A not so dead language: The University of Queensland Latin Group

Upon the surface, the UQ Latin Group is a eclectic mix of strikingly different backgrounds and personalities. One only needs the privilege of meeting the group to discover all are incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable, and dedicated – united by a passion for the perpetuation of a classical language.

It's Friday at 2:30pm and Ovid is lamenting. His written woes are devotedly pored over by individuals who, though living centuries later, find importance in his story. I attended the group for five weeks with my own copy of Tristia, intending to discover why.

The group began in the 1980s by Professor Michael Dyson, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. After his retirement in 1995 the role was taken over by Emeritus Professor Robert D. (Bob) Milns. Bob was emeritus professor of Classics at UQ, and one of the founders of the UQ Alumni Friends of Antiquity, uniting alumni members from many walks of life and age groups in the study of the classics. His dedication to the preservation and study of the ancient world has been honoured in the eponymously named University of Queensland RD Milns Antiquities Museum. I contacted his widow, Lyn Milns, who claimed the composition of these groups were people “who shared a love of the Classical languages and literature and the civilisations to which they belonged”. This feature is only blindingly evident in meeting with the group today.

The eldest member of the group is the Honourable Manus Boyce, who prefers to be called ‘Mick’, as “Manus is an uncommon name in Australia, it’s an Irish derivative of ‘Magnus’, meaning ‘brave’”. It’s a typical show of intellect from a group of highly accoladed individuals.

Mick grew up in Townsville, where, in 1942 when he was only seven, the Japanese bombed three nights out of four. 152 000 troops swarmed the streets of the town. Mick confesses, “I used to sleep with a knife under my pillow, just in case.”

Townsville, as a burgeoning rural town, could not offer the same educational benefits in Mick’s time. He moved down south to Brisbane to schools that could offer classical learning, sparking a lifelong passion for Mick – Latin. In 1952, Mick won the Senior Prize for Latin, one of the top two students in Queensland. Proving his excellence in the humanities, Mick’s school ushered him into a law degree at UQ. A full-time law degree only lent itself to a little bit of Latin in the first couple of years, though Mick never let go of his love for Latin, calling the language “the key to romance languages, and I love romance languages”.

Mick practised as a solicitor for seven years, a barrister for seventeen and the next seventeen years were spent as a district court judge. He became a Queen’s Counsel in 1983. In 1999 Mick was awarded the Senate Medal for Distinguished Service to the University of Queensland. His dedication to the field of law he states: “feels worthwhile”.

“Worthwhile” is how Patrick Buckridge, former English professor at Griffith University, describes the group’s affairs. It's the "mix of of hard intellectual work and leisurely appreciation (that) makes for a stimulating and worthwhile experience". Like Mick, Pat has simply always loved Latin. He studied in school for four years at Boys Grammar, taught in the last two years by Emeritus Professor of Classics at UQ, Trevor Bryce, now a world authority on the Hittites. He and Mick also studied Latin at UQ. That love and appreciation of classical languages and literature also began for Pat at a young age. He remembers the books he had as a child, the Heroes (1855) by Charles Kingsley, and of course, the Iliad and the Odyssey (in ‘Classic Comics’ form). Much later he found himself teaching The Odyssey in translation for many years in a ‘great books’ course at Griffith University.

A common answer from members when asked if Latin had any particular application to the real world is: no. Not wholly due to Latin’s unfortunate epithet as a “dead language”, though widely read contemporary translations in English or other languages are also not redundant to this group. As Mick maintains with definitiveness, even in his work in the law field, there are nowadays translations available for all the Latin terminology still in use. Practical advantage in the practice of law is not contingent on the study of Latin. Patrick calls their weekly Latin reading and conversational activities “fairly self-contained and self-justifying”.

When covid-19 hit in 2020, the group carried on without a hitch, moving to zoom, “which worked surprisingly well”, Pat says. Zoom provides an avenue for members to continue to attend from afar. One member, Peter Brown, zooms in from work at UNSW in Sydney. If the Latin group has taught anything applicable to the everyday life, Pat says satirically, it’s that zoom will teach you “interpersonal tolerance”. It’s a fitting tale, that though much of Latin is lost and cannot operate as it used to, the presence of a global pandemic will not put on hold its weekly translations.

The biggest threat to the perpetuation of the group has been the deaths of members over the years. Six of the regular members of the group passed away, other members have succumbed to dementia and cannot attend any longer. In 2000, when Pat joined, there were about twenty members, now there are about eight. There used to be more postgraduates and senior undergraduate students in attendance too, but now there are just two. However, after Bob’s passing in February of 2020, Dr. Amelia Brown, Senior Lecturer in Greek History and Language, stepped in and took leadership of both the Greek and Latin groups and her passion, generosity and humour has been integral to the groups.

The dwindling numbers has not daunted Jade Frangos, who joined the group near the end of her degree in 2019 and intends to continue “indefinitely”. The group is valuable to her, as she works a lot, it has provided a connection with others of similar interests, a connection to the university, and a connection to the humanities. She understands younger members like herself have had their lives consumed by work, and “not everyone can carve out time during work hours for Latin of all things”! However, this group is a part of history, and Jade is proud to be a part of one of the few members who keep it alive. Though Latin may not have any practical use, for Jade, it has been incredibly valuable to her own life. It has perpetuated her interest in languages, it has given her a living tutoring Latin privately, and has provided her the chance to

“really engage with the rich world of ancient texts. Latin is just a wonderful thing!”

The UQ Latin Group has largely reassumed its usual routine. They meet for an hour at 2:30pm on Fridays on level 5 of the Michie Building where one member will prepare to read and translate their allocated passage from Latin literature. It’s a meticulous procedure, where each inflection, spelling and tense is crucial to the understanding of the sentence. Tempers can flare over specific words and misconstrued meanings. Often translating the entire book can take a year.

Afterwards, the group heads for coffee, shouted each week by a different member. The generosity of the group is touching. Marion’s birthday was the day before, so she brought in Ferrero Roches. The next week she brought in homemade German orange cake. Anne lent me her favourite book – Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Amelia brings in books gifted from relatives of past members, from colleagues and other universities.

There is very little Latin studied in schools and universities now. Pat argues in favour of making Greek and Roman mythology part of the primary school curriculum, as they once were, though he believes the designers of the Australian school curriculum would view it as “ideologically unacceptable… for all the obvious, stupid reasons”.  He also expressed interest in an idea that had some currency a few years ago, that Latin, being a “dead language,” could usefully be offered as a subject to socially disadvantaged students who would not need the pre-existing “cultural capital” required to learn a language in use. They would thus be given the opportunity to succeed in learning something complex and difficult, thereby gaining confidence and motivation for further learning.

It's the unfortunate truth that while over 60% of ASX corporate executives (and federal politicians) hold humanities degrees, UQ and the Australian government currently use tiered fees to place prioritisation on business or engineering degrees. However, Pat is “pleasantly surprised” that the classics department, part of the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, still continues to flourish here at UQ. Member Russell Davies, a practising GP with a PhD theology points out sagely,

“humanities people are doing what other people are interested in”.

There will always be a push for anthropological and literary investigations even if they are not considered having ‘practical’ or instrumental value.

The importance of learning languages is from a scientific perspective obvious. It is a “demanding mental discipline, which is good for the youthful brain”, Pat states. Yet, there is more to the challenge of translating a language which is finding itself scarcer in a world that does not place precedence on it. It’s the group itself that provides importance to the individuals within it.

From my observations, Jade’s value of “grit and commitment” embodies the soul of the group. Without these members who consistently attend, prepare their allocations, and commit to the integrity of the language, the group’s future would be unsteady. The group owes its beginnings to dedicated men and women and it will be kept alive by the same quality of individuals. Though Latin the language may be dead, the UQ Latin group is very much alive with soul, heart, and a lot of brain.

Emma Cameron is a Advanced Humanities student. This article is from a series developed from the Advanced Humanities internship with UQ HASS Advancement.