Rebecca Paveley went along to the first


"Mathematical principles peculiarly his own": the monument to Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey

"Mathematical principles peculiarly his own": the monument to Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey

IT IS a damp winter’s Saturday in Exeter, but, in the education suite at the cathedral, a queue of Latin lovers are raring to go, swapping translations and stories of long-forgotten O-level Latin.

Aged from 30 upwards, what has motivated them is the desire to know more of this “dead” language, with reasons that range from wanting to read the inscriptions on memorials to understanding the Latin names of plants. Some remember doing Latin at school, but many of the 20 students are new to the language.

The course is taught by the author and teacher George Sharpley. He has run the course before in Gloucester Cathedral, but such is the demand he has now taken it to cathedrals across the UK, from Exeter to Lincoln, and from Ely to Chichester.

Early sessions for 2016 are already booked up, and, he said, there were many reasons why people wanted to understand a little of the language.

“So many people now wish they had learned some Latin earlier; they want to be able to read inscriptions, or just make connections with our own language, or other modern foreign languages. For some, learning is a bit like turning a light on inside their heads.”

Lindsey Roderick, a cathedral guide, explained her reasons for attending. “I find it very frustrating when I go round memorials and I can’t understand the inscriptions. I did a little bit of Latin at school, but I obviously didn’t listen very hard. I’m a cathedral guide now; so it would be very useful to know some, so that I can answer some of the questions I get asked by visitors.

“My husband did Latin to O level, but he’s forgotten it all; so he’s here, too, to refresh his memory. Before I came, I was dreading it a bit, but now I’m very glad I’m here.”

Sue Bradley, a beginner, said: “I love gardening, and there are lots of Latin plant names I’d like to be able to read. I’m also interested in my family history, and I think learning some Latin will help with that.”

Others say that they have come in order to improve their understanding of church music or historical texts.

The session plunges the students straight in at the deep end, with discussion of grammatical cases and some quick attempt at translations, before the group are divided into teams, including plebeians and servi (slaves), and liberti (freedmen).

Before long, there are translations from the Latin authors Virgil and Ovid, with entertaining stropes thrown in.

It is challenging, and surprisingly gripping. The aim of the day, Mr Sharpley said, was to give people an idea of the foundations of the language, and an understanding of its grammar — but also to hear it spoken aloud.

“In its day, Latin was very much a language of the ear,” he said, “and people would normally listen to it. Today gives people a chance to do just that.”


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