Latin is alive.
At least it is on Nantucket, where 18 teachers converged last week to immerse themselves in what most people consider a dead language, one taught to be read but not spoken by anyone other than specialists.
The teachers had signed up for a week of Latin classes, but what they got was Latin boot camp, in which they could speak only the language of Virgil and Ovid to each other and their teachers for seven full days, a pledge sealed by an oath they signed upon arriving . Their unusual enterprise, the first of its kind in New England, drew puzzled stares from sunbathers, store cashiers, and waiters.
Classics professors from the University of Massachusetts at Boston organized the conventiculum, or mini-convention, to help Latin teachers improve their command of the spoken language and, in doing so, find ways to add appeal and relevance to a language that students rarely hear.
The results were at times maddening and hilarious, but also encouraging for teachers who have years of experience teaching the language but rarely have to speak it.
``There was shock in that room when we had to sign that pledge. Big shock. And horror," said Maria Giacchino , who teaches at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.
But as the week was ending Saturday , the teachers expressed appreciation of the course, and hoped they could use similar techniques to help students better internalize Latin and have an easier time reading ancient texts.
``Speaking it makes it seem more like a real language and not just some code," said Alexandra Garcia-Mata, who teaches Latin to middle school students at Austin Preparatory School in Reading.
Overhearing snippets of Latin in a beach parking lot, David Curtis, a senior at Phillips Academy, Andover, who was on vacation with his family, walked up to the teachers and asked them, in Latin, why they were speaking Latin.
``They said they always talk in Latin," said Curtis, 17. He scratched his head, crossed his arms and stood silent for a moment in bewilderment.
``I was kind of surprised. Then I got excited. A fellow Roman! This is cool," said Curtis, who has studied Latin for six years and is considering a classics major in college.
UMass Boston will launch a new master's degree program in January to address the shortage of Latin teachers. The teachers who attended the conventiculum will receive credit if they apply for the program, which will emphasize Latin and classical humanities.
The teachers attended nearly eight hours of classes a day, including applied linguistics and Latin, taught by two renowned University of Kentucky professors who were early proponents of spoken Latin and have held similar conventiculums for more than a decade.
Many of the teachers had imagined having to speak Latin only in class, not from the time they awoke in their twin-size bunk beds. They had to negotiate sharing one bathroom among six people, grocery shopping, and getting to know each other -- all in Latin.
``It's frustrating that I know this and if I had a piece of paper I could produce it, but when I open my mouth it just doesn't come out like it does with my pen," said Sophia Rovitti, who teaches at Concord-Carlisle High School.
The teachers attacked the task of having fun in Latin. Instead of sandcastles on Surfside Beach, they built sand replicas of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine -- to scale, complete with blobs of sand to represent lions. They played games such as 20 Questions, and made up stories in Latin, activities many hope to re-create in their classrooms.
They toted Latin dictionaries in their backpacks and purses and spoke Latin at the beach, in art galleries, at the whaling museum -- at first only in the present tense, to ease the difficulty of verb conjugations. They told jokes in Latin, with references to ancient literature. They adopted Latin names, such as Calvus, meaning ``Baldie," which a 68-year-old Boston College High School teacher bestowed upon himself.
The week is ``definitely a little nerdy," said Jacqueline Carlon, an assistant professor of classics at UMass-Boston.
During a dinner, several belted out a drinking song from the Middle Ages in Latin while sipping white wine.
Despite the levity, the struggles were evident. At Surfside Beach on Saturday, one teacher pointed at the sky and exclaimed in Latin: ``Behold the airplane. It's hostile." She had meant to say, ``Look at the plane. It's flying low to the ground."
Teachers comparing tan lines uttered Latin phrases meaning ``You have the skin of a farmer" and ``I have summery feet."
Robert Smeltzer has taught Latin at Harwich High School for 17 years, and each year, students ask him why they never learn to speak the language.
``I would say, `No one speaks it, so why should we put emphasis on something you're not going to use?' " Smeltzer said. ``This week has convinced me that Latin can be spoken in the classroom. Now I realize that Latin is still alive."