A Latin scholar in our midst

Published 5:03 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2019

short rows header

People have scoffed at Latin since my generation was in high school. Who wants to study a dead language, right?

Well, Martha Gwaltney disagreed vigorously and, after two years in her Latin I and II classes back in the dark ages, I also was a believer. Still am.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Veni, Vidi Vici. Or at least, we thought we had conquered something after two years under her tutelage. The scholars among us went on to study Latin further, but two years provided a healthy dose.

Mrs. Gwaltney came to Smithfield as a young English and Latin teacher not long after graduating from Farmville State Teachers College (today Longwood University). She was, in fact, a Latin and English major and a member of the National Latin Honor Society.

She was joined a few years later here in Smithfield by her sister, Jean Clayton, where the two of them raised families, were deeply involved in community affairs, and became one of the most enduring teaching teams ever at Smithfield High School. They spent their active years — more than three decades each — trying to instill the basics of the English language in some often very thick heads, and I salute the memories of both for what they managed to accomplish. But we mostly remember Mrs. Gwaltney as the soft-spoken and quite articulate Latin teacher, a role that I feel confident was her favorite.

I’m not sure why I chose Latin as my foreign language of choice, but I’ve never regretted the decision. Nor can I recall that Mrs. Gwaltney made Latin “Fun” in any memorable way. There were, indeed, times in the ninth grade when I could have cared less about Julius Caesar’s exploits. In fact, I’m not sure that I began appreciating Latin until long after high school.

But teach us she did.

Later, as I began a serious writing career, it quickly became obvious that Latin had made a huge contribution to English. In deference to language scholars out there, I do recall that English is considered largely a Germanic language, while Spanish, Italian and French are Romance languages, with deeper roots in Latin.

Still, much of our day-to-day speech as well as our writings are rooted in that distant time, though we often don’t even realize it. A huge number of our English words had roots in Latin, often by way of France.

A current Latin scholar, Dr. Christopher Perrin, refers to Latin as “a dead language that never died.”

Today, we would never say or write Exempli gratia, the Latin phrase meaning “for the sake of example,” but we certainly understand e.g., which is its English descendent.

Nor are we likely to recognize Id est (that is), but all of us will recognize it as i.e. Then, there’s the Latin word for “word” — verbum. We know it as verbatim, meaning the precise words.

Mrs. Gwaltney died more than a decade ago, and her sister, Mrs. Clayton, died this past December, prompting my memory of this team of stalwart teachers.

So, my thanks to both ladies for their guidance in language skills, and to Mrs. Gwaltney in particular for introducing more than a generation of us to Latin. Thanks to her and more recent Latin teachers, this often-belittled language lives on.

As an old schoolmate, Katherine Delk, recalled in an email she sent me soon after Mrs. Gwaltney died, it’s because of Mrs. Gwaltney that there are those among us who know the difference in alumnus, an alumna, alumni and alumnae. And a few of us might even still care.