Language Learners from Literature: Perkin the Goat Boy

It is hard to find Latin learners in modern books, unless they are modern books with medieval settings! One of these is Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, another novel I loved as a child. While rereading it yesterday, I counted several Latin learners among the characters! But it was one special Latin learner, Perkin the goat boy, whom I was rereading it for. It is he whom I want to introduce you to today.

From Chapter 1

The novel is a diary that “Birdy,” our narrator, starts in the year 1290, when she is fourteen years old. One of the first entries is an affectionate description of someone she calls her “heart’s brother.”

I am frequently told not to spend so much time with the goat boy, so of course I seek him out whenever I can. Once I came upon him in the field, chewing on a grass, saying some words over and over to himself.

“What spell are you casting, witch-boy?” I asked.

“Not a spell,” said he, “but the Norman and Latin words for apple, which I lately heard and am saying over and over so I do not forget.”

Perkin likes things like that. He would like to be learned. When he discovers new words, he uses them all together: “This apple/pomme/malus is not ripe” or “Sometimes goats/chevres/capri are smarter than people.” Some people have trouble understanding Perkin, but I know what is in his heart.

Birdy and Perkin are good friends, but not great study buddies. Later in the book, Perkin asks Birdy to teach him to read Latin. She does her best, but her own Latin is very spotty. And she doesn’t seem to be a very resourceful teacher. In one diary entry, she notes that Perkin doesn’t find the sentences she composes for him challenging enough. It made me wonder why she didn’t just lend him one of her books. She has at least one in Latin — a gift from an older brother who became a monk.

I don’t mean to disparage Birdy, who is also a great character. But I know what it’s like to wish you had a better teacher than the only one available. Perkin is my heart’s brother, too.

What I would say to Perkin

It’s tough to find friends who are learning the same living language you are. It’s nearly impossible to find friends who are passionate about the same dead language. If I had a chance to meet Perkin, I wouldn’t waste time on small talk. I’d pull out my old Latin textbooks and we’d begin studying together immediately.

I fell in love with Perkin long before I started learning any foreign languages. Since then, I have taken over a year of Latin, become accustomed to a Latin Mass that Perkin himself might find familiar, and given up trying to pass my passion on to two younger brothers who preferred death to a dead language. While poring over the conjugation tables, I’d tell him about these experiences. And I’d ask him about other experiences of his own that didn’t end up in Birdy’s diary.

It’s wonderful that he is in Birdy’s diary at all. As Karen Cushman explains in the author’s note, Perkin is “unusual” for 1920s England. Most of his contemporaries were happy to stay where they were in society. We could say: They were happy speaking only the languages they really needed to know. Goat boy Perkin needs only English; but he wants Norman and Latin as well. While I have grown very critical of some Catherine, Called Birdy characters, who sound more like twentieth-century liberals than believable medievals, Perkin has never stopped being true to me.

Any thirst for reading and other languages is a desire for a bigger world. And it is a desire that isn’t alien to the thirteenth century. Perkin may not have the extreme vistas of a modern language learner, but he, too, can look beyond his goat pasture and see other places he might fit in. Like the monastery with a growing library, just one day’s journey away. Or the north of France, from which a young English boy’s favorite epics, romances, and ballads would have come. Family and friends who don’t understand what a new language can do have just never really looked out their windows.

Do you like medieval-set historical novels?

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