I receive weekly reminders of my linguistic ignorance whenever I read anything by authors fluent in Latin. How could I not, whenever Clive James starts to pontificate on the greatness of, say, Tacitus?
“For students acquiring Latin in adult life, the language is most easily approached through those historians who really wrote chronicles — Cornelius Nepos, Sallust, Suetonius and Livy — but with the Histories of Tacitus you get the best reason for approaching it at all… What Sainte-Beuve said of Montaigne — that his prose is like one continuous epigram — is even more true of Tacitus.”
Fantastic! So, which translation should I read?
“There are innumerable translations but the original gives you [Tacitus]’ unrivalled powers of compression.”
As with Latin classics, so with other Indo-European language texts, including Beowulf, originally in Old English, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, in Classical Greek, and the ancient Vedic hymns of the Rigveda, in Sanskrit.
For those willing to take up the challenge of reading these canonic texts in their original form, the University of Texas’ Linguistics Research Center provides an excellent resource. In addition to hosting a multitude of Indo-European volumes in their entirety, the LRC has made 10-lesson crash courses, developed by several UT-Austin academics. Lessons include a brief guide to the alphabet, background knowledge on the language's development, and a grammar guide, all available for the following languages:
- Old English
- Old French
- Greek (Classical)
- Greek (New Testament)
- Old Iranian
- Old Irish
- Old Norse
- Old Russian
- Vedic Sanskrit
- Old Slavonic
Best of all, lessons are based on seminal texts from each language: Latin lessons rely on Tacitus’ Germania, Livy’s History of Rome, and Virgil’s Aeneid, while Homer, Hesiod’s Works and Days, and Plato’s Republic feature prominently in the Classical Greek classes. Students progress through each lesson by reading the original passages, and using the provided guides to translate them to English.
Note: These links will direct you to pages formatted in Unicode 2. If you’re having trouble reading the texts, head to the Early Indo-European Online lessons site and choose a different encoding in the sidebar.
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.