Coarse Notes – Frank McNally on the drunken parrots of ancient Rome and other surprise language lessons

An Irishman’s Diary

For no good reason, I have spent some of the pandemic learning Latin, via the Duolingo app. It was a short course – short enough that I finished it this week. And in most respects, despite being designed in Novum Eboracum (aka New York), it tended to confirm that Latin is a dead language, in case I didn’t know.

Much of the action described takes place in forums, atriums, and temples. The protagonists eat and drink just like us, but they have a lot more baths. They also sacrifice things regularly and often have to duck while the gods throw spears and thunderbolts.

The air of antiquity somehow extends even to the voices used in the lessons. Some of the teachers sound like they need dusting too.

The liveliest element, by contrast, was a surrealistic sub-theme involving parrots. Misbehaving parrots usually, often drunk. No module was complete without them, and they were rarely up to any good.


Here is a typical sentence I learned: “Forte psittacus ebrius villam delet” (“By chance the drunken parrot destroys the house”).

This seemed to be in keeping with a universal rule of language courses whereby they teach you things you never have reason to say in real life. Not even in ancient Rome would parrot inebriation be an issue, I thought.

But then I found myself researching the subject and I now know otherwise.

This is from an essay on exotic birds by Oliver Goldsmith: "The seed of the cotton tree intoxicates them in the same manner as wine does man; and even wine itself is drunk by parrots, as Aristotle assures us, by which they are thus rendered more talkative and amusing."

If the Greeks were getting parrots drunk, you can bet the Romans were too. The odd house may well have been destroyed in the process.


I also finished Duolingo’s Irish course this week, although I’m not ready to talk about it yet. Most of it was at least vaguely familiar, of course, but that’s the problem with Irish. However long you’ve been away from it, you can never approach it as a new subject. Even the app’s relentlessly upbeat sounds and graphics cannot dispel the ghosts of past failures.

Those sounds include a cheerful approximation of a “tick” when you get a question right, and a more discordant “x” sound when you’re wrong. After a few consecutive Xs in Irish, I found, the sound starts to feel like a ruler hitting you on the head. Also, true to cliché, the hardest modules involved the modh coinníollach, renewed acquaintance with which sometimes brought back a half-forgotten emotion that I soon recognised as cold hatred.

Central to Duolingo’s graphics is a mascot which is also avian, although an owl rather than a parrot. It’s a cheerful owl mostly. But whenever you’ve been hit with the ruler a few times in succession, it makes a sympathetic appearance on screen with the massage: “Don’t worry! Mistakes help you learn.”

Suffice to say, the owl made such a cameo even in my very last lesson. So although I finished the course, I remain far from mastery of the language. Still, it was an interesting journey back into the past and, unlike most journeys, I seem to have slightly less baggage afterwards. That said, I haven’t unpacked my genitive and dative cases yet.


Despite also trying to learn Italian, Spanish, and German in the last year, as well dabbling in Greek and Japanese, while persevering with a doomed lifelong attempt to speak French, I am not at all convinced of the worth of learning languages anymore.

In most places we’re likely to visit, the locals have functional English now, and machine translation is gradually removing most other excuses for people from anglophone countries to speak a foreign language badly. But just studying the similarities and differences between languages is itself interesting, and sometimes amusing.

It had escaped me until this week, for example, that the French word for “seal” is very different from the English. I learned this via one of Duolingo’s typically preposterous short stories, in which a woman gets into trouble at a Zoo for saving a teenager from rampaging seals by throwing a sandwich at them. Or as the sentence puts it: “Lucie prend le sandwich […] et le jette aux phoques.”

This too seemed typical of what language courses teach, in that you would never throw anything at seals in real life and if you did, they would be English-speaking seals. And yet the lesson may not be without value. In future moments of stress, I foresee a situation wherein, instead of resorting to bad language, I will now instead say “To the seals!”. Or if you’ll pardon my French: “Aux phoques!”