So, tell us a little bit about yourself, and your previous experiences with languages
So my career to date is a pretty odd one. I went to law school fully intending on becoming a criminal law barrister and then a judge (naïve 16 year-old me wanted to sit in the Court of Appeal) but I was, thankfully, disabused of such ideas when I witnessed the hopelessness of the criminal justice system in action. I became a welfare rights adviser at the Citizens Advice at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, mostly helping EU families access benefits, and there I developed a strong interest in health inequalities and health justice. Nowadays, by day, I’m a full-time legal epidemiologist. The main part of my research uses big, routinely collected data to study participation in education among children in the care system and other children particularly vulnerable to poor outcomes.
In terms of languages, being educated through a pretty bog-standard English state school, I never really cared. In our school, French was mandatory from year 7 to 9 (about age 11 to 13) and then we had to pick from French, Spanish and German for GCSE (age 14 to 16); I picked German. I got good grades but could barely speak a word of either language and remained monolingual until much later. Classical languages were unheard of at my school. Even when I went to college (6th Form) to do my AS and A levels (basically the pre-requisite for going to university), Latin and Greek were nowhere to be seen. I studied Psychology, Biology, Law and Classics, the latter of which basically consisted of reading excerpts from the Odyssey and then something to do with Pericles and Thucydides, all in English and all frightfully dull. I actually wanted to do the Romans, I hated the teacher with a passion and then I dropped the subject (sometimes I tell people I “dropped out” for dramatic effect, but the truth is it was standard back then to drop one of the four AS subjects and take only three onto A level).
What was your impression of Latin prior to your serious foray into learning it.
I never really had one. I was taught in primary school that it was the language of the Romans but even the idea of a dead vs a living language wasn’t part of my linguistic schemata. There was just language, which you could either learn because there are people who know it, or you couldn’t, because there aren’t. I suppose I knew Latin fell into the former category because it’s everywhere but I never even thought about how someone would go about learning it, and certainly never knew the difference between knowing about language and knowing language. I must have heard at some point before entering the living Latin world that “Latin is a dead language” but I never really knew what that meant or why a language should be considered dead just because there’s no big nation state that uses it.
What has your Latin-language-learning journey looked like so far?
One day, sometime around 2007, I decided to learn another language. Because I’ve always been interested in the Romans (we had a “Roman week” in primary school for which my dad made a replica scutum out of balsa wood—I got to be part of the emperor’s body guard), I decided on Latin. I just began Googling for affordable courses and I found a physical pen-and-paper distance course which was the typical grammar-translation, not a word spoken, approach. The course probably should have taken a few months to complete but I found the lack of progress so agonising that it actually took me two years and, as you can guess, I came out of it not being able to read a single thing beyond Poeta puellam amat. This was very disappointing and so I pretty much gave up, only occasionally returning to Latin. I thought, given I have a legal education, I should at least be able to read Magna Charta, but even that evaded me at the Rex Anglie and so I gave up again.
A few years Later, I was bored and, searching on Google for information on how we know how Latin was pronounced by the Romans, found audio books and other such material. I just started listening to this and reading simpler stuff without any real direction but found myself being able to understand more and more. I then found some podcasts which are now increasingly prolific. I eventually summoned the courage to attend the London Latin Circle where I learned about CÆLUM (the Madrid living Latin summer school), my first being the 6th CÆLUM in 2018. When I returned to work, a colleague commented on how I actually looked relaxed and chilled out, which nobody has ever said before, so I knew I had found my Latin home. Otherwise, I now just try to speak to as many friends about interesting topics in Latin as I can and teach through the UCL Living Latin & Greek Society.
What sort of Latin content have you been producing, and what are your hopes for the future?
I basically have two main projects, both of which are really side projects and so only got done when I have some spare time. The first is my podcast, “Salvi Sitis!,” which I will carry on with as long as I can be bothered. This is a podcast entirely in Latin about anything to do with epidemiology and health. Sometimes it’s the very modern stuff, like what Latent Class Analysis and social epidemiology are or how you say “Data Science” in Latin, other times, I look at some of the Victorian greats in epidemiology, like the doctor John Snow, and I’ve also delved into the early modern period in looking at William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis (on the motion of the heart). The hardest part of producing this has been the neologisms. I always try to find words in our sources—we have medical texts written in Latin at least into the 18th century and a modern Latinate vocabulary—and so I hope I’m doing a good enough job in that regard and, therefore, that the podcast is a source of information about both epidemiology and Latin.
My second project is an Ørbergified version of De Motu Cordis and I’m also gathering together other relevant materials; so far this consists of two Latin poems written about Harvey and his book. I’m not sure for how much longer I want to carry on with just Harvey. So far I’ve been doing the whole of each chapter but I might start excerpting the rest of the book and then bring the project to a close within some reasonable time frame. I also want to expand into other early modern anatomists and do something with them, though I haven’t decided what. I think I’d like to do a compilation in the manner of the In Delphini Usum books but there are only 24 hours in a day.
5 If people want to hear more from you, in Latin, where can they follow your work?
Probably easiest is to follow me on Twitter (@MattJayLats). I almost always tweet about both my Latin and scientific activities, hoc sæpissime Anglice, illud Latine. People should be able to subscribe to Salvi Sitis! anywhere where they normally download podcasts. I put my De Motu Cordis work out on https://matthewjayepi.com/. Finally, if people want to know more about my legal epidemiology work, they should check out our website at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/child-health/research/population-policy-and-practice-research-and-teaching-department/cenb-clinical-5.