Brief Review: Ossa Latinitatis Sola : Encounter 1

This is the first part of however many parts. The book I’m talking about today is Ossa Latinitatis Sola: ad mentem Reginaldi rationemque (The mere bones of Latin: according to the thought and system of Reginald), by Reginaldus Thomas Foster, and Daniel Patricius McCarthy.

If you’ve never heard of Reggie Foster, you’ve been living under a rock, I presume. For a long time the Pope’s Latinist, Reggie became famous for his Latin, and particularly for his Latin summer schools, held in Rome, at which he initiated people into a vibrant, and living, language. For all sorts of reasons, Reggie now resides in the US, where he is involved with some Latin initiatives. One of which is taking his vast quantity of knowledge and ‘getting it down on paper’ so to speak. Hence this 831 page volume, envisaged as the first of five volumes to come.

One of the difficulties in approaching this book is that 154 pages in, I still haven’t worked out who or what it’s for. More on that in a second.

This first volume lays out 5 “Experiences” (series of lessons? But they’re not lessons), which represent several years’ worth of Latin for a student. Each Experience is made up of a series of “Encounters” (‘lessons’ but they are not lessons because that doesn’t fit Reggie’s pedagogical ideas). I’ve read through the first Experience, which is a student’s first set of encounters wiith Latin.

Each (mostly) of the encounters introduces some piece of elementary grammar, in a discursive style. There are no tables, but there is an emphasis on strict learning with precision. This is one of the things I find pedagogically confusing in Reggie’s method – one must, obviously, learn the endings (say), but the book studiously and repeatedly rejects tables, charts, memorisation, or the like. Actually, I half understand the rationale, but a table probably wouldn’t have done a student any harm.

Some of the presentations are pedagogically interesting. Reggie groups all 1st/2nd declensions together as “Block 1” and 3rd declension as “Block 2”. I can see the advantages of that. On cases, though, he insists on calling them by functional names: to-for-from for dative, by-with-from-in for ablative. Again, there is some good reason for this, but the relentless avoidance of traditional terminology is sometimes taken to extremes. This is most clearly seen in calling the tenses T1-6. Now a student must learn what T2 stands for, and what T4 stands for, without any labelling at all.

There are no lessons here though. How does one go from the narrative description of grammatical items, to the language itself? Through the “reading sheets” – that is, in every encounter Reggie states something along the lines of “No it is up to the teacher to look around and find in any source or any monument of Latin literature examples of these things which are very frequent and which will allow the students to master this idea immediately.” and directs both student and teacher to look at Latin texts. Some of which are included in the book, and with great variety. But without any attempt to moderate difficulty at all.

So, this brings me back to the question of who this book is for. Not for a student, well not an auto-didact, because there isn’t enough here to learn Latin from. You will not acquire the content of the encounters, if you pick up random and indecipherable texts. No, Latin texts require being-made-comprehensible if they are to be comprehended and if a learner is to learn Latin from them! So a teacher is necessary for this book. But this is not, in itself, a book you could teach from, unless you’d learnt from Reggie yourself perhaps. Every encounter would require a lesson to be prepared from that material, and reading sheets of Latin selected, and prepared by the teacher to demonstrate the content of those encounters. While this is certainly possible, is it feasible.

Scattered throughout are Reggie’s oddities. Linguistic fallacies abound, e.g. “rather careless modern languages” (p. 28), “the influence of modern faulty English” (p. 38). But among those, there are equally useful gems. Chief among these, is Reggie’s observations of patterns, and use of these to lay down precepts. The 80/20 rule applied to 3rd declension nouns in terms of ablatives in i/e reversed for adjectives. Some neat tricks for explaining and learning verb patterns.

At the end of the first encounter is 44 pages of reading sheets – a selection of interesting Latin well beyond any Latin reader/learner without a good deal of help, I would think. Or a good deal of time to work through them painstakingly, which is perhaps the intention.

So far, I think OLS is a phenomenal book, but of questionable utility. It may be that that question will be resolved, for me or in general, in due course. There are certainly many things here I could use and adapt. I remain grateful to see mens Reginaldi ratioque in print. But this certainly is ossa sola, and a great deal of enfleshment remains.

More thoughts on this volume, and subsequent volumes (!), in due course.

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