Latest update: 4/3/2005; 2:15:33 PM
quidquidquid bene dictum est ab ullo, meum est ~ Seneca

NUNTII: Why Study Latin?

An opinion piece from the Scotsman; author unknown. I reproduce it here in its entirety because it is so bang on I can't believe it and I'd hate for something like this to wallow in an archive somewhere where a Latin teacher may not readily find it. In any event, under the headline What could learning Latin ever do for us? we read :

Latin and Greek, dead languages? Let me say at the outset that I have no axe to grind. I am not a retired or redundant classics master bemoaning the disappearance of my subject from school curricula.

I have, on the other hand, made my living for the past 30-odd years as a modern linguist with sufficient knowledge of Latin and Greek to appreciate how vital they are for anyone who wants to acquire more than just a superficial knowledge of a modern foreign language.

If we believe that the only reason for teaching French or Spanish in schools is to give children the wherewithal to order a baguette in Boulogne or a tortilla in Torremolinos then, yes, there is little point in wasting time on the classics. But if we want to encourage students to think about how language works and to regard the study of languages as the key to understanding different cultures, then we should be exposing them to the benefits of the classics.

So why were Latin and Greek ditched? I remember the arguments put forward in the Sixties and Seventies by those who wanted to make education more accessible to the masses. Basically these can be reduced to three reasons: these ancient languages were deemed to be irrelevant, elitist and dead.

Those who considered classical studies irrelevant in the modern world were nothing if not short-sighted. They must have thought that in Wilson’s era of white-hot technology there was nothing to be gained by studying the languages and cultures of societies which existed 2,000 years ago.

The question implicit in their criticism was: How could reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars or extracts from Homer possibly produce the kind of citizen required by Great Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries?

Such blinkered thinking missed the point. The ability to cope with highly complex languages such as Latin and Greek requires not only linguistic flair, but a willingness to submit oneself to a rigorous mental discipline which few other subjects demand.

For a student to make a reasonable attempt at, say, translating passages from and into Latin or Greek - yes, that is what they had to do - he or she had to develop patience and determination, pay attention to detail, develop a concern for accuracy and submit his or her thinking processes to ruthless logic.

Obviously these abilities and attributes apply to the study of modern languages as well, but there is one very big difference. Modern teaching methods stress an ability to communicate orally but every student of French, German etc knows (even if few will admit) that when engaged in conversation with native speakers he or she will rely heavily on other, non-verbal forms of communication. A smile here, a nod there, a particular facial expression or hand gesture will frequently convey as much information as speech and fill in the gaps when our knowledge of the language is not as good as we thought it was.

But we get no such help with the classics. When translating from or into Latin and Greek all the pieces have to fit together grammatically and students have to marshal their thoughts and express themselves in a manner which avoids sloppy use of language and its concomitant misunderstandings. There is no room for error or guesswork in tackling the classics.

Then there is the question of cultural heritage. How can a study of the classics be irrelevant to a modern society when that modern society evolved in no small measure from ancient Greece and Rome? Can we not trace many of today’s ideas concerning government, society and the nature and problems of democracy back to the philosophers of ancient Greece? Is our legal system not based largely on Roman law? Are not the literature and art of the western world heavily indebted to cultural innovation and experimentation begun in ancient Greece and Rome? And are we not doing our young a great disservice if we no longer make them aware of this rich heritage and deprive them of the tools for appreciating it to the full?

The second charge of elitism is perhaps even more ridiculous than that of irrelevance. If, by elitism, we mean selecting the best and offering them opportunities and rewards which are not available to the less gifted then, yes, there was a certain basis for the criticism.

But what is wrong with that? Life is elitist. Society is elitist. A quest for the best is discernible in every walk of life. Were Real Madrid not guilty of naked elitism in wooing David Beckham away from Manchester United? When the business community head-hunts a financial wizard to run a multi-national enterprise in exchange for a co-op number salary, does this not smack of elitism? And do the Armed Forces not run unashamedly elitist selection boards in order to separate those whom they consider suitable for officer training from those whom they do not?

So why should those with the necessary intellectual acumen to do well at difficult languages be deprived the opportunity of doing so, simply because they are in the minority? Now we come to the most ridiculous charge of all: Latin and Greek are dead. How can a language be dead when it is in constant daily use?

It is almost impossible for a native English speaker to write or utter a complete sentence without using a Latin or Greek word. Just think about it. We use words such video, television, telephone, computer, architect, dramatist, antibiotic, centre, zone, pedestrian, cinema, and many more too numerous to mention in everyday conversation without batting an eyelid - and yet most of us remain blithely oblivious of their origins.

And then there are the more specific occasions when communication would break down completely were it not for these "dead" languages.

If a parent walks into school (the Greek, believe it or not, for ‘leisure’) and asks to speak to the head because he is not happy with little Johnny’s progress in mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, physics, history, geography or biology, he will be speaking Greek. If the two of them go on to discuss the curriculum or the size of the classes and the number of pupils taking French this year, they will have switched to Latin.

Or let’s suppose that after his chat with the head he then has to go and see his wife in hospital. As he walks through the doors he will see signs directing visitors to the various wards and departments: gynaecology, ophthalmology, psychiatry, cardiology, oncology, neurosurgery etc. etc. He may not realise it, but he will be reading ancient Greek written in the Latin alphabet! And if he asks to see the surgeon to discuss the diagnosis and requests a prognosis he will be speaking Greek again.

Even the word "surgeon" is from two Greek words which form a compound noun meaning nothing more than "someone who works with his hands".

No, these languages certainly are not dead. Rather it is just our awareness of the contribution they make to modern English that is asleep. Latin and Greek may no longer be evolving and changing the way a "modern" language does, but a more positive view would be to say that they are preserved in the aspic of time as a rich source of social, cultural, and linguistic information for those who have the knowledge and the ability to extract it.

Unfortunately, with every year that passes there are fewer and fewer people with such an ability.

As a postscript to this article, I would just mention a conversation I had some years ago with an army officer who wanted "the best education possible" for his son.

He informed me in no uncertain terms that he did not want his son wasting time on Latin and Greek, "which nobody speaks any more", as he intended to study astronomy at university and so was concentrating on mathematics, physics and information technology.

The irony of his remark escaped him.


::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 9:53:02 PM::
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EXHIBITION: Petra: Lost City of Stone

There's an AP Wire story circulating which is a review of the above-mentioned exhibition, currently at the American Museum of Natural History and running until July 6 or thereabouts. The AMNH's website for the exhibition provides a good overview and some nice photos of what you might expect to see.

::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 9:42:24 PM::
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TTT: Article from Ad Familiares

Ad Familiares is the journal of Friends of Classics, a UK group aimed at folks who are interested in Classics and related areas, but who are not professionals (this is what is known as "outreach" ... more on that later this week, hopefully). While the journal itself is not online, Malcolm Heath has put up his contribution (I wish more folks would do that sort of thing) ... it's entitled "Don't Shoot the Author" and in it Dr. Heath wrestles with the perpetual problem of how -- if at all -- to approach an ancient author's intentions. Worth a look!

::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 9:35:07 PM::
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TTT: Colosseum -- Rome's Arena of Death

The other day we posted a review of this one ... Mark Goodacre of the NTGateway blog cum website alerts us to the companion BBC website. There's plenty of divertitia and solid information here, including lengthy articles by Kathleen Coleman on the "Heroes of the Amphitheatre", Valerie Hope on the 'pecking order' at Rome, Keith Hopkins on the Colosseum itself, Keith Bradley on slavery, and Suzanne Dixon on Roman women. I think if I were to say "definitely worth a look" I'd be stating the incredibly obvious. Companion websites to television shows rarely make me go 'wow' ... this one did.

::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 6:12:29 AM::
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pridie idus octobres

  • rites in honour of the Penates Dei -- the Penates Dei were originally
    the penates who watched over the storehouse of the king (when Rome
    had such, obviously); at some point, the Penates Dei came to be
    identified with Castor and Pollux, but they still had a temple
    under their own name on the Velian hill
    which was apparently
    restored by Augustus.

::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 5:54:31 AM::
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TTT: CSA Newsletter

The Center for the Study of Architecture/Archaeology's Newsletter (which has been around for ages) provides excellent information about the application of technology to archaeology and architectural history, especially in the time period Classics types tend to look at. The Fall, 2003 edition of the newsletter includes the following items of interest:

More Survey Experiments on the Propylaea
(Harrison Eiteljorg, II)

ARTstor, a Web-based Image Collection
(Susan C. Jones)  

Virtual Reality Guide to Good Practice
(William Kilbride)

CSA Layer-Naming Convention without AutoCAD
(Harrison Eiteljorg, II)

Lantern Slides Web Pages Moving to Bryn Mawr College Server

If you continue scrolling down, you'll see the earlier editions of the newsletter. The ongoing CSA Propylaea project is definitely worth 'tracking' through the issue.

::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 5:45:28 AM::
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NUNTII: Call Me Skeptical But ...

As a Canadian, I hope I can be forgiven for never having heard of the "State Grange". I suspect as a Classicist, I can be forgiven similarly for never having heard of its purported origins, as read in the Ukiah Daily Journal (no ... never heard of Ukiah either):

Of all the ancient "mysteries," none has lasted so long nor acquired such a multitude of followers throughout history as have the Eleusinian Mysteries, based on the principles of agriculture and providing an ethical standard for life. Through them, "Grangers" are taught to "be charitable to those less fortunate," to "live a life of service to mankind," and by so doing, at the pleasure of Demeter to pass on to "another and better world, where everlasting spring abides and never fading flowers."

When Theodosius abolished the Eleusinian Mysteries in A.D. 395, a secret order called the Knights of Demeter was organized to carry on the traditions. The "Mysteries" were passed on generation to generation through instruction in what was called the "Unwritten Work," which was actually writing in code. One of the Grange's founders, Col. F.M. McDowell, was initiated and granted the power to confer the degrees from the Duc Dascoli of Naples, Italy. This is the basis for the Grange's Sixth and Seventh Degrees.

In 1866, Oliver Hudson Kelley, regarded as the founder of the Grange movement, made a survey of farm conditions in the South for the newly-formed Department of Agriculture. While on this trip, he conceived the idea that a fraternal organization, composed of farmers from all sections of the country, would help heal the scars caused by the Civil War, as well as improve the economic and social position of the farm population.

Upon his return to Washington, Kelley communicated his plans to some of his friends in government service and enlisted their support.

On Dec. 4, 1867, the National Grange was formally organized.

A service organization based on the Eleusinian Mysteries? Somehow I hae me doots!

::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 5:25:57 AM::
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NUNTII: Greek Strikes

If you're heading to Greece in the next few days, prepare to be disappointed if you plan on visiting the Acropolis or other tourist venues. Once again, widespread strikes are affecting the country.

More from the BBC ...

::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 5:19:31 AM::
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AWOTV: On TV Today

5.30 a.m. |HISTC|History Bites: Spartans, Get Ready to Rumble
"The Battle of Thermopylae may well be the most lopsided
confrontation in history. Tens of thousands of Persians against
300 Spartans! Who will win? The answer may not surprise you. "

8.00 p.m. |PBS| Lost Roman Treasure
"At the height of the Roman Empire, an opulent city stood at
the eastern frontier on the most important crossing of the
Euphrates River. Called Zeugma ("junction") after the bridge
that linked its opposite banks, the city disappeared into
history after the empire fell. Now its remains are about to
disappear beneath a mammoth reservoir. NOVA records the frantic
scramble to recover the glory that was Zeugma. Buried by
centuries of silt and dirt, Zeugma was long neglected by
archaeologists, until the rising edifice of a nearby
hydroelectric dam forced them to act quickly before the site was

9.00 p.m. |HISTC|Timewatch: Roman Soldiers To Be
"Eight ordinary members of the public have the chance to dress,
work, eat and live as Roman recruits for six days."

You've seen Gladiator and Ben Hur, but you've never seen Roman
soldiers getting down to the nitty gritty--digging ditches,
cooking over an open fire, using the three-seater latrine--all
in the cold and wet of a British November.

In a compelling mix of down-to-earth observation and historical
insight, Dr Kate Gilliver of Cardiff University sees her dream
come true as the Roman army comes to life for a week. Dr.
Gilliver explains, "We learn next to nothing about the
experiences of ordinary soldiers from the ancient texts so this
has been a very valuable experience in terms of expanding my
ideas and understanding of the Roman army."

11.00 p.m. |HINT|The Odyssey of Troy
"What is it about the legendary city that 3,200 years after its
fall, we still try to unravel Troy's mysteries? Scholars attempt
to answer the question by researching the Greek poet Homer,
possibly one of the greatest poets in Western Europe's history,
and his epic tale of love and war, and comparing his text to
archaeological sites."

HISTC = History Television (Canadian)

HINT = History International

PBS -- check local listings

::Tuesday, October 14, 2003 4:54:32 AM::
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1. n. an abnormal state or condition resulting from the forced migration from a lengthy Classical education into a profoundly unClassical world; 2. n. a blog about Ancient Greece and Rome compiled by one so afflicted (v. "rogueclassicist"); 3. n. a Classics blog.

Publishing schedule:
Rogueclassicism is updated daily, usually before 7.00 a.m. (Eastern) during the week. Give me a couple of hours to work on my sleep deficit on weekends and holidays, but still expect the page to be updated by 10.00 a.m. at the latest.

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