Posts Tagged ‘Latin’

A A Milne: Winnie Ille Pu

August 14, 2022

     I have two A-levels in Latin, and was originally accepted to read Latin and French at university, but that is another story. And Winnie the Pooh was either the first or second book I ever owned as a small child. This book I acquired over thirty years ago; I’ve dipped into it occasionally, but something made me pick it up and (attempt to) read it from cover to cover. It was hard.

Having wrestled successfully with Virgil, Tacitus and Cicero – the three most challenging authors I met – I suppose I expected it to be relatively easy, a children’s book after all… It is fifty years this year since I passed the last of my A-levels, and it shows: I’ve done nothing with my Latin ever since, apart from reading church inscriptions and the inscriptions in museums or at Hadrian’s Wall, and occasionally looking at Church Latin, missals and the Vulgate and the like. So my vocab was rusty and my grammar even rustier: it was a real challenge and I think I’d be pushing it to say I understood 50%.

Of course, my prior knowledge of the stories in English helped a lot; they are classics (!) and once you’ve read them in your youth and then somewhat later to your own offspring, they are permanently etched in your memory. So there were plenty of prompts; long-forgotten vocab slowly came back, and I remembered to look carefully at the case of nouns, which helped quite a bit.

The other major difficulty was that it is a children’s book: the vocab and concepts are rather different from Ciceronian oratory, epic poetry or Roman history, so one is trying to decipher or decode something completely different. And I did find myself in absolute admiration of the translator’s work, for he – Alexander Lenard – will have been schooled in the same classical texts as I was, and yet has managed fluently to convert the stories into what felt like beautiful, flowing Latin. I didn’t dig out my ancient Latin dictionary, or even go online to look words up, realising that many of those I didn’t understand would be Pooh-related rather than Ciceronian, and so most unlikely to figure in a dictionary anyway.

A minor but enjoyable diversion, probably not one I’ll be repeating in this existence. And I was more than a little disturbed, in these PC days, at the initial desire of Pooh and Piglet to extirpate Kanga and Roo as interlopers who didn’t belong in the forest… O tempora, o mores!

de roma antiqua

April 4, 2019

91DQfIqHqrL._AC_UL436_I found this slim volume a few days ago when I was having my annual clearout; I bought it twenty years ago, and it’s still marvellous, a book all about ancient Rome written entirely in Latin. Usborne is/was a publisher of books for children and this one is illustrated with coloured drawings in the same style. But I can’t figure who the target audience would be, as you need a decent level of Latin, particularly vocabulary, to access it. And although some state schools in this country – including the one I used to teach at – offered Latin two decades ago, you’d never have reached the level you’d need to read it. So maybe it was one for the teachers?

All aspects of Roman history, society, civil life, government, warfare, daily life are briefly and comprehensively covered – it’s a gem of a book, really. It appealed to me in the same way as my copy of Winnie the Pooh in Latin – which I really must find again – does, in that I can appreciate someone taking the trouble to write and produce such a book for such a tiny potential audience. I’ve had the argument about the irrelevance of teaching Latin more times than I care to remember, and I will still defend it as a school subject as valid as any other, and an important key to our retaining real connections with part of our history, language and cultural background.

All things considered, in many ways the Romans were a pretty cruel civilisation, but I never cease to be astonished by how much they achieved and how long their empire lasted: far longer than any of our more modern ones to date. O tempora, o mores…

De lingua latina

September 22, 2018

I was reminded about this topic when at the Pont du Gard a couple of weeks ago. There is a small tablet placed on the road bridge side of this huge edifice; it’s in Latin and tells – who, exactly? – that the Romans built the aqueduct, and the Occitans added the road bridge in 1745. There were some students, engineers I think, larking about and taking their task half-heartedly. They were supposed to note down what the tablet said. One of them admitted defeat, telling his mates it was in Italian and he couldn’t read it. I helped him, whereupon he tried to pass off my help as his own genius…

In our country the teaching and learning of classical languages has pretty much vanished from the state sector of education, in some cases replaced by a vague and optional course in Classical Civilisation. And for years it was acceptable to decry Latin as a dead language, the study of which was of no possible use to anyone in such a modern and technological age as ours. So it has gone: people can no longer make out inscriptions in churches and on old monuments, and most people have no idea how to understand Roman numerals…

I find all of this very sad, not because I am a luddite, sitting here typing at my desktop PC using the linux system I installed and customised myself. I can manage the social media I want to use, admittedly not an awful lot. And I’ve been writing this blog for over five years. I studied Latin at school, up to A Level and originally intended to read it at university, until my love of English Literature overtook that desire. I read and prepared Julius Caesar and Virgil, HoraceLivy, Cicero and Tacitus for my examinations, and enjoyed them, too, along with the history we studied. I think I can still just about decipher Caesar’s Gallic Wars, though I do enjoy engaging with a fellow-blogger’s more demanding passages from Roman authors which she occasional excerpts.

I have found Latin useful throughout my life. My first encounters came as a Catholic in the days when all services were in that language, and I was trained as an altar-boy in all the responses at mass; I can still recite then today. I am passionate about history and visit many old churches and other archaeological sites, and Latin helps me understand inscriptions, books and other artefacts. A working knowledge of Latin has been invaluable in my studies and teaching of English, both language and literature, and obviously immensely helpful in my learning of French at school, and now Spanish. Latin helps us understand an engage more fully with our past, and in these divisive days a reminder of a common language, first via the Roman empire and then the Western church, is salutary.

I can’t advocate inflicting the study of Latin on all school students; I don’t suggest it replace other subjects in our school curriculum. But I would like the option of learning it, and using it to access an enormous wealth from the past, to be available to all students, alongside other subjects. I do have an issue with the prescriptiveness of the school curriculum and our current obsession with science, technology and mathematics to the exclusion of the arts, languages and creativity.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…


Back home

September 11, 2018

The blog has been quiet for the last two weeks because I have been on my travels, to the south of France. When I’m away, I usually hatch a few ideas for new posts, so the following topics are likely to appear over the coming weeks: thoughts about the Romans, and about their empire something on Latin; reflections on photography – I came back with about 600 pictures! Reading, teaching, travelling, good English, the internet, sex in literature, the joys of teaching… it’s good to get away but it’s also good to be home, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.

Watch this space.


My travels: H is for Hadrian’s Wall

July 20, 2018

I studied Latin and Roman history at school; I almost ended up reading Classics at university. But that was in another existence. However, I’m still fascinated by them both, and took a week’s holiday in Northumbria to visit the Hadrian’s Wall sites properly.

There are a lot of ruins, mainly of military camps used by the Romans to control and pacify the country, and one ruined camp is very similar to another, although different buildings remain in differing degrees of ruin. And there are stretches of wall: sometimes it’s almost buried under turf, sometimes it’s almost at full height and width in short stretches; occasionally you can actually walk along the top of it and imagine the legionaries…

I’ve learned that Romans didn’t recycle building materials when they rebuilt; they just levelled and started again on top. Early Christians did, however, and the crypt of Hexham Abbey is made of recycled stone from nearby Corbridge (Corostipitum) – you can see the decorative marks in the stonework randomly in the crypt walls. I learnt that the troops worshipped all sorts of different gods, and saw a wonderful little temple to Mithras in the middle of a field of sheep. I also discovered that vast areas are still awaiting the eventual attentions of archaeologists, and that so much about what went on at the ‘limes’ (frontier) is still to be revealed.

Vindolanda was particularly impressive, partly because it’s a very active site archaeologically, and the excavators will talk to you about what they’re doing. Also, it has a truly stunning museum stuffed with artifacts that have been preserved in oxygen-free conditions since the Romans threw them away or lost them: shoes and sandals, tents, wooden pots with lids, a toilet seat…

I find it astonishing that so much remains from 2000 years ago, and also that the Romans managed to conquer and rule an empire that lasted far longer than our more recent British, Soviet or American empires, and that it was common for troops and commanders to be posted from one end of the empire to another – from Syria to Britannia, for instance. People able to move all over Europe, wherever work and duty took them, often taking their families with them, and settling in a new place: now what does that remind you of, dear reader?

I have to add that the countryside around here, even forgetting the Wall for an instant, is pretty stunning, and having done quite a few different walks along and around various sections of the Wall, I’m coming to the conclusion that, although they may have been shut out from the joys of Roman civilisation, the barbarians enjoyed the best views.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m currently reading a history of consumption – not tuberculosis but our obsession with buying stuff; some of the objects and artifacts I’ve seen on display at various sites have got me thinking about our relationships with desirable objects, which clearly goes back a long way…

My A-Z of Reading: L is for Languages

December 2, 2016

Readers will know I love languages and that I’m horrified at the disappearance of the study of languages from our schools and universities; we suffer from the tyranny of English (well, American English) as a ‘world language’ and so see little need to bother trying to communicate with others in their languages. And the monoglot English should realise that they are actually in a minority here: in most ares of the world it’s the norm to be fluent in more than one language, and to use those languages regularly…

Rather than ranting pointlessly, I thought I’d write about my own experience of the languages I have some familiarity with: let’s start, briefly, with English, my mother tongue. I think I know it pretty well, and have quite a wide vocabulary, mainly through my reading of literature across the centuries. I know the history of the language reasonably well and have a decent command of etymology, too. I don’t know Old English – joint honours students at my university didn’t have to study it.

Latin came next, because I was raised a Catholic, and in the days before mass in English I was trained as an altar-boy, and so had to learn by heart all the responses in Latin. This caused problems when I moved to grammar school, which didn’t approve of my Church Latin pronunciation, and I had to learn ‘public school’ Latin pronunciation. (BTW, who knows how they actually pronounced it?) Then when I moved to a Catholic school again I gradually had to un-learn it… but I loved this structured and disciplined language and as I learnt its grammar, all sorts of secrets about how language worked were revealed to me; as I learnt its vocabulary all sorts of things about English and French also became much clearer. I can still do the mass responses, various classical choral music is easy to understand, and I can decipher old inscriptions in churches and other places.

French has been my big success, thanks largely to an inspirational teacher who was years ahead of his time. I had an epiphany on my first trip to stay with a French family when I realised I could communicate with them, reasonably fluently and without having to frame my thoughts in English first and then attempt to translate them… I never looked back, went off to read French at university, spent a year as an assistant at a French school and came home able to speak fluently and at times be taken for a French person. What has that given me? A lifelong interest in France and things French that I have explored for many years through countless enjoyable holidays: that I can operate in France in pretty much the same way as I do at home has been marvellous. And I have to confess, as I have aged, I have become rustier, but I can still manage…

German has been a hit and miss affair: never learned at school, but picked up piecemeal via holidays, acquaintances with Germans, evening classes all over the place, and many holidays. My vocabulary is wide, my grammar pretty ropy, I suspect, as I never had the discipline of learning and being taught systematically; not having learnt genders and conjugations correctly, I make mistakes all over the place, but can be understood. I feel confident enough to make the effort to speak when I’m there and again, have had a good number of enjoyable trips; once of my oldest friends is a German I taught English to on a holiday language course nearly forty years ago.

Italian I spent two years on at evening class about thirty years ago; I enjoyed it and I managed on a trip to Italy. I have the intention of going back to it one day. Having spent ages listening to Dutch pirate radio stations in the 1970s, I can understand a lot of Dutch and Flemish, particularly if it’s in writing; my knowledge of German and the closeness of Dutch to English mean that I can make a decent stab at saying things if I need to. But the Dutch are well-known for their linguistic abilities and usually get in with English first.

I’m currently learning Spanish. It’s fun, interesting and I have a really good teacher. Although it was easy at the outset, it’s getting harder, but definitely keeping my brain active. I’m planning a road trip to Spain in a year or so, and this is partly by way of preparation. Although to be able to read a newspaper or a book in Spanish would be good, too.

Two failures to confess, now: classical Greek was hard, I wasn’t committed enough, and eventually my teacher sent me packing. Fair enough. And oddly, not too high on my list of regrets. Polish, on the other hand, is my big failure. My father was Polish, but had decent English (self-taught) along with Russian and the ability to understand Serbo-Croat) and married an Englishwoman so English was our home language. Polish school on Saturday (tried briefly) as a child was a failure, as were several attempts at different evening classes in Leeds and London. I wanted to learn but didn’t really manage. I can understand a lot, my pronunciation is fine (that’s the easy bit!) and I can get by in a basic conversation if I really have to, but my confidence isn’t good. Why? Polish is a horrendously difficult language grammatically and conceptually – it can easily give classical Greek a run for its money, and I have yet to come across a good teacher in this country, someone who can both tackle the teaching of it to non-natives, and who can clarify the grammatical complexities. I will probably try and have another go before I fall off my perch.

Languages have given me a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment; they have been the key to pleasurable travel, adventures and acquaintances; they have taught me that communication is what being human is all about.

And don’t get me started on the languages I’d like to have the time to learn…

De lingua latina

January 10, 2016

51NyAcHeyJL._AA160_This is a recent treat to myself, and I’ve just started reading it; it’s sent me back about fifty years, thinking about my acquaintance with the classical world…

Raised as a Catholic and trained as an altar-boy before the change to Mass in one’s own language, my acquaintance with Latin began at an early age. True, it was Church Latin, not classical Latin, but I soon met the latter at grammar school, and never looked back; once I’d cracked the grammar, there was a whole new world ahead of me. In those days you met real authors for O Level – Caesar’s Gallic War and Virgil’s Aeneid; I had that under my belt at fourteen and an A Level in Ancient History at fifteen; more authors and more Roman History followed in the sixth form. It was a curiously censored literature, with anything remotely rude excised from schoolboy texts, and no chance of getting anywhere near Catullus and other such racy authors. The history, too, was very sober and old-fashioned – battles, dates and famous men, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the Roman Empire had lasted quite a lot longer than the British or American ones…

Life is shaped by chance decisions: I rejected my original choice of History as an A Level subject in favour of English (!) and I changed my mind about going off to read Latin and French at university in favour of English Literature and French (and look where it got me…)

But I have retained my fascination with Latin and things Roman, along with a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer. My knowledge of the language, along with my religious upbringing, has given me very useful keys to understanding a great deal of European art, literature, history and culture, as well as an enormous amount of pleasure and enjoyment: whether one is religious or not, the fact remains that Romans and Christianity have shaped our part of the world into what it is today…

I can still manage to read Church Latin; classical Latin has faded rather, though a recent look at Caesar again (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…) showed me that it hadn’t vanished completely without trace. I recall my enjoyment of Horace‘s lyrics, Cicero‘s mastery of the language through oratory, and the weird syntax of Tacitus: magical stuff. And I can still remember the recipe for making bees (Virgil, Georgics IV)!

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