Mary Beard’s encomium to Kennedy’s Latin Primer

I, too, was brought up on Kennedy – the buff-coloured Shorter Latin Primer first, and then the green one. The result is that to me, now, the way the conjugations are laid out in Kennedy, in logically arranged boxes, is the one way that makes perfect sense. The best-intentioned modern grammars, if they lack boxes to display each tense of the indicative or subjunctive, are second-best. (The fact, mentioned by Mary Beard, that this layout was the brainchild of the Kennedy daughters, makes me eternally grateful to them.)

I also appreciated the fact that the whole range of verb parts was presented to me at once, so that I could see my progress towards mastering the lot. I see the reasoning behind the modern courses that give you only what you need for Book 1, but Kennedy’s visual brilliance in my view overrides this. You can also see at a glance the patterns that underlie the various forms of the moods and tenses.

The only page that misled me was the Deponent Verb page. By giving the one example, utor, Kennedy made me believe that all deponents were of the third conjugation.

But enough of my thoughts. You want to read Mary Beard:

The Independent

It has lived in my desk, thumbed, defaced, treasured and from time to time mistreated, for more than 40 years, since I was 12. Benjamin Hall Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer is the Rolls-Royce of text-books and surely the longest lived: 120 years after its publication it is still the best-selling book in the Classics section of my local university bookshop. At school, in our second year of learning Latin, we were each given our own copies – and told that when we knew what was included within, we would then “know Latin”.

Kennedy’s Primer has not had a good press among the young. It consists mostly of hundreds of tables of verbs and nouns, declensions and conjugations, rules and their exceptions. As such, it has come to stand for everything that is deadening about learning ancient languages: the “grammar grind” – “amo, amas, amat” – and so on, and on. In desperation (and with a degree of wishful thinking), generations of children took up their fountain pens and changed the title of the abridged, junior version of Kennedy’s Revised Primer. It took only a few extra letters and lines to turn the Shorter Latin Primer into the Shortbread Eating Primer. If only, they thought.

But for me, the Primer was a wondrous possession. I was entranced by the idea that someone could control a language, that you could reduce a complicated and difficult tongue to tables and rules, that it was possible to “know Latin” in this way. I’ve read enough about linguistics since to be rather more suspicious about how accurate those rules can ever be. But the Primer remains my first point of access to Latin and its mysterious complexities.

I also felt a soft spot for Kennedy himself. Before becoming Professor of Greek in Cambridge, he had been headmaster and legendary Classics teacher at Shrewsbury School. Being at school in Shrewsbury myself, down the road from where he had ruled the roost, I got the chance to visit his old classroom and even sit in his venerable desk. At Cambridge, I discovered that Kennedy had been a staunch advocate of women’s education.

But there was to be a funny twist in the tale. A few years ago, some enterprising work in the archives by Christopher Stray unearthed the true story of the Primer. Kennedy had had less to do with it that we had all imagined. He had been responsible for a dreadful and unsuccessful first version, the Public School Latin Primer. The Revised, as its title hints, was his second go. Why did it do so much better?

Cherchez les femmes. The answer is that old Professor Kennedy took a back seat while the organisation, layout and details were taken over by his daughters, Marion and Julia. It was their enterprise and talents that managed to arrange the rules of Latin in a comprehensible way. For me, that made the book even easier to love.

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