Humanities Moments

Meeting the last man on planet earth who could speak Latin

Contributed by Michael Fontaine, 40, professor of classics at Cornell University
The Vatican
A single question changed the course of my life.

When I first began studying Latin in 1996, it was a dead language, no doubt about it. It was pointless to try to speak it; everyone agreed the grammar was just too hard.

Legend had it, though, that a single man—a priest, somewhere in Rome, Italy—could do it. The last man alive who could speak Latin! I had to find him.

And after endless blind turns, I did. It was spring 1997, and I was spending the semester abroad in Rome.

I got up very early one morning because the immortal Reginald Foster—papal secretary of Latin to four popes—agreed to stop by on his way to work at the Vatican.

Not knowing what to expect, I opened the classroom door to find a man dressed as if he’d come to repair the dishwasher. He was sitting down and smiling widely.

“Can you really speak Latin?” I whispered, terrified.

He grinned wider and shot back, “Quid, tu censes me heri natum esse?” (“What, do you think I was born yesterday?”)

That did it. That absurd outfit, that warm grin, that exuberant and virtuoso reply—that all settled it. I’d found my guru.

Title

Meeting the last man on planet earth who could speak Latin

Subject

This moment impressed on me more clearly than ever that language is a function of individuals. The warmth, respect, and sense of fun that Fr. Foster radiated--especially toward me, a bumbling college student of no special experience in Latin--was crucial in undercutting his words. You cannot learn a language without getting to know a great deal about your teacher or students. Speaking a language is scary. Those of us who teach foreign languages have an awesome responsibility, and the power, to set our students at ease.

And with a single sentence, he taught me an unforgettable lesson in how to answer a question in exactly the right way.

Description

A single question changed the course of my life.

When I first began studying Latin in 1996, it was a dead language, no doubt about it. It was pointless to try to speak it; everyone agreed the grammar was just too hard.

Legend had it, though, that a single man—a priest, somewhere in Rome, Italy—could do it. The last man alive who could speak Latin! I had to find him.

And after endless blind turns, I did. It was spring 1997, and I was spending the semester abroad in Rome.

I got up very early one morning because the immortal Reginald Foster—papal secretary of Latin to four popes—agreed to stop by on his way to work at the Vatican.

Not knowing what to expect, I opened the classroom door to find a man dressed as if he’d come to repair the dishwasher. He was sitting down and smiling widely.

“Can you really speak Latin?” I whispered, terrified.

He grinned wider and shot back, “Quid, tu censes me heri natum esse?” (“What, do you think I was born yesterday?”)

That did it. That absurd outfit, that warm grin, that exuberant and virtuoso reply—that all settled it. I’d found my guru.

Date

Spring 1997

Contributor

Michael Fontaine, 40, professor of classics at Cornell University

Identifier

meeting-last-man-on-planet-earth

Location

Collection