On Reginald Foster’s Latin

As already reported on PrayTell, Reginald (“Reggie”) Foster OCD, died on Christmas Day, 2020. I wrote this essay in September of that year, after two weeks of teaching beginning and advanced pupils using his method. I hope it will serve as an appreciative memorial and an encouragement to others in carrying on his work.

Many people have written about their encounters and experiences with Reggie and his distinctive approach to teaching Latin. There is a pattern to these encounters: skeptic joins one of Reggie’s classes; skeptic discovers that there really is something special about his approach; skeptic becomes a devotee. My story is no different. Even so, a personal memoir seems appropriate: Reggie’s method is about encountering Latin, experiencing Latin, making the language live by meeting it full on.

That is what he helped me do. But I hope to go beyond reminiscence, clambering onto the shoulder of a giant to provide an interpretation of his approach, and even to suggest how it could be taken further.

* * *

I had the luck to learn French as a child, mostly in conversation, mostly with native speakers. I took in almost no formal grammar until secondary school, where modern languages were taught by the “direct method”. It was like being thrown into a cold, fast-flowing river. On the first day of class, the teacher seized an unfortunate classmate’s dictionary, hurled it out an open window, and shouted – in French, at machine-gun speed – “it is absolutely forbidden to bring a French-English dictionary into this class.” Almost all of our books, the grammar included, came from France, flimsy paperbacks whose leaves needed to be opened with a knife. The only permitted dictionary was the Petit Larousse Illustré, which I nearly wore out, chasing one definition after another. We went at a lightning pace and the teacher spared no sarcasm in letting everyone know that I was not keeping up. Each day brought new terrors of being called on and mocked as a dunce.

And then one day it happened: I was reading Sartre’s Les Jeux Sont Faits – I remember the passage vividly, many years later – and suddenly realized that the French-to-English-to-French circuit in my mind had been severed, and that I was simply reading and taking in Sartre’s thoughts without translation. From there, I didn’t look back. Grammar, Voltaire, Gide, Camus, Ionesco, and Balzac all followed swiftly.

I was not so lucky when I started Latin, in primary school. Our very first sentence was Britannia est insula – Britain is an island – syntactically correct, but not what the Romans would have written. We droned through paradigms – sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt – and artificial sentences. We learned very little that year: only three verb tenses, as I recall, and only the simplest noun forms.

I snoozed through that class, but, mostly from inertia, stayed with Latin at secondary school. My first teacher there was dynamic, in love with the language, and focused on making the words have meaning. “Find the verbs,” he told us, “and work out who’s doing what to whom!” We spent much of that year reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars, ideal for this approach because, in all three parts of Gaul, someone was always doing something to someone else: Orgetorix plotting to conquer Gaul, Caesar slaughtering the Helvetii, the despairing Germans throwing themselves into the Rhine. On and on it went, in crisp historical verbs. Latin came to life, and I developed a hunger for it.

I tended to enjoy works like Livy’s History of Rome or Vergil’s Aeneid, where, as in Caesar, things were constantly happening. I didn’t much care for Cicero, who seemed to live in a world of conceiving, thinking, judging, and persuading – as Reggie Foster phrased it, “mind and mouth” – rather than of action. Cicero’s predilections for indirect speech, doubly and trebly nested clauses, and the subjunctive all left me cold, probably because, as much as I enjoyed Latin, I never really developed a solid grounding in it. I was like a cellist who can more or less bluff his way through the Elgar concerto, but has little sense of why a great performer makes the moves she does. I always knew roughly what a Roman author was trying to get across, but didn’t really know why he said it the way he did. And, more than a few times, I knew less of the meaning than I thought I did.

* * *

A family friend came to visit us, an itinerant librarian who visits collections around the world, sorting out their problems. She had been summoned from Philadelphia to the library of Ealing Abbey, in west London, where she learned that Latin was being taught there, that summer, using Reginald Foster’s methods. She encouraged me to give it a try. I had become interested in questions of translation, especially after the horrible 2011 version of the Roman Missal, supposedly “faithful to the Latin” but rendered in bizarre, unsayable English. My love for Latin was undiminished.

Everyone had heard tales of Foster, the papal Latinist and teacher. Academic classicists tended to regard him as eccentric – he was not only a Catholic priest, after all, but he walked the halls of the Vatican dressed like a plumber. It was said that he had renamed all of the noun cases and that his office contained nothing more than a typewriter and Lewis and Short’s massive Latin dictionary. He insisted that people call him Reggie. My librarian friend continued to send e-mail reminders. Had I signed up yet? Was I going to go to Ealing in August?

I wrote to Daniel McCarthy, a gentle, scholarly Benedictine who has worked with Reggie for decades, preparing five volumes of his work for publication, and supervising those who teach using his method[1]. Two courses looked interesting, one on advanced Latin and one reading Cicero’s Letters. Could I enroll in them? Yes, Daniel wrote back, but it would be good to begin by working through the homework sheets (ludi domestici), that Reggie had provided his students.

This in itself proved a challenge. Reggie’s collaborators refuse to distribute his homework sheets electronically; a book of them is in preparation, but has yet to be published. Fortunately, a Fr Gary Coulter studied with Reggie for two years, and, on an unauthorized website, has transcribed homework sheets and answers. I set to work.

The ludi seemed bizarre at first. If one word didn’t convey the whole idea that Reggie wanted, he simply tacked on a few more: “reading-hearing a Latin sentence”; “certainly the smoothest-sweetest”; “the most prolific, polished, silk writer of sentimental-love-elegiac verses”. We were constantly asked to “reverse” things: this meant turning every singular word or phrase into the plural, and the other way round. The sheets were filled with capitalized exhortations to YOU!!, the student; I could almost hear Reggie’s growling and shouting as I worked through them.

From the very first the exercises called for English-to-Latin renderings, something I had to that point assiduously avoided. After all, the thing was to barrel on to the next chapter or the next author, even based on a superficial understanding. Who needed to write things in Latin? But, as I quickly realized, learning to write in Latin is not only important when your job is to translate papal pronouncements written in Italian or German into Latin; it is essential to understanding how the language works.

I ground through sheet after sheet, comparing my answers with the published ones. At first I made mistakes, lots of them. The exercises worked like dental probes, relentlessly finding soft spots in my grip of the Latin. They subtly introduced material that the associated teaching had not yet covered. It’s a clever pedagogical device, as I learned when I started teaching using Reggie’s method. My first students were eager to work on liturgical material; at that stage of the program we had tackled relative clauses, though only two of the noun functions: subject and object, or nominative and accusative. The forms of the ablative case (“by-with-from function”) were still a long way off, and it would be another program year before participles would walk onto the stage.

But even at that stage the beginners could easily deal with the mealtime prayer asking God to bless tua dona quae de largitate tua sumus sumpturi – “your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty” – simply by noting that largitate was from largitas, easily found in the dictionary, here with the sense of “from”; and that sumpturus, -a, -um functioned as an adjective meaning “about to receive”. No need to talk about an active periphrastic (“a mysterious and unintelligble term to many people”, wrote Reggie); the natural reading with sumus, which the group had already encountered, conveyed the meaning.

I struggled with the ludi enough that I almost gave up several times, not only because I thought it was too late to fill in the gaps in my Latin, but also because Fr Coulter’s pirated question and answer sheets were, at least at the time, riddled with errors. Tackling any one of them required not only answering the questions, but also working out where errors had crept in.

Nonetheless I completed 55 of the exercises and started the advanced Latin course with Daniel McCarthy and a study of Cicero’s letters with Laura Pooley, who is not only a professional musician but also a superb classicist and teacher. She trained in Latin at Oxford, but attributes all of her considerable skill in Latin to her study with Reggie in Rome.

Both experiences were wonderful. We read in more depth than I had ever experienced. It was not enough to get roughly what Cicero was saying to his friends and family: we took apart the clauses and verbs to understand why he had chosen this tense, this mood, this word. It was though I was learning a new language.

We had a few video chats with Reggie, then teaching from his nursing home in Milwaukee. At a long distance, and on a small screen, the legend came to life. We caught him one day as he was being led out of the home for a walk and asked him about a particular word that the advanced class was struggling with. Standing in the lobby of his building, he not only explained what was going on, but referred us to a particular sub-paragraph in Lewis and Short, showing how other authors had used the word in the way he indicated. Had he in fact memorized the entire dictionary? Perhaps he had.

On a later video session, Daniel encouraged us to ask Reggie any question we wanted. Curious about why his method seemed to involve so much of what I had once known and despised as “prose composition”, but speaking too loosely, I asked whether he was trying to teach us to speak Latin. He grimaced, and a noise like a great machine grinding its gears came from the computer speaker. “Noooooooo”, he shouted, “I am teaching you to understaaaaand it.”

Reggie did not suffer foolish questions gladly. But after two intensive weeks as a student, and, more recently, after teaching both beginning Latin and Cicero’s letters using his method, I can say this: it works. I am not a professional classicist, and have nothing like Laura’s charisma as a teacher or Daniel’s depth, but I have seen learners go from a halting start to reading complex Latin. After two intensive weeks, something like 50 hours of class time, my beginners tackled this passage from Caesar’s Civil War:

omnes, qui sunt eius ordinis, a Pompeio evocantur. laudat promptos Pompeius atque in posterum tempus confirmat, segniores castigat atque incitat. multi undique ex veteribus Pompei exercitibus spe praemiorum atque ordinum evocantur, multi ex duabus legionibus, quae sunt traditae a Caesare, arcessuntur. conpletur urbs et ipsum comitium tribunis, centurionibus, evocatis. omnes amici consulum, necessarii Pompei atque ii, qui veteres inimicitias cum Caesare gerebant, in senatum coguntur. quorum vocibus et concursu terrentur infirmiores, dubii confirmantur.

They did this with only a bit of help, not only reading the Latin, but really – in Reggie’s words, “understaaaaanding it”.

* * *

But what is it that makes Foster’s method work? He was not a theorist – in fact, my impression is that he was firmly anti-theory. What mattered to him about his system was its effectiveness. But I think there are good reasons for the success of Foster’s method. It is a system, an integral whole, and even some of its apparently accidental details contribute to its effectiveness.

For me, the linguist whose approaches sheds the greatest light on Foster’s system is Noam Chomsky. I doubt that Reggie even knew who Chomsky was, and my guess is that Reggie would have viewed regard my analysis as at least as illicit as Fr Coulter’s pirated ludi. But it has given me a model of why it works and to teach it more effectively.

There are three central principles in the Foster method, all of which Chomsky touches on in his Syntactic Structures (1975) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965).

Understanding as generative skill. Reggie growled when I asked whether he was teaching us to speak Latin, but his method does teach how real Latin speakers – poets, senators, prostitutes, fishmongers – would express statements or wishes or thoughts. This strikes me as close to Chomsky’s idea that an effective ‘grammar’ is less a scheme for parsing sentences than a system or device for generating all of the sentences that a speaker of the given language would regard as correct, and no other sentences. On page after page of Ossa Latinitatis Sola, the first of the Foster method books to be published, we are taught how to make Latin say what we want it to: How to say that one thing is greater than another? How to express futurity in a wish or a statement of doubt? How to speak of intent or purpose? By learning how Sallust or Cicero or Vergil would use Latin to convey these things, the student learns to understand sentences from Roman authors. Equally, Reggie taught how the Romans would not have spoken – for example, St Jerome may write erat praedicans in synagogis Galilaeae, “he was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee” (Luke 4.44) but we are warned that this is “corrupt, unnatural Roman speech”; the Romans would simply have written praedicabat.

In this regard Foster’s system has some similarity to the “direct method” that I mentioned earlier, where the student gains skill in the language by using it, being corrected, and using it again. But the direct method relies on teachers who have near-native fluency. His contemporaries testify that Reggie spoke Latin with ease in a variety of period styles (Ciceronian, post-Classical, etc.). But nobody, not even he, learned Latin as a child; it is nobody’s first language. And so Reggie brought his students into a form of dialogue with people for whom it was the earliest language and the daily one.

Exposure to real Latin begins on day 1 of the Beginners’ programme, when students do not encounter Britannia est insula, but the music of Vergil’s second Eclogue:

torva leaena lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam,
florentem cytisum sequitur lasciva capella,
te Corydon, o Alexi: trahit sua quemque voluptas.
aspice, aratra iugo referunt suspensa iuvenci,
et sol crescentis decedens duplicat umbras;
me tamen urit amor: quis enim modus adsit amori?

Of course they cannot understand all of this immediately, but they begin to play with it and use it to make new sentences, often simply by modifying the verb endings (‑mus, ‑nt, etc.). The entire indicative system is conveyed very quickly.

Transformation. One of Chomsky’s celebrated theoretical developments was the notion of transformation[2], where sentence or phrase constituents can be combined or changed to convey new meaning. For example, he shows how two sentences can be combined:

The scene of the movie was in Chicago
The scene of the play was in Chicago
     →The scene of the movie and of the play was in Chicago.

And how they cannot:

The scene of the movie was in Chicago
The scene that I wrote was in Chicago
→  ××× The scene of the movie and that I wrote was in Chicago.

Reggie’s method is filled with transformations of every sort: rules for taking singulars and making them plural, active verbs into passive, direct into indirect speech. Teaching transformational rules rather than lists of declensions and conjugations to be memorized allows him to introduce grammatical forms at lightning speed. It also promotes understanding.

Some of these transformations are “obligatory”, in Chomsky’s terms: for example, to transform laudat (he praises) into the passive, we get laudatur (he is praised). Reggie taught the passive forms, as “flips” (transformations) from the corresponding active forms. Instead of asking the student to produce the passive present subjunctive third person singular of laudo, laudare, Reggie’s system asks “How do you say may she be praised! in Latin?” The learner knows how to say she praises (laudat) and from this to derive may she praise (laudet) and the solution (laudetur) emerges easily. He treated exceptions in a similar way: delebiris, which would be you will be destroyed according to the first set of transformations, becomes deleberis by another, obligatory transformation.

There are plenty of optional transformations as well. When Cicero writes to Terentia (Ad Familiares 14.16), scribo ad vos cum habeo qui ferat, “I will write to you whenever I have someone who might carry a letter,” Reggie shows how the characteristic result clause qui ferat could equally have been written eum talem ut ferat. The transformation substitutes for multiple paragraphs of explanation in grammars such as Allen and Greenough or Gildersleeve and Lodge.

Deep and surface structure. In his early work, Chomsky distinguished the ‘deep structure’ of a language from its ‘surface structure’; the distinction is difficult not only because Chomsky later seems to have moved away from it, but because it has been widely and loosely applied. Some clinical psychologists say that deep structure “refers to concepts, thoughts, ideas and feelings” where “surface structure refers to the words we use to represent the deep structure”. Or, “a complete representation of its meaning or logical semantic relation”.[3]

But I go back to Chomsky’s earlier notion that the deep structure of a sentence sets out its components in a simple form, perhaps the simplest possible, before optional and obligatory transformations have been applied. Hence “I bought winter clothes” and “winter clothes were bought by me” have a very similar deep structure (antecedent action, completed aspect, actor, object, number, etc.) but appear as two distinct sentences (surface structure). The meaning – those “concepts, thoughts, ideas and feelings” – comes not only from the underlying or deep structure and from the surface structure choices that the speaker or writer made, but also from surrounding context, personal histories, and the like. Deep structure, as I think of it, is a linguistic and grammatical idea; it may, but need not, connect with Chomsky’s theories of universal or innate grammars, which are not relevant here.

* * *

Learners who are tackling Latin for the first time, using Reggie’s methods, often find it easier than those who are skilled at the language, or have taught it using traditional methods for many years. Some of his idiosyncrasies are hard to understand at first; they can become stumbling blocks for experienced teachers who first encounter his system.

The first concerns his insistence on renaming things. From the start, he admonished his students not to refer to nominatives, datives, and other traditional case names: “we don’t do that in this class,” he would say. A noun is “subject” (nominative), “object” (accusative), “by-with-from” (ablative), etc.

Foster himself was gently disingenuous about this, sometimes saying that he didn’t worry about the names of things, or that you could call the nominative “apple” and the ablative “banana”, for all he cared. But, in fact, he did care, and his choices were far from random: Reggie’s function names greatly speeded up the task of getting from surface to deep structure. A traditional Latin grammarian would look at Cicero’s Terentia tibi salutem dicit (Ad Atticum 2.7.5) and say that tibi is a dative, therefore an indirect object, therefore the person (“you”) to whom Terentia was sending her greeting. But the function name for the dative in Foster’s system is “to-for-from”, and simply by attaching this to “you”, we skip two analytical steps. This economy of understanding adds up over time, and – especially at first – it neatly skips over the complex nomenclature of the traditional grammars, resplendent with capitals: the Accusative of the Extent of Time, the Ablative of the Thing Wherewith, the Genitive of the Charge and Penalty.

Foster’s students, later in their Latin experiences, not only have to understand these functional tags, but also to learn their traditional names – which he provided “out of courtesy and necessity, not out of any enthusiasm or support for them.” Not even Reggie would talk about “The to-for-from of personal interest” or “a by-with-from-in absolute”. But far from choosing arbitrary terms, he aimed, especially with the nouns and adjectives, at “a terminology that discloses the nature and essence of things,” and that avoids “distracting and misleading terms.” (Ossa, p. 457). The advantage is a relatively quick jump from surface to deep structure, and from there to meaning.

The second and more difficult stumbling block is Foster’s apparently rigid insistence that certain phrases only be translated in certain ways – for example, that a large number of subjunctive verbal constructions be rendered using indicative English; or that ablatives absolute are never to be translated using “with”. Instead, Foster called on us to render opere perfecto profecti sumus as “The work having been done, we set out,” a treatment that would earn red marks from many Latin teachers. His point was that “With the work complete, we set out” conveys a sense of accompaniment that isn’t in the deep structure, as if we had written “We set out with a full picnic basket.”

Like Cicero himself, Foster broke his own rules from time to time – for example, the qui ferat that I quoted above would, according to the Ossa, be rendered in the indicative, but Reggie, noting the sense of potentiality, once rendered it with an English subjunctive. Nonetheless, his strict rendering rules often result in stilted, clumsy English.

This strange-sounding English is the strongest objection that some have to Foster’s method. In that pivotal year of Caesar, I was told, again and again, never to translate word-for-word, and to come up with smooth, colloquial English. At first, this doesn’t seem to be Reggie’s goal. From one end to the other of the huge Ossa, we encounter renderings like this:

The heart is delighted by ointment and incense and by the sweetness of a friend in counsel from the heart. (Vulgate, Proverbs 27.9)

or this:

The mothers, who when they were baking cakes we were happy, were loved especially by all.

Occasionally the tortured English creeps into the explanatory passages of the Ossa itself; as one reviewer notes,

Whole pages might have been translated from the original Estonian by an underpaid grad student: “So freedom is left and also the responsibility is left to the individual using this book to personalize it to their own spontaneous way of presenting the different parts of the Latin language, and the examples will be discovered and used by the individual.” One sees what he’s getting at, more or less, but we don’t say it that way in our language.[4]

At first, I found this deeply frustrating; it went against everything I had been taught. But then – I think it was on about the 40th homework sheet – I realized that Reggie wasn’t trying to teach translation at all. He was interested in the underlying (deep) structure, and how it was reflected in specific word and phrasing choices – the surface structure. From there, his job was done; time to move on to the next passage. It is up to the individual translator to take that deep structure and give it a surface, a language and style.

Reggie went to great lengths to reveal these deep structures. At the culmination of Ossa Latinitatis Sola, we are presented with “a symphonic, heavenly sentence of Cicero, which we believe to be one of the best things he ever wrote”; it is from De Divinitatione, 2.9.23:

quid vero Caesarem putamus, si divinasset fore ut in eo senatu, quem maiore ex parte ipse cooptasset, in curia Pompeia ante ipsius Pompeii simulacrum tot centurionibus suis inspectantibus a nobilissumis civibus partim etiam a se omnibus rebus ornatis trucidatus ita iaceret, ut ad eius corpus non modo amicorum sed ne servorum quidem quisquam accederet, quo cruciatu animi vitam acturum fuisse?

Only 60 words here, but it is going to take many more to understand them. First, we have Reggie’s explicative rendering:

but what do we think Caesar, if he had foreseen that it would happen that in that senate, which he himself had appointed for the greater part, in the Pompeian senate house before the statue of Pompeius himself— as were looking on so many of his own centurions—he would lie, cut down by the most noble citizens even partly having been decorated by him with all things, in such a way that toward his body not only not any one of his friends but not even of the slaves would approach, with what torment of spirit [do we think Caesar] would he have lived his life?

Next, an explanatory diagram. The abbreviations and codes (“OO”, “MA”, “T.4s”, etc.) are part of Reggie’s system.

This on its own is not enough for deep understanding, so Reggie followed it with 800 words of detailed grammatical explanation; I will only quote its first imposing sentence, almost as long as Cicero’s entire statement about Caesar:

The main sentence is one M & M verb, putamus, in T.1i which sets the entire question on Track I and produces a direct question in indirect discourse (OO) where Caesarem in the object form functions as the subject of the infinitive acturum fuisse describing the consequence of a contrary-to-fact conditional set in the past, and thus T.4s. …

Even after several pages of explanation, we still do not have anything like a smooth rendering of this “crowning, triumphant, all-comprehensive sentence”. For that I turned to W. A. Falconer’s version in the Loeb Classical Library:

Or what do we think of Caesar? Had he foreseen that in the Senate, chosen in most part by himself, in Pompey’s hall, aye, before Pompey’s very statue, and in the presence of many of his own centurions, he would be put to death by most noble citizens, some of whom owed all that they had to him, and that he would fall to so low an estate that no friend — no, not even a slave — would approach his dead body, in what agony of soul would he have spent his life!

I would take this further by splitting it into multiple sentences, which, if you aren’t Henry James, is how we speak these days:

What do we think Caesar would have done if he had foreseen his fate? If he had foreseen that he would be put to death before the Senators, most of whom he had appointed? That he would lie in Pompey’s hall, before Pompey’s statue, dying before his own centurions? That he would be cut down by the noblest of citizens, some of whom owed all that they had to him? That he would fall so low that no friend — not even a slave — would approach his corpse? If he had known all this, in what in what agony of soul would he have spent his life?

Every one of these versions is, in its own way, “close to the Latin”; each is useful for different purposes. The detailed unpacking that Foster provides is not in itself a translation, but an invaluable useful tool in rendering Cicero’s sentence into modern English, or Italian, or Japanese, or verses of a song. Reggie’s implicit distinction between surface and deep structure neatly reveals the idiocy of Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican’s 2001 instruction on principles of liturgical translation.[5]

Realizing that Reggie had no interest in translation was enormously liberating for me. I now think of his English renderings as “Reggie code”. Once I understood that the purpose of the fractured English sentences was to unmask the deep structure of the Latin, I could silence the inner voices of past teachers calling for “smooth translations”. What is unforgivable, in my view, is stopping with the Reggie code or using it for liturgical purposes, on the view that this is “what the Latin really says.” But that is a topic that goes beyond this article.

* * *

No system is perfect. Reggie’s approach to renaming things worked well for nouns. I found it less effective for verbs, where he used numbers, always starting over at 1. Hence we have verb groups 1, 2, 3 and 4, indicative verb times T.1i through T.6i (including T.4ai and T4bi) and subjunctive verb times T.1s through T.3s, Tracks 1 and 2 for the sequence of tenses. The economy of understanding that I enjoyed in names of noun functions swiftly disappeared in a morass of numbers and subscripts. The subjunctive numbering starts over at 1, so that T.3i, traditionally the future indicative, doesn’t match up with T.3s, the perfect subjunctive –why not skip a number in the subjunctive system to emphasize that Latin has no single form for conveying futurity?

In some places, Reggie’s renaming and renumbering did not go far enough. He pointed out that the forms of what I had learned as the perfect tense (e.g. laudavi) in fact correspond to two different times – a completed present (“I have praised”) and an action in history (“I praised”). These he calls T.4a and T.4b, an enormously helpful move. But why not go the whole way and label the present perfect (Reggie’s T.4a) truly a present, even though it has the same forms as the historical perfect. Identity of forms appears elsewhere in Latin – for example, laudaverimus on its own could be a form of T.3s, the perfect subjunctive, or of T.6i, the future perfect indicative. One surface structure, two distinct deep structures.

To my mind, a lot of clarity can be gained by adding aspect to the conceptual apparatus. I found it helpful to think of three temporal frames and three verbal aspects, the columns and rows of the following table, adapted from a Latin program at Ohio State University[6]

Continuous, in process, repeated, frustrated, incomplete, ‘moving film’ T.2
“I was singing”,
“I tried to sing”, “I kept singing”
“I am singing”
“I will be singing”
Simple, descriptive, characteristic T.4b
Historical perfect
Greek aorist
Simple past
“I sang”
“I sing”, “I do sing”
“I will sing”
Completed action, ‘photo’ T.5
Past perfect
“I had sung”
Present or pure perfect
“I have sung”,
“I have been singing”
Future perfect
“I will have sung”

I have provided both the Foster numbering and the traditional nomenclature, and am not going to suggest new terms. But I would call T.4a a present or contemporary time in completed aspect. This also simplifies the presentation of the sequence of tenses, since the contemporary and future columns of the table lead you into one sequence (Reggie’s Track I, traditionally the “primary sequence”) and the antecedent column into Track II, the “historical sequence”.

And this brings me to the last area where there is scope for work, not as much in Foster’s work as in the way we use it. Reggie was a great innovator, one who brought out from the treasury of Latin not only what is old but also what is new: inventing, as the Vatican’s Latinist, words that no Roman would have used – pastillorum fartorum taberna, for ‘pastry shop’, for example; boldly changing the way that Latin has been taught for centuries in order to bring it to life quickly and easily; vastly clarifying the presentation of many issues of grammar. His innovations live on in students, like me, whose appreciation of Latin has been transformed, and even more in those who encounter Latin for the first time using his system.

So why not continue to innovate and to improve? There is a tendency to present the enormous Foster opus as contra mundum, a system opposed to the rest of Latin learning and teaching, a system whose most minute aspect cannot be changed. Modern technology – offering the material in electronic media, for example, so that it can be searched and adapted or teaching – would be a first, big step forward. So would removing the admonitory and polemical material that disfigures otherwise marvellous pieces like Foster’s “Collectarum Latinitatis”[7], a brilliant exposition of Latin uses in the collects of the Roman ritual. Reggie was a missionary; his growling and exhorting pervade not only the homework sheets but the text of the Ossa itself. A tougher editor, perhaps not a direct disciple, would have cut much of this out. In any case, the polemics were unnecessary: Foster’s magnificent achievement and the snobbery of some academics both speak for themselves.

* * *

The claim that Latin is a dead language comes from both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ camps. Those who embrace modernity may question the value of learning Latin’s complexities in a time when the world is ruled through 144-character bursts of fractured English, and when English itself dominates the world’s media. In any event, they say, artificial intelligence renders linguistic differences obsolete.

Some who shun modern ways, on the other hand, celebrate Latin’s deadness, seeing it as an unchanging bulwark against a corrupt world. Or they praise its use in liturgies, opaque to the ordinary worshipper, as a ‘verbal iconostasis’ that reinforces the separation of the sacred from the profane, of God from humanity. Latin’s incomprehensibility communicates God’s incomprehensibility. Like the iconostasis of the Eastern churches, writes Alfons Cardinal Stickler, Latin serves as a veil that guards against the potential profanation that the vernacular could cause.[8]

Reggie Foster’s work demonstrates the fundamental error of both sides. In the Ossa and in his other teaching, he offers thousands of years of Latin, in many registers: law, love poetry, liturgy, comedy, military history, political oratory. Latin is not only the language of the great and the good, but of people who scratched graffiti on the walls of Pompeii: my favourite of these is fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque: “I sing of laundry workers and an owl, not of arms and a man.” Far from unchanging, Latin has been highly flexible. St Jerome adapted it to convey the rhythms of the Hebrew scriptures; St Thomas Aquinas to embrace Aristotle’s philosophical precision. Catholics around the world use Latin for all or part of their Sunday worship, both in the older and the current forms of the Mass. It lives on in music and in Latin tweets (pagina publica Papae Francisci breviloquentis) from the Vatican. Peter Needham produced a sparkling translation of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone[9], not just as an exercise for students but a demonstration of Latin’s plasticity and beauty. And if Needham translates “ketchup” as condimentum lycopersicorum while Reggie Foster renders it licopersici liquamen, so much the better: that is what happens with living languages.[10]

Reggie Foster not only offered us this treasury of Latin but taught us to understand it deeply. For it is by understanding a language that we can keep it alive; and understanding – the beautiful unfolding of the deep structures and their transformation to surface structures – is his great legacy, one that will live on and on and on.

Requiescat in pace.


I am deeply indebted to the wonderful colleagues who drive the Latin program at Ealing Abbey: Daniel McCarthy OSB, James Leachman OSB, Laura Pooley, Daniel Vowles and Clare Cogswell, as well as to Melody Mazuk, the traveling librarian who nudged me into this in the first place. Fr Gary Coulter’s collection of material may be unauthorized, but I am grateful that he took the time to produce it. He also has a large index of articles about Reggie. Finally, I am grateful to Nicholas V.H. Kip at Phillips Academy, Andover, who taught me not only about Latin but about teaching itself.

I hope that my admiration of Reggie himself and appreciation of his pioneering work are clear from this essay. Many others have conveyed similar praise; after Reggie’s death, Daniel McCarthy assembled a large collection of material on him at https://thelatinlanguage.org/news.

[1] Daniel and his colleagues have already produced Ossa Latinitatis Sola, “The Mere Bones of Latin”, an 831 page, 4 pound presentation of three academic years of Reggie’s teaching. They will soon publish Ossium Carnes Multae, “The Bones’ Meats Abundant”, a collection of Cicero’s letters with detailed analytic commentary according to Reggie’s method. Also forthcoming is Ossibus Ludi Exercendis, “Games for Exercising the Bones”, a collection of homework sheets or ludi domestici that Foster produced for his students over many years. The publisher in all cases is Catholic University Press.

[2] Language scholars have applied Chomsky’s generative / transformational system to Latin before; an early and well-known example is from Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Abstract Syntax and Latin Complementation (MIT Press, 1968). See also David H. Kelley, “Transformations in the Latin Nominal Phrase” in Classical Philology 63(1), 1968. My only contribution has been to connect Chomsky’s theory to Foster’s pedagogical system.

[3] See Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic (Science and Behavior Books, 1975).

[4] Paul Mankowski SJ, “Dem Bones”, in First Things, June 2018.

[5] See Peter Jeffery, Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads Liturgiam Authenticam (Pueblo, 2005).

[6] See https://classics.osu.edu/Undergraduate-Studies/Latin-Program/Grammar/Tense; last retrieved 11 September 2020.

[7] In Leachman and McCarthy, eds, Appreciating the Collect: An Irenic Methodology, St Michael’s Abbey, 2008.

[8] Stickler, “Erinnerungen und Erfahrungen eines Konzilsperitus der Liturgiekommission” = “Recollections and Experiences of an Advisor to the Liturgy Commission of the Second Vatican Council”, in Franz Breid, ed., Die heilige Liturgie (Steyr, Austria: Ennsthaler Verlag, 1997; cited in Fritz Bauerschmidt, “Liturgical Language, Divine Mystery and the Demands of the Gospel”, PrayTell, November 2010, at https://praytellblog.com/index.php/2010/11/30/liturgical-language-divine-mystery-and-the-demands-of-the-gospel).

[9] Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, Bloomsbury, 2003.

[10] See also Nicola Gardini, Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language. Profile Books, 2019.

This article is copyright © by Jonathan Day, with all rights reserved.


One response to “On Reginald Foster’s Latin”

  1. Daniel McCarthy Avatar

    A compelling read with penetrating insight and well worth ongoing consideration. I look forward to further discussion.

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