Book Review: A Latin Primer

A Latin Primer, by Herbert Chester Nutting

In reading this book I was reminded that the early 1900’s was a time of boring but serviceable primers for foreign languages [1].  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as Latin was a well-known and well-established reason that was studied for often deeply practical reasons.  For one, it was a language whose study was vitally important for many Catholics in order to understand (if they wanted) Latin High Mass of the times.  Not only that, but even in these post Vatican II days the language is useful for understanding the cultural history of Western Civilization.  We may have no particular love for the great whore of Babylon who sits on many waters, but if we desire to understand the world that she made it is useful to be at least somewhat familiar with the language and the roots in our own language that come from there.  If this sounds like a less than enthusiastic review, so be it, but the work has value from a pragmatic standpoint, and the work has little artistry in its design, although there is some that is worthy of praise.  This is the sort of book that would have been read by unenthusiastic young people learning Latin or older people seeking to read it for themselves.  The author only put a little spark of life in the book, and so one cannot expect a perusal of it to have more than a spark itself.

The contents of this book are hardly anything more to write home about, for the most part.  It is clear that the author was trying to put in human interest in this book–his acknowledgements praises the assistance of his daughter and he states in his introduction that he wanted to infuse the work with warmth.  He does manage, to his credit, to add pages in this two-hundred plus page book that include warm descriptions and drawings of Roman ruins that add a great deal of interest to the material.  The majority of the work, though, consists of boring grammar and repetitious exercise designed to help the student of Latin memorize a vocabulary of less than four hundred words.  More than two hundred pages of written material for translation and grammatical exercise in looking at the various cases and tenses of a few verbs leads to a vocabulary of only a few hundred words.  That is not an efficient use of space or time, and that level of frustration appears likely to account for why the book is forgotten today, in a world where Latin education in the English speaking world is far more rare than it was a century ago.

Having established, therefore, that I was thoroughly meh about this book, it is worthwhile to at least examine briefly what sort of reader would be likely to appreciate this book more than me.  For one, if someone has a stronger interest in Latin pedagogy than I do, this would likely be an enjoyable book.  If someone is studying Latin and does not mind (or relishes) boring and monotonous translation exercises with a desire to give a student enough of a basis in Latin to tackle Caesar and Cicero after successfully powering through this book, that too would be a good reason to read this book.  That said, there are without a doubt many books on learning Latin that are likely to be a lot more fun to read than this book is, and that do the job of teaching the language at least as well, if not better.  This is a forgotten book that was forgotten because it is not very interesting, although its landscape and ruin descriptions deserve to be remembered and are by far the most enjoyable part of the work.  For the most part, though, reading this book is a slog and must have been so for much of its original audience as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Book Review: A Latin Primer

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Study Of Open Hearth | Edge Induced Cohesion

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