The living room echoed with the syllables of a long-dead language as members of the Princeton Latin table greet a new arrival, wet and bedraggled from the driving rain outside. He serves himself from a table of food that sits in front of a Virgil-stuffed bookshelf.
"What we're taught about Latin is so much focusing on reading proficiency," said Leah Whittington GS, the founder of the table, as her new guest sat down. "But the more I internalize it, the more it's my own language, the better reader I become of Virgil and Horace and all the Latin authors I love."
The table usually meets in Chancellor Green and has 10 to 12 attendees, but once a month the students meet informally in a more intimate setting, in this case, Whittington's living room.
Will Sullivan '09 is the only undergraduate regular at the Latin Table. "It's one of the few places where you can have a real intellectual home that's not graded," he said.
Most of the participants at the table last night trained in spoken Latin with Father Reginald Foster, who, as the Vatican Latin Secretary, translates the Pope's edicts into Latin. Foster hosts a free Latin course each summer on Janiculum Hill in Rome.
John Kuhner '98, the sole Princeton alum at the table and now a Latin teacher at the Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., took Foster's course as an undergrad. Yet he said he had been doubtful about the prospects for a Princeton Latin Table when Whittington first floated the idea. "I never thought it was possible here because [the University] is so small," he said.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Whittington had already founded a Latin table there. Subsidized by Harvard's classics department, the Latin table met weekly in a Bertucci's restaurant in Harvard Square.
"I went to the Harvard Latin Table because they had free pizza," said Anna Dolganov GS, who attended Harvard a few years behind Whittington, before coming to Princeton. "But this is far superior."
"The level of conversation here is very high because people have been practicing a long time," Whittington said, noting that the Harvard table was largely made up of undergraduates with limited speaking experience.
Conversations at the Latin Table embody the major controversies of modern spoken Latin. Thanks to a year of study in Italy, one regular member speaks ecclesiastical Latin, which uses pronunciation similar to that used in medieval church liturgy. The rest of the table, on the other hand, speaks Erasmian Latin, closer to the way Latin was spoken in ancient Rome.
The other great controversy is how to translate modern words into Latin. Pizza, for instance, can just be "pizza," Whittington said. But another technique is to find an existing Latin word that is similar to the object in question. In this case, pizza can also be "laganum," an ancient Roman word for a piece of flat bread.
"Once you learn [to speak Latin]," participant Rosa Andujar GS said, "you wonder why everyone doesn't learn Latin this way."
Whittington said she was "totally thrilled" by the success of the table. "I love it. It's so exciting to do a new thing, and now I get to do it right a second time."