In The Prince and the Pauper (published in 1882), Mark Twain made some passing references to the Latin and Greek languages. The plot is well-known: a prince (Prince Edward, the only surviving son of King Henry VIII) and a pauper (Tom Canty), who are identical in age and appearance, meet and unwittingly change places. Soon after the two boys meet, Edward asks Tom if he is learned.
“I know not if I am or not, sir. The good priest that is called Father Andrew taught me, of his kindness, from his books.”
“Knowest thou the Latin?”
“But scantly, sir, I doubt.”
“Learn it, lad; ‘tis hard only at first. The Greek is harder; but neither these nor any tongues else, I think, are hard to the lady Elizabeth and my cousin. Thou shouldst hear those damsels at it!” (26)
Is the Greek harder? Perhaps. Having learned my own Greek before learning Latin, I suspect that it made learning Latin much easier because I had a template in place for organizing new vocabulary, syntax, idioms, and the like. Twain himself was largely self-taught—though quite well, by any standards—and his interest in language is clear in his other writings, this despite his amusing protests in “The Awful German Language” and in his autobiography (who can forget his coining of Hottentotenstrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte?). Shortly after the two boys exchange roles, Edward is searching for Tom’s home at Offal Court, weary after being roughed up by a group of poor boys at Christ’s Church. The young prince’s thoughts are not inclined toward retribution against those boys, but to improving their minds. He thinks,
“When I am king, they shall not have read and shelter only, but also teachings out of books, for a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved, and the heart. I will keep this diligently in my remembrance, that this day’s lesson not be lost upon me, and my people suffer thereby; for learning softeneth the heart and breedeth gentleness and charity.” (32)
Not long after this, when Tom (now mistaken to be Edward gone mad) is interviewed by King Henry, the king is perplexed by this apparent madness that has gripped his only son:
The king was silent and thoughtful awhile, and his face betrayed a growing distress and uneasiness. Presently he said, with something of hope in his voice, “Perchance he is but mad upon this one strain and hath his wits unmarred as toucheth other matter. God send it may be so! We will make a trial.”
Then he asked Tom a question in Latin, and Tom answered him lamely in the same tongue. The king was delighted, and showed it. The lords and doctors manifested their gratification also. The king said, “’Twas not according to his schooling and ability, but sheweth that his mind is but diseased, not stricken fatally. How say you, sir?”
The physician address bowed low and replied, “It jumpeth with mine own conviction, sire, that thou hast divined aright.” (37)
The king then speaks to Tom in French, but Tom cannot answer. The king swoons slightly but the response in Latin is sufficient to convince him his “son” can recover from his infirmity. Retaining some of the Latin is clearly a sign of life and hope!