It’s 4 p.m. and students are filing into the basement classrooms at Woodburn Hall.
One is nearly packed; another is filling quickly.
Only four students wander into Room G-10. But for Latin 101, that’s a full house.
Latin classes are abnormally small at West Virginia University, especially compared to their foreign language counterparts. Most semesters, beginner-level Latin instructor Bob Tallaksen, and his upper-level Latin equivalent, Dan Borsay, are lucky to have a half dozen students. In time, even of few of those are forced out by packed schedules or lured away by more logical languages – Spanish and German and Japanese.
In those languages, the goal is to speak, fluently. That’s not the aim for Latin students. They are there to appreciate a culture, and maybe learn to read yellowed medieval manuscripts.
It’s sometimes considered a bit suspect for cash-strapped colleges to spend money on a language that, outside of perhaps Vatican City, no one speaks anymore. Several universities across the country have shuttered their departments for that very reason. Others, like WVU, have resisted. Historically, Latin is just too important.
Click the arrow to hear Bob Tallaksen read "Humpty Dumpty" in Latin:
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It was once considered the language of learning—of poets, philosophers, historians and scientists. The Catholic Church still inks its most precious documents in Latin. A handful of scholars still publish academic papers in Latin.
Though few wholly embrace it anymore, no one has really let it go.
Romance languages – Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese to name the main ones – are based on it. Scientific terminology is derived from it. The West Virginia state motto is written in it: “Montani Semper Liberi.” Mountaineers are always free.
And Bob Tallaksen feels lucky to be teaching it. Even if his classroom has only four desks full.
At the midpoint of their lives, people tend to take stock. What is it that I don’t have? What is it that I haven’t done? What is it that I still want to do?
Children and fast cars and trips to Europe usually result.
But not for Bob Tallaksen.
Tallaksen, an accomplished physician working in a private practice in Morgantown, ended up at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., cramming a year’s worth of college-level Latin into six weeks.
“It was the most intense academic experience I’ve ever had,” he says. (And he went to medical school.)
For most of his life, Latin had evaded Tallaksen. His high school didn’t offer it. Neither did North Carolina State University, where he completed his undergraduate degree. He wasn’t required to take it in medical school or during his stint at the U.S. Naval Hospital.
By the time he moved to Morgantown and began working as a radiologist, he figured the time for learning a new language had passed him by.
But then, in 2001, he was offered a job as a professor in the West Virginia University School of Medicine’s radiology department, and his world finally collided with his longing for Latin.
He agreed to take the job, knowing he’d have the time – or at least the ability – to earn a Master’s degree, studying art history and medieval manuscripts. And he figured anyone who bothered to dig through such masterpieces ought to be able to read them without the help of a translator.
That’s how his foray into the so-called dead language began. The summer class at Cornell came first. More advanced classes at WVU followed. Soon, he was devouring manuscripts and poetry alongside his professor, loading Latin audio files onto his iPod for long walks across campus.
“I love the elegant simplicity of the language, the beauty,” he says.
But then his love affair with Latin got complicated. The University’s longtime Latin professor, Alice Frost – the one who had nurtured his passion over tea and old books – had retired and replaced by a part-time teacher. No one seemed prepared to take her place full time. The program at WVU threatened to go the way of the language.
The thought of losing Latin, so soon after he’d discovered it, was too much for Tallaksen.
And so even though his schedule was already filled with medical school lectures and radiological residents, the doctor agreed: He would help the University revive a dead language.
Tallaksen’s students pull their desks into a semicircle. It’s time to read Lingva Latina, the required text that is written entirely in Latin.
Tallaksen admits the book could be intimidating for first-time foreign language students, but English borrows enough from basic Latin that reading the introductory chapter is like reading “Dick and Jane.” And his lectures and lessons on grammar are typically enough to figure out the rest.
Besides, it’s more novel than text book, and the plot is just starting to get good. The sickly main character, Quintus, has just woken up in his bed and is being updated on all that he’s missed: fights, brooding and love letters.
Because there are so few students in the class, it’s impossible for them to hide when Tallaksen looks their way and asks for a translation: And what does Quintus say? But Tallaksen doesn’t sting. He praises his students when they get it right, patiently explains when they get it wrong and whispers the answers with a wink when they’re close, which they increasingly are.
“A student who finishes this class should be able sit down with Caesar and hardly need a dictionary,” Tallaksen says. “Of course, he was a soldier and didn’t write very complicated prose.”
He chuckles. He likes to tell jokes that only Latin students would understand. It keeps them interested. The cookies he brings to class on Thursdays don’t hurt, either.
But, ultimately, for his students, interest in Latin is either logical and purposeful or passing and fanciful. Rarely, is there gray.
Eric Lemley, a pre-athletic training major, and Addison Lane, a foreign language major, find Latin helps them in other classes. Kaitlyn Looney, a theatre major, has an interest in Viking and Celtic history, which makes reading Latin imperative. And Abby Bennett must take a language to fulfill her secondary education major requirements. She chose Latin because, well, it makes her look good.
“It sounds smart when you say you’re taking Latin,” she says with a grin.
Tallaksen doesn’t care why they’re there. He cares that they enjoy Latin while they are. He cares that they breathe it in and pass it on.
Medicine may be Tallaksen’s career – he recently won a 2010 WVU Foundation Award for teaching it – but, for him, there is nothing quite as refreshing as walking into room G-10 on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
“I can’t go to Paris and order a meal,” he says. “But I know another language and another culture and that’s incredibly enriching.”
It doesn’t matter that language isn’t considered logical and the classes don’t always fill the room (though 30 students have registered for fall semester). For Tallaksen, Latin is an art increasingly lost to time and, at WVU, he’s in a race to stop it.
By April Johnston
WVU News and Information Services
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