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Each of the two high school Latin teachers working with me this past summer asked me how to handle such a question as I have used for the title. It gets around to the case-endings: did they really have to listen for them to understand conversational Latin, or weren’t they really talking much more simply than got written in the books? The answer is perhaps a bit disappointing for the student who wants to be reassured that the ancient Romans were really speaking English.
The evidence is architectural as well as literary. Surprisingly enough, the best and firmest answer lies in Greek and Roman theatrical architecture, and leads to one of the most interesting of all impacts of culture on the level of technology. How come we have miserable acoustics in even our brand-new theatres while all of the surviving ancient theatres have outstanding acoustics? There are many answers, but the basic one, it can be shown, is that we don’t have to hear case-endings and they did. With our one-two-three, subject-verb-complement language, all we have to hear is the words in their sequence. We do not have to hear the entirety of each word. So we don’t need good acoustics, and we don’t get good acoustics.