Tag Archives: Latin

Tomorrow today

Mingtian jintian.

Another story from The Independent: Schools import China’s teachers for lessons in ‘language of tomorrow’.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said it should be seen as the key language for future generations to learn – replacing European languages.

Although Chinese is becoming increasingly important, the argument seems to be “China – 1.3 billion people – surging economy – therefore language is important”. At the moment, the language has a practical importance, but because it’s principally limited to one country, it seems to lack that one thing which makes a language important beyond its native seat – an international dimension. I think I’ve said before that after English, the next most useful language on the planet is Spanish; after that, probably French or Portuguese.

Chinese is likely to remain a minority sport in the outside world in spite of what Sir Cyril would like to believe. It’ll gain adherents, but for practical reasons, when you’re in the UK, the European languages are a more immediate concern than one eight hours away across the Earth.


And if not Chinese, how about Latin? (Id quod circumiret, circumveniat – Latin makes a comeback) It’s not the first time that Latin has been undergoing a revival in schools. Well, either that or classics in general.

Mr Mount is also adamant that learning to write in Latin is not simply ars gratia artis (6). He says there is a real quid pro quo (7) in having a Latin qualification on your curriculum vitae (8), because after all that time spent learning to distinguish a nominative from a genitive, “you’ll never get an apostrophe in the wrong place again”.

(Mr Mount is a Torygraph hack who has written some book on Latin. The numbers are for footnotes in the original article.) An interesting statement because unlike the relationship between Latin and English that once pertained, the grammar of the former being the basis for describing the grammar of the latter, things have got a little muddled. The apostrophe may be a marker of the genitive in written English, but such punctuation was never used in Latin. Therefore, quite how knowing mensa from mensae and mensarum or focus from foci and focorum is going to help with an apostrophe in English, I don’t really know.


Veni, uidi, and the other thing

Caesar was never at a loss for words.

Mary Beard has written a post, Tacitus was no elitist, for the commentisfree section on The Guardian.

If [Gilbert Murray’s translation of Euripides] now seems hopelessly archaic, that’s because every generation rediscovers and retranslates the classics for themselves, re-engaging with the original texts.

No, I’d say Murray’s translation was hopelessly archaic even in 1904. It merely conformed to the idiotic notions of what constituted a suitable style of translation.

If we do decide to keep the classics, there’s still the issue of who should learn the languages, and how. For centuries Greek has been an exotic minority option. This debate centres on Latin and on the question of whether it is too difficult. In particular, should its GCSE be made easier so that more children, across the ability range can enjoy it?
This is to miss the point. Learning Latin properly is very hard. That is part of the pleasure and the challenge, and it does no one a good turn to pretend otherwise.

Actually, I did more Classical Greek than Latin at university. Although the post is specifically about Latin, the learning of any language (as opposed to its natural acquisition) is difficult. Mandarin may not have much in the way of inflectional morphology, but that doesn’t make it an easy language to learn. Indeed, if morphological complexity is a measure of how difficult a language is to learn, then brain-dead monkeys could learn Latin. I can name quite a few languages from the Caucasus to the Americas that make Latin morphology barely worth getting out of bed for.

One of the comments caught my eye, as it did subsequent commenters.

Mary Beard,please concentrate on English. I don’t wish to make you the soul scapegoat, but am I the only person to object to the use of ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the start of the sentence. I currently live abroad, and find the Guardian’s on-line service superior to all its British rivals. However, the continual grammatic lapses are highly irritating. Has the Guardian always championed this bizarre policy (I seldom read the publication until six months ago), or is this another example of the growing influence of American/Blairite Newspeak on our language?

Soul scapegoat? ^_^ Is this some sort of religious thing? As for criticisms of “and” and “but” at the start of the sentence, I can only snort derisively; so, too, at the following comment:

Bavaria – a poignant reminder to always carefully check that you aren’t splitting your infinitives?
Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Nor can I resist deriding such a comment. (Properly speaking, infinitives are inherently as unsplittable in English as they were in Latin. The “to” of to-infinitives is comparable with modal verbs and other auxiliaries in finite verb phrases. We have not problem with “may often err” which “to often err” parallels. That idiot, Bishop Lowth, has a lot to answer for. Plonker.)

I roughly agree with the following comment:

The assertion that learning Latin “teaches you grammar” is complete rubbish. It teaches you Latin grammar, which is different from English grammar. All too often, it gives you the completely wrong idea that “grammar” exists as a given, which determines “correct” usage. On the contrary, the task of real grammarians is to unearth the rules underlying the actual (and always changing) usage of native speakers.

True. Latin grammar merely teaches you Latin grammar and can’t possibly be mistaken for English grammar. Nonetheless, when I was learning Latin and Greek, I learnt things about grammar which were useful beyond Latin and Greek.

If a knowledge of Greek and Latin has any effect on English, it’s on written style. One of my students at Manchester had done a lot of Latin at school which seemed to have affected her written English, her style being noticeably more sophisticated than the other students in that particular tutorial group.