Latin Goes Live

The Perseus Digital Library breathes new life into a "dead" language.

HUMANITIES, March/April 2012, Volume 33, Number 2

“If Latin were dead,” says Matthew Potts, formerly of the University of Notre Dame, “every Western culture and language would also be bereft of life.” Gregory Crane, founder of the Perseus Digital Library, would concur. Since the mid 1980s, he’s been working to improve users’ personal access to digital collections in an increasingly networked world. The flagship collection at the Perseus Digital Library, with NEH funding, has been covering the literature and culture of the Greco-Roman World since the library’s inception but has more recently expanded to provide a dynamic site for other digital collections as well, including Arabic and Germanic materials, documents from nineteenth-century American history, Humanist and Renaissance Italian poetry in Latin, and, farthest afield from the rest of the group, text of the Richmond Daily Dispatch, from November 1, 1860, to December 30, 1865.

The liveliness of the site and its potential to resuscitate the study of Latin for one thing rest in no small part on something called the Perseus Hopper, “a suite of services for interacting with textual collections,” including linguistic support, contextualized reading, searching, and extensibility. To illustrate, take the word “asparagus.” You may remember that there’s a quote with that spring vegetable figuring prominently somewhere in Roman history, but who said it? And who attributed it to the speaker? The searching capability on the site will come in handy here. It turns up the word “asparagus” a surprising twenty-seven times in the collection, but only once is it used figuratively. The quote most readers remember, whether vaguely or with certainty, is attributed to the Emperor Augustus by the historian Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars. Augustus, according to Suetonius, used it among a number of pet phrases. To “describe anything in haste,” Augustus would say, “it was sooner done than asparagus is cooked” (“Life of Augustus,” chapter 84).

Another handy feature is linguistic support. Call up what are probably the four most highly recognized words among current and former Latin students: “Arma virumque cano” (“que” is the third of the four words, meaning “and” and combined with “virum” here in a kind of verbal coupling sometimes permitted in Latin). By clicking on each word you get its case, whether it’s singular or plural, its part of speech, and a dictionary meaning not necessarily the one found in a translation. “Of arms and the man I sing” in Latin becomes as comprehensible and admirable for its succinctness as it is for the same reasons in the English translation. A gift from the gods for anyone making their way through Virgil’s Aeneid.

The first three aspects of the robust hopper are easy for the digitally uninitiated to grapple with, but “extensibility”? It turns out extensibility is a software engineering term for the site’s built-in capacity to allow for future modifications, something that, given the rate the site has been adding new material recently, may come sooner than boiled asparagus.