LEARNING LATIN AND GREEK FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT

(Yale Classical Studies 37, 2015)

by E. Archibald, W. Brockliss and J. Gnoza

CUP h/b 234pp £60 (ISBN 9781107051645)

This generally high-quality collection of fourteen papers takes the reader from 1st C AD Egypt to the modern world. The final four deal with well-known debates in the modern world—reception studies, in which female novelists apparently lead the way and on which ‘the future of Latin and Greek depend’, elitism in America, the Cambridge Latin Course, and the ‘cultural imperialism and power dynamics involved in learning Greek and Latin’ (you could have fooled me).

A.E. Hanson kicks off with Petaeus, the 2nd C AD village scribe in Egypt whose sole literary achievement was the capacity to write in Greek ‘I, Petaeus, village scribe, submitted [this]’ (we have a papyrus covered with his painful efforts to get it right—repeated copying was a standard feature of ancient education). But his brother Theon could read and write—and he was the one who did the real work. Then there was Thermouthis, wife of the wealthy village tax-collector Nemesion (1st C AD). She could write—we have a letter to Nemesion—and while the spelling is nothing to rave about, the Greek is ‘serviceable … coherent and efficient’. Did Nemesion teach her?

E.Dickey takes us through the fascinating conversations (colloquia)—Greek in one column, the Latin crib opposite, 1-3 words a line—on which Roman beginners in Greek started: simple Greek about everything from going to school, visiting friends and having lunch, to tips on what phrases to use when engaged in a fight, dealing with difficult slaves and so on. These were backed up with word-lists, grammar exercises and so on, before the beginner graduated onto simplified texts of the real thing.

F.Racine examines Servius’s commentaries on Virgil (c. AD 400) for indications of a knowledge of Greek at a time when it was fast dying out in the West. Servius is fascinated by Greek myth and especially etymology and, in general, Latin scansion, orthography and usage in relation to Greek, but does not go much further. But how much did he expect pupils to know? Or did he write for teachers? R. reckons an elite education would have given pupils just about enough to get by on.

M.Herren examines the evidence for learning Greek in the Middle Ages. The Bible was the driving force behind Greek, and there is evidence of Greek studies in e.g. Bangor, Canterbury, Ireland and the continent. Latin-Greek interlinear biblical texts from Ireland give evidence of genuine understanding of the language; Bede in Jarrow taught himself Greek from a bilingual (Greek and Latin) facing-page New Testament. The Carolingian renaissance took up the study in France, whence it moved to Ottonian Germany and Lombard Italy.

J.Fisher discusses the English Abbot Aelfric (c. 955-1010), whose Excerptiones de arte grammatica Anglice described Latin grammar in English for the first time and was also composed with an eye to explaining Latin simply to children. Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius and his attempt to make English the language of education must have played a part in Aelfric’s decision. Given that Romance languages were still felt to be close to Latin (transfero meant ‘I shift/change’, not ‘translate’), it was quite a challenge to produce descriptions of Latin to fit the form and usage of a Germanic language.

R.Black describes the extraordinary situation in Italy, where up till the 18th C, it was through Latin as the primary language that Italians were taught to read and write their vernacular! Reading, writing and learning the Latin psalter were the first stage, before pupils moved on to pseudo-Donatus’s Ianua. The main reason for this was that before the 16th C the Italian volgare had no fixed orthography and was felt to be babble, formally unteachable. Only what was thought of an artificial language like Latin—a true ars—would do the job. The renaissance changed all that, of course, demonstrating that Latin was in fact a natural, historically changing language.

A.Laird argues that in 16th C Mexico (‘New Spain’), the teaching of Latin to the ‘Indian’ nobility, primarily because it was the language of scripture, was in fact more about training them up not to be priests but administrators imbued with Christian principles. Rote learning of the Mass was the way in, and the final results quite impressive. The most important consequence, however, was that through learning Latin the elite were able to use the Roman alphabet to record or create their own Nahuatl texts, and thus preserve their own culture and traditions.

V.Bers gives a brief insight into the extensive Russian classical tradition—B. feels it resembles its counterpart in the West in its combination of worthiness but repellent rigidity—before it was destroyed by the Bolsheviks, though not entirely at university level. Some sense of the assumptions about the value of a classical training in Russia may be gathered from the fact that when in 1866 students in the non-classical gymnasia tried to assassinate Alexander II, the teaching of classics was made even more dominant than it had been hitherto.

F.Waquet’s essay on the debate in France about Latin for girls begins by pointing out that it was only in 1925 that high school girls in France were given access to the same Latin classes as boys. The prejudice went back a long way. Before the revolution, female education had consisted of religion and morals, reading, writing and counting, and needlework: for women were ‘not destined to educate nations, to govern states, to wage war, to render justice, to plead cases nor practise medicine’ (Charles Rollin, rector of Paris University, 1694). The climate began to change in the first half of the 19th C. In 1882, secondary education for girls was put in place, but Latin was only optional, with a view to helping future mothers to oversee the studies of their sons. In 1928, the situation had changed so much that it had become ‘women’s duty to guard the torch of the humanities that men, too concerned by material life and too prone to imitate America, had let escape from their hands.’

So there is much of great interest here. It left the reviewer feeling that Classics for All, irrespective of race, class, sex, religion, and even cultural imperialism and power dynamics (unless one counts under those categories the whim of school heads), really does have quite a lot going for it.

Peter Jones

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One thought on “LEARNING LATIN AND GREEK FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT

  1. I have the Jones books and find I need to hear the sound in my ear, for learning is well beyond slog and into hacking through a jungle. I cannot find anything on line that would help a beginner to get over that first gigantic leap.

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