Tuesday, January 22, 2019


Stephen A. Berard, Vita nostra: subsidia ad colloquia Latina. Tomus I. Clinton, WA: Cataracta Publishing, 2018. Pp. 145. ISBN 9781976102967. $25.00.

Reviewed by David J. Hetrick, Loveland Classical Schools (dhetrick@lovelandclassical.org)

Version at BMCR home site

Vita Nostra is an exceedingly apt title for the present volume by Stephen A. Berard, as his handbook aims to equip both teachers and learners of Latin with the tools to navigate their lives through a Latin lens. After a comprehensive table of contents, Berard begins the book with a clear and detailed prooemium entirely written, fittingly, in Latin. If the reader seeks to be immersed in Latin, what better place to begin than the introduction to the book itself?

In his introduction, Berard not only explains his goals and mission with the book, but also acknowledges the many influences on its writing, such as the online Lexicon Morganianum, the renowned and somewhat rare visuelles Wörterbuch Latein-Deutsch, and other useful resources (p. 12). Vita Nostra is a valuable addition to a rich and varied corpus of conversational Latin resources. Berard helpfully offers a concordance for using Vita Nostra in conjunction with Hans Ørberg's monolingual textbook Lingua Latina per se Illustrata I: Familia Romana (commonly known as LLPSI) (p. 14). According to his overview, Tomus I will correspond to the grammar covered in chapters I-XXII of LLPSI, and the forthcoming Tomus II will correspond to the rest of the first volume of LLPSI (chapters XXIII-XXXV). Berard's text is a perfect complement for anyone learning or teaching using LLPSI, as both texts aim for immersion, comprehensible input, and increased Latin output.

Conventional Latin pedagogy and scholarship have tended to view Latin as a static artifact—in Berard's words, as if Latin were a pinned "butterfly" (tamquam papilionem, p. 11) to be admired and preserved unchanged. Berard argues that it has been established, by foreign-language teachers and years of research into linguistics, that "adults, as well as youths, learn foreign languages more quickly and more happily in a natural manner by applying these languages to express and treat especially the things which interest them" (adultōs aequē atque adulēscentēs linguās peregrīnās celerius alacriusque discere nātūrālī modo hās linguās adhibentēs ad ea imprīmīs exprimenda tractandaque quae suā intersint, p. 13). Berard then lists a number of thematic topics, including jobs, music, games, clothes, and other popular topics in modern foreign language studies. In this same vein, Berard earlier decried the general distaste among Latinists for neologisms, calling it a "self-defensive" (suī defensīvus, 11) trend dictating that "in no way is it possible to express very recent things" (nūllō tamen modō rēs novissimās exprimere posse, 11).

Vita Nostra is divided, rather intuitively, into thematic units: greetings and farewells (Salutationes Valedictionesque), school vocabulary (Res Scholares), vocabulary relating to the house (Domicilia Nostra), domestic affairs (Quae Domi Facimus), vocabulary for life outside of the house (Quae Foris Facimus), vocabulary for professions and careers (Quae Argentarius Facit), and other vocabulary for one's daily life (De vita tua). Berard's sequence of topics corresponds very well to the course of one's life, starting with basic greetings and words relating to school and the home, where we spend a great deal of time early in life. As the learner's world is enlarged, so too is the vocabulary, as the book moves from private and academic spaces into the world at large. Each chapter contains pertinent vocabulary lists, which include idioms, phrases, and even proverbs. Chapters also helpfully include examples of Latin conversations (complete with comprehension questions), as well as exercises for learners to practice what they have learned.

In the first Lexicon Generale ("General Vocabulary"), Berard introduces the Latin names for the various parts of speech, translating them into English in parentheses (pp. 27-29), and henceforth leaves them untranslated. Translating grammatical vocabulary is especially helpful for newer Latinists, but is also helpful for veterans, as even many seasoned Latinists and classicists may have never learned these terms in the course of their studies.

Lexica are arranged by part of speech, and also include common phrases. Some lexical entries even provide conjugated examples to assist the reader—especially meminī (p. 51), the entry for which includes 1st- & 2nd-person singular forms to remind the reader that the verb has only perfect systems. Many verbs are given full lexical entries, but others, such as conscribere (p. 75), are simply mentioned as infinitives. This is not a shortcoming, but rather just a comment—no one book can fit all possible scenarios. All nouns include genitives, which is helpful for newer and veteran Latinists alike, and phrases include genitives for both components (e.g.: medicus dentarius, -i -i).1 Berard, thankfully acknowledging the gender diversity in occupations in modern times, also includes, whenever possible, masculine and feminine forms of agent nouns (e.g., magister -tri; - tra -trae, p. 78). This convention surely aims at a more equitable access to Latin for everyone, and also scores points for thoroughness in completing the lexicon.

Berard's exhaustively thorough catalogue of color vocabulary (pp. 30-33) is especially impressive. Berard delves into the various finer shades and hues of each of the basic colors, and gives a short explanation of the historical views of color in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (p. 30). Berard notes that "colors are categorized here primarily according to hue" (p. 30). Berard is also careful to suggest that the word color should be used with a color adjective to indicate color, rather than substance. Such pitfalls include plumbeus, "of lead" (substance), and Berard suggests plumbei coloris ("lead-colored") as a genitive of description to avoid confusion (p. 30). Such a survey of colors is especially apt for teaching students in class, as colors can be a nigh-inexhaustible source of inspiration for input as well as output.

Exercises include English translations of the Latin instructions, which may dispel any possible confusion for the reader. Exercises at the end of a chapter involve short-answer questions in Latin, requiring students to demonstrate the concepts they learned over the course of the chapter. Exercises include helpful footnotes with capsule grammar lessons, such as the pointers on deponent verbs on p. 88 regarding operor and fungor. These footnotes provide enough information either to suggest further research for a student, or to jog the memory, if necessary, for veteran learners.2

As for the conversations in the text, Berard's Latin is eminently readable, grammatical, and flows very well overall. His sermōnēs are imbued with the verisimilitude of actual conversations one would have today, except in Latin. These conversations resemble those in other modern language textbooks, but everything, even quotidian mundanities, seems loftier, somehow, in linguā Latīnā. In his prooemium, Berard states that he strived for variety rather than hypercorrectness, and avoided dissonant phrases if at all possible (p. 12). Berard thus embraces the ancient Roman ideal of variātio (or, as he says, varietas), keeping the speeches fresh and interesting while operating within multiple stylistic registers.

Comprehension questions for the conversations are comprehensible themselves, and can be easily answered in Latin by the student or learner. "Quid Maria facit?" (p. 74) is one such example. One can easily imagine a student responding (regarding the sermō provectior on p. 74), "Maria vult iūris cōnsulta fierī." Although this possible response is plucked directly from the text, it would show student engagement and their recall of the passage they just read, and, naturally, it constitutes output in the target language. Many of the readings have a number of comprehension questions; the aforementioned sermō on p. 74 has 13 such questions to consider.

This reviewer is hard-pressed to find many shortcomings in this text. However, sorely lacking is a complete lexicon/glossary at the back of the book. Occasionally, it was difficult to locate a specific word within the text. Even an index with references to the page/thematic section in which the word appears would be excellent. Berard recommends that readers look up words in a suitable dictionary, if needed, which will then help them correctly interpret dictionary entries (p. 10). Berard does recommend that readers use only vocabulary that they find useful, and stresses that not every word must be learned, unless the reader is interested in learning that particular word (p. 10). One explanation for this lack of a glossary may be contained in Berard's prooemium itself: he explains that learners are intended to "feed" (ad "pāscendum", p. 12) on the vocabulary, rather than merely "hunting down every single word … first thought about in their native tongue (dictiōnēs singulās ... vernāculā linguā prīmum cōgitātās, indāget, p. 12). Arguably, many classicists, and doubtless some newer learners, too, would benefit from a glossary. Such a glossary's use would be optional, certainly, and thus would not run counter to Berard's stated goals.

Vita Nostra is designed to help readers, writers, and especially Latin speakers navigate through their world while engaging with and using Latin as much as humanly possible. It is an excellent supplement to a traditional or comprehensible-input (CI)-based Latin classroom, independent study of Latin, or however Latin enthusiasts choose to access the language. Vita Nostra is in fine company alongside classical, medieval, and neo-Latin lexica and grammar texts, and would be a valuable addition to any Latinist's bookshelf. Berard notes, also, that he hopes that "at some point, at last a wholly Latin edition will come forth" (ēditiōne omnīnō Latīnā tandem aliquandō prōditūrā, p. 13), presumably to supplant this current version of Vita Nostra. Such an edition would indeed be valuable and welcome. Berard looks ahead to Tomus II, slated for publication in 2019, promising that "whoever should finish this volume will have the ability to treat most topics pertaining to human life!" (quī hunc tomum perfēcerit plēraque ad vītam hūmānam attinentia argūmenta verbīs Latīnīs tractāre habēbit, p. 142). Would that Berard is correct, as this would bode very well indeed for Latīnitas in the 21st century.


1.   Some minor typographical inconsistencies have cropped up in this regard and elsewhere, though they are not an impediment to understanding (e.g., on p. 76, philosophus naturalis, -i is lacks the dash for the second genitive). This reviewer has not noticed other typographical errors throughout; the volume has been very well edited.
2.   Exercises are not listed in the table of contents; Berard notes that the exercises are present in the text itself, however (p. 10).

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