Lingua pulcherrima
June 1, 2019 12:11 PM   Subscribe

Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: The Real Issue With Mary Beard's Latin - "What irritates me is that —again like most classicists — she treats this as a self-evident fact to be just accepted rather than a problem to be dealt with, as if nobody could hope to actually read Cicero with ease. It always strikes me as bizarre and a bit embarrassing to see classicists insisting that it is impossible to acquire fluid or fluent command of Latin or Greek, that "we" can never do this. It's not just that this assumption would be news to people like Galileo, Kepler or Descartes. It's that people do actually acquire this kind of competence. Today. Anyone who pokes around at, say, the Paideia Institute, will find proficient Latin-speakers as readily as Zeus finds incestuous booty-calls."

The Twists And Turns Of Translation
Classicists have a strange relationship with translation.

Translation is what makes Greek and Latin texts available to the public, and if texts are available to the public, that helps to encourage and justify their study in the original languages. Translation is also, as Diane Rayor recently wrote, “essential for classical outreach” — I have little doubt that we’ll have Emily Wilson and her Odyssey largely to thank for upticks in Greek enrollments over the next few years. On the other hand, translation is the bread and butter of language competency assessment in the Classics classroom, from first-year courses to graduate programs.

Yet our pedagogical reliance on translation habituates us to thinking about language learning in strange ways. In a brief overview of the history of translation, Juliane House observes that “At the end of the eighteenth century the teaching of Latin had turned into a highly formalized ritual, the idea being to instil discipline into students’ minds.” Two and a half centuries later, not much seems to have changed. I remember sitting in high school Latin class with a copy of Mandelbaum’s Aeneid under my desk, feeling like a kid in the outfield praying the ball never flies her way. For me, the “ritual” of in-class translation became linked early on with fear of humiliation.
posted by the man of twists and turns (54 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's worth noting that the late classicist Frank Snowden wrote his Harvard doctoral dissertation in Latin. In 1944.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:41 PM on June 1 [8 favorites]


I don’t think he makes enough allowance for the difference between Roman Latin and medieval/16th century Latin. The latter uses the vocabulary, but tends to be structured in ways influenced by modern languages, hence much easier for us to speak and understand. Actual ancient Latin has a quite different and more opaque mentality, imo.
posted by Segundus at 1:44 PM on June 1 [12 favorites]


Part of his point is that medievalists have to be familiar with ancient Latin too:

I don't just mean reading the pared down language of the Res Gesta Francorum or even Jerome's Bible. I mean reading Cicero's letters, alongside Petrarch's ciceronian response to them. I mean reading Virgil alongside Walter of Châtillon.
posted by zompist at 1:53 PM on June 1 [5 favorites]


When I was a kid, Latin was obligatory if you wanted to enter secondary school (high school). Since I was a stupid teenager who loved math, I didn't take it seriously and I passed with the lowest possible grade, but since our teacher was amazing, I regretted and attended her night classes in both Latin and Greek during secondary school. She was that good. Still, I don't remember much, and it makes me sad. Before I decided to focus on modernism, I studied both ancient and Medieval Latin texts, so at some point in my life, I was able enough. It's scary that you can lose knowledge.
When I began my PhD, on a German subject, one of my advisors was amazed and grateful that I can actually read and speak German. It has come to that.

Anyway, I just want to support the main idea here. When I studied in Rome in -86, there were tons of people who communicated in Latin every day, some of whom were my immediate colleagues. If Mary Beard said that, it is sad, but also evidence of an anglo-centricism that is directly harmful to research.
posted by mumimor at 2:26 PM on June 1 [9 favorites]


I don't think that Mary Beard is saying at all what the writer thinks she is.

The points she is making is that there is a fundamental difference between a language used ubiquitously and universally and one that has to be "spun up" every time one uses it.

Language and culture are ever in flux, the differences between someone writing in Rome in 63BC, North Africa in 400AD and London in 1700AD are reflected in the forms, purpose and rituals of the language used.

The material available to us to help contextualise that varies.
posted by fallingbadgers at 2:44 PM on June 1 [14 favorites]


i think doing latin and greek in elementary school made a huge difference in my ability to learn related languages overall but now that i'm learning unrelated languages i am suddenly very stupid and it's A Lot.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:53 PM on June 1 [8 favorites]


I don’t think he makes enough allowance for the difference between Roman Latin and medieval/16th century Latin. The latter uses the vocabulary, but tends to be structured in ways influenced by modern languages, hence much easier for us to speak and understand. Actual ancient Latin has a quite different and more opaque mentality, imo.
More "different and opaque mentally" than Japanese, Basque, and Bantu? There are a dizzying array of different ways for languages to work, yet people learn to read and speak them fluently even if they are completely off the hook vs. their native tongues. Of course, I am a language blockhead so I all I know is what I learned out back the language barn.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 3:01 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]


I say this as someone who teaches Latin at a large, multi-ethnic public university. Latin is not that difficult a language. Nor is Ancient Greek. Students in my classes have often taken or are taking far more difficult languages, or are second language speakers of English, which is harder by far, I would say, than Latin or Greek. But it is tremendously hard to become good at the paraphernalia of ancient languages, the types of grammatical questions and problems that the ancient writers and readers did not set themselves unless they were hard core philologists. And that stuff is the product of endless generations of Latin and Greek scholars hedging the languages around with mystique to ensure they stayed the preserve of the upper classes, and could be seen as a mark of their intelligence instead of endless training.

The most difficult thing about Latin is that it has a very small vocabulary so some words have near endless permutations of meaning depending on context, author, date, and so on, and that because they have such a small vocabulary, style is often expressed through grammar. Like Tacitus. The difficulty is part of the text and how it is expressing meaning.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 3:17 PM on June 1 [18 favorites]


Hasn't it all been translated by now? I mean, they aren't making any more of it.

(I'll get me toga)
posted by scruss at 3:39 PM on June 1 [8 favorites]


It's certainly not impossible to teach someone to construct meaningful sentences in Latin or even Greek. It's a regular part of the third-year curriculum to do that in writing. I think it's pretty silly to pretend, though, that Latin as it would be spoken amongst a bunch of modern people for whom (e.g.) English was their first language and who have to use a ton of constructed vocabulary would do anything other than make Cicero, that snob, chuckle. Now, to be very clear, it's not that the Latin an Italian at the Vatican might have spoken in the nineteenth century, or the Latin in which European diplomats might have communicated in the sixteenth, is somehow worse or less pure or whatever silly adjective might have been tagged onto it by nineteenth-century pedants, but it's not the exact same thing. We will naturally simplify it and adapt it in the ways that make most sense to our English-as-first-language brains. And, yeah, I think it's pretty misleading for Paideia to call what they do "living Latin." It's spoken Latin. A living language involves daily use to solve the problems of life, that's how it lives and changes and grows. A Latin conference is basically a fun party trick. And it is a fun trick, if your mind works that way, but, hey, it turns out that studying a language doesn't actually endow you with sophistication as a linguist.
posted by praemunire at 3:46 PM on June 1 [6 favorites]


#GOALS.

I'd love to resurrect my moribund college/grad school Latin as a spoken language.

The first stumbling block to me would be deciding on a pronunciation. The ancient kind (with c always a [k], v always a [w], g always a [g], vowel length distinctions maintained, ae and oe as diphthongs) is necessary to understand the sound and meter of the ancient Roman texts, but it's ridiculously anachronistic for anything after that. Do you want to sound like a time traveler from 2000 years ago? Or a visitor from an alternative world where the everyday use of Latin never died out among scholars? And if the latter, do you want to sound like a Continental scholar, who pronounces Latin as if it was Italian, or one from England, where the Great Vowel Shift affected Latin pronunciation as well and "Caesar" was pronounced like the salad and "Cicero" like the Chicago suburb?
posted by edheil at 3:47 PM on June 1 [4 favorites]


The OP's argument from confidence doesn't convince me much, either -- a dozen people who are mutually perfectly sure they know what Tacitus meant at first go might know, or they might be unknowingly engaged in mutual log-rolling culturally bound interpretations. Two-hundred-year-old translations would be more useful if this were not so.

Do we know if Tacitus' contemporaries expected to get his whole meaning out of first readings?
posted by clew at 3:57 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]


I'm so glad to see that even a decade after I graduated college and stopped experiencing them first hand, absolutely nothing has changed about the social dynamic where medievalists find classicists to be pampered layabout aesthetes and immediately become uncomfortably defensive about stuff like this to prove that their field IS ACTUALLY VALID, PROFESSOR.
posted by Copronymus at 4:32 PM on June 1 [10 favorites]


Do we know if Tacitus' contemporaries expected to get his whole meaning out of first readings?

There's a long-running argument in the field about whether reading silently is even a concept that existed prior to the Renaissance, because so much of the reading that was done was actually listening to someone else read aloud from a text and it's actually hard to find evidence of people reading in the way that we do now. It's pretty likely that Tacitus and his contemporaries would have expected that their writings, or at least the formal texts, would frequently be experienced that way.
posted by Copronymus at 4:35 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Were some people described as particularly helpful readers-aloud? Did readers-aloud go through and practice and make notes beforehand? (Is all our evidence either way from some epigrammatist apparently calling someone else a tryhard?)
posted by clew at 4:44 PM on June 1


Hey, my classical education granted me the ability to really enjoy Winnie ille pu so there.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:51 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]


i just want to make shitposts about diogenes biting people
posted by poffin boffin at 5:56 PM on June 1 [9 favorites]


i just want to make shitposts about diogenes biting people
I think the rule is "it's only news if man bites Diogenes."
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:16 PM on June 1 [11 favorites]



does he really think classicists can't read his latin wikipedia (!!!) examples without a dictionary and a grammar? Mary Beard can do that. I can do that. anybody who took a year or two of french or spanish in high school twenty or thirty years ago can do that.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:21 PM on June 1 [6 favorites]


What a fantastic reply by A. Z. Foreman in The blogicarian - thanks for linking to it! The Times literary supplement should publish it.
posted by Termite at 11:00 PM on June 1


The TLS article by Beard makes it clear that she has a pretty high-level working Latin knowledge. But it's not expert-level, by which - as above comments pointed out - it's not good enough to parse highly detailed texts/contemporary references in the language. Like if you wrote a comment about doing a dab and then it was read by somebody who spoke English as a second language, hundreds of years in the future.

What this really seems like it's about is that there should be one great guy, probably a white guy, who has great Latin skills and can read the thing that Beard is talking about and tell us exactly what it means. Beard's genius involves taking a number of sources and putting them together to help us understand the ancient world, and how it is reflected in our contemporary world. Perhaps it's time to link to her piece for the LRB on the voice of women, and how its marginalised by not being 'serious' enough.
posted by The River Ivel at 2:49 AM on June 2 [9 favorites]


This reminds me of the old days of blogging, when people would give themselves names like Another Cranky Medievalist. I miss those days. But I don't understand the author's determination to pick a quarrel with Mary Beard, who is making a valid and necessary point: that it's not just students who find classical texts difficult, their teachers do too. Saying 'pfff, anyone can learn to translate Cicero at sight' is missing the point.

The only person I know with fluent Latin skills is Anthony Grafton, who can not only sight-read but speed-read Renaissance Latin. ('Amusing, how he riffs off Plutarch. You spotted the pun on page 79?') I console myself with the thought that even St Augustine had trouble with Greek (with huge consequences for the subsequent history of Western Christianity).
posted by verstegan at 3:21 AM on June 2 [8 favorites]


lesbiassparrow: But it is tremendously hard to become good at the paraphernalia of ancient languages, the types of grammatical questions and problems that the ancient writers and readers did not set themselves unless they were hard core philologists. And that stuff is the product of endless generations of Latin and Greek scholars hedging the languages around with mystique to ensure they stayed the preserve of the upper classes, and could be seen as a mark of their intelligence instead of endless training.

Which is why Romance languages derive from sermo vulgaris, not Classical Latin. Classical Latin was what the posh class wrote in when they weren't being extra annoying by using Greek.
posted by sukeban at 4:04 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Mary Beard is not saying she doesn't understand the grammar and vocabulary. Instead she talks about how the only texts that one generally encounters in Latin are high-level. We don't start with Winnie ille pu and work our way up; we come out the gates and head directly to Cicero. Speaking at a conference is not like reading Cicero. Reading Cicero is less a language learning exercise and more an act of literary translation, and literary translation is something that takes time and consideration.

We have college-level courses on how to parse texts in our native languages. In the U.S., most colleges require students pass such a course or have equivalent credit.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:34 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]


Do we know if Tacitus' contemporaries expected to get his whole meaning out of first readings?

Hm. Well, Tacitus gave the funeral oration of Verginius Rufus, and Pliny, who was present, says the deceased was fortunate to have the best speaker in Rome - though he doesn't say how the speech went down. It would be fascinating to compare the style to the Annals and Histories, but alas - the speech is as gone as Rufus himself. Elsewhere Pliny writes to Tacitus arguing that bigger is better in all the arts, but again, not much on comprehension.

On the other hand, consider Cicero, good and tortuous - at least with his legal orations, when he was trying to get clients off the hook, he damned well better have been comprehensible the first time out. (Granted, Roman jury a sophisticated audience, but still.)

Beard likens Tacitus to James Joyce. Myself, I tend to think of Samuel Johnson.

Classical Latin was what the posh class wrote in when they weren't being extra annoying by using Greek.

There's a broad range, though. Plautus and Terence were writing for the groundlings. (Terence, rather than Caesar, was often the text of choice for elementary Latin instruction in Shakespeare's day.)
posted by BWA at 7:45 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


lesbiassparrow,

Students in my classes have often taken or are taking far more difficult languages, or are second language speakers of English, which is harder by far, I would say, than Latin or Greek.

I've often heard this said about English, but as someone who came to Latin and Greek as an adult, I find that there's an "implied-ness" in what is and isn't said about both, in their Classical forms, that makes translation challenging and makes me wonder if I'll ever have any kind of reading fluency in it. Also, Greek perhaps more than Latin because of what I consider to be really hard-to-predict tense/mood forms and because of the extensive vocabulary and the frickin' particles. Slogging through Book VI of The Odyssey and looking up every other word to do with description of ships and harbors in Phaeacia and trying to guess if this is a second aorist or an indeclinable bit of sludge.

English, by contrast, has the weird spelling/pronunciation thing, but, grammatically, would seem to be a lot easier to get under one's belt. I say this, however, as someone who is, basically, a native English speaker, so I may have those blinkers on. Love to hear thoughts about this.
posted by the sobsister at 7:49 AM on June 2


Mary Beard is not saying she doesn't understand the grammar and vocabulary. Instead she talks about how the only texts that one generally encounters in Latin are high-level. We don't start with Winnie ille pu and work our way up; we come out the gates and head directly to Cicero. Speaking at a conference is not like reading Cicero. Reading Cicero is less a language learning exercise and more an act of literary translation, and literary translation is something that takes time and consideration.

We have college-level courses on how to parse texts in our native languages. In the U.S., most colleges require students pass such a course or have equivalent credit.


This is a good point, but: nowadays, at the age when you learn Latin, you are mostly already familiar with an analytic approach to texts. Back in the day when I learnt it in middle school, we had textbooks that were appropriate for middleschoolers, and probably it had been like that for ages. (Actually, my textbook was almost a hundred years old when I had it, and still in use until they stopped teaching Latin before college some 20 years later).
posted by mumimor at 8:25 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


English, by contrast, has the weird spelling/pronunciation thing, but, grammatically, would seem to be a lot easier to get under one's belt.

I don't know...there are lots of irregular verbs, for one thing
posted by thelonius at 9:46 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


There are way more irregular verb forms in Greek. English generally has three principal parts for verbs (e.g. swim, swam, swum), Greek has six (present active, future active, aorist active, perfect active, aorist passive, perfect passive) that you need to properly conjugate a verb. Add in having to memorizing the inflections for the various persons/numbers. Helper verbs and a loss of inflection go a long way in making the English verb more user friendly.
posted by enjoymoreradio at 10:29 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


we come out the gates and head directly to Cicero

which lbr only feeds his repulsive ego
posted by poffin boffin at 12:56 PM on June 2 [5 favorites]


Instead she talks about how the only texts that one generally encounters in Latin are high-level.

This is particularly deadly for Greek. Even the semantically simple texts are often dealing with sophisticated philosophical concepts which are not obviously to be translated one way or another. You're jumping straight to Bertrand Russell at best.
posted by praemunire at 1:13 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


I teach Latin and Greek at university level, and I'd agree that the standard of linguistic competence for classicists is not what it ought to be. I can think of several occasions (talks, seminars) when a highly-regarded scholar overlooked an obvious reading, or offered a reading that to me was clearly impossible or farfetched, because they were concerned less with understanding what the text was saying and more with relating it to their own theoretical preoccupations.

OTOH not all classicists need to read fluently in the original. Archaeologists in particular can do valuable work without much knowledge of the languages, and to some extent the same is true of many historians, as long as they have reliable translations to work from. Sure, it would be great if they could all read the originals, but holding everyone to that standard would be counterproductive; I've known lots of intelligent grad students who were simply never going to get very far with Latin and Greek, but that doesn't mean they can't contribute to the field in other ways.

I'm doubtful about the "living language" approach to what are after all not living languages. Most Latin and Greek texts are very far in content and style from the kinds of everyday interactions that you'd practice in learning, say, French. Does being able to order a sandwich in Latin make you a better reader of Virgil? Also, even a teacher who's steeped in Classical prose will inevitably bring in features of their own native language, from vocabulary and idiom to syntax and phonology. It seems better to learn one's Greek directly from Plato than from a teacher whose idiosyncracies might lead you astray when you try to read real texts.

Hasn't it all been translated by now?

I know you're not serious, but it's worth pointing out how quickly translations age. I'm constantly surprised by how often my students misunderstand the written English of a hundred years ago. New translations are constantly needed, which means the field of classics depends on the continued existence of people with a really top-notch command of the languages.

You're jumping straight to Bertrand Russell at best

Not necessarily, there's a mass of non-philosophical Greek prose which makes for fairly easy reading -- that's basically what Xenophon is for. Also Lysias, Lucian, some of the novelists, etc.

(lesbiassparrow, what do you mean by "the paraphernalia of ancient languages"? To me mastering the languages themselves is obviously more difficult than understanding the grammatical traditions around them.)
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 1:26 PM on June 2 [4 favorites]


Helper verbs and a loss of inflection go a long way in making the English verb more user friendly.

That sounds reasonable. But what about English gives it a reputation as being difficult to learn?
posted by thelonius at 1:27 PM on June 2


A few things make English difficult to learn. While classical languages have more strong changing verbs than English, that doesn't mean that English has very few strong changing verbs. Nor is there an easy pattern to which verbs have a root-change in the past. English phonology is very loosely tied to its orthography, more so than in most romance languages. Not accounting for how a word is spelled, English has a vast array of vowels and diphthongs that you need to master, as well as some consonants (both forms of th, r, w, ng) that are fairly rare outside of English. Schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, and shows up very seldom in other languages. Worst of all, th and w shows up in some VERY important words (the, ordinal numbers, demonstrative pronouns, question words). Altogether, I think the phonology of English is more intimidating than the grammar.
posted by enjoymoreradio at 3:50 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


that's basically what Xenophon is for

If you want your students in a coma. A lot of people won't use him as a first text.

Lysias, Lucian, some of the novelists

Lucian and the novelists aren't Attic, though. Lysias is easier prose, but involves a lot of legal technicalities. There are a few vivid narratives in there, like 1 (Erastothenes), that are fun, but a lot of them...not so much.

In practice, the Apology is still a standard first or second serious text, and that's tough going even though it's Plato-lite.
posted by praemunire at 5:44 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


"Domine, this is a thermopolium."
posted by pykrete jungle at 5:58 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


I'm at the end of a performance sequence of Carmina Burana, whose text is mostly in medieval Latin. It's my second time doing the piece; the first was three or four years ago.

I have in the distant past taken multi-year courses in French, Latin, and Greek, and I always got good grades in those classes without ever really becoming conversationally fluent. And in my previous brush with Carmina I processed the text the way that I process libretti in languages like German or Italian that I've never studied: as foreign syllables with an occasional recognizable word. But this year I've been doing a super-low-intensity, audio-only course in conversational Spanish, and I'm finding myself processing the Carmina text as sometimes-meaningful words arranged into grammatical (and poetic) sentences.

I like the new way a lot better. I don't know that I could write down an English-language translation that would please any instructor, but I'm getting enough out of it to have conversations about it. During a performance I even caught myself suddenly understanding one of those stupid little particle words which, like "that" or "how" or "as" in English, can mean several different things in different contexts.

Spanish is my second conversational-language project; my first, a couple of years ago, was Arabic. Both of these projects have had audio-only instruction, which I've complemented by watching television shows (especially children's television) in the target language. What I remember from my textbook-based courses was tons and tons of noun vocabulary, a smaller set of verb vocabulary structured more around similarity of conjugation than around similarity of meaning. But what I noticed in my two audio-first projects is that the stupid little particle words are the things that pop out at me first as my skills develop. At first I hear gibberish. Then I start to hear the stupid little particle words (first came "and" and "but" in both languages) and the gibberish starts to organize into sentences. Then I start to catch one or two content words in some sentences ("I don't know what they said, but it's about X"). Actually getting a sentence that I can translate, in a way that I could write down and please an instructor, is pretty rare, but I'm getting a lot of useful pieces.

What a thought-provoking set of essays you've shared with us.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 1:12 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


I took Latin in school from grades 7-12, and it always really, really bothered me that we ONLY learned to translate it. Not to write it, not to understand it as written, not to speak it, not to hear it. I am certain I would have retained much, much more Latin than I did if we'd ever been required to actually THINK in Latin.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:46 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


a visitor from an alternative world where the everyday use of Latin never died out among scholars? And if the latter, do you want to sound like a Continental scholar, who pronounces Latin as if it was Italian, or one from England, where the Great Vowel Shift affected Latin pronunciation as well and "Caesar" was pronounced like the salad and "Cicero" like the Chicago suburb?

I forget the piece, but I once was in a choir that performed a song in latin that was by a German composer. We were explicitly taught the pronunciation of the latin as filtered through a German accent because of this fact.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:07 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


A.Z. Foreman (the author of the article) is worth a long browse. He likes to translate from and into Old English, Old Norse, Latin, Spanish, Russian, Persian, Arabic, and Chinese, and more. One recent highlight is a passage from Lord of the Rings translated into Old English (Se Hringa Hlāford)— West Saxon to be precise, except that Galadriel sings in Mercian. His blog bLogicarian has more poems but also essays, mostly language-related. He's ridiculously erudite, e.g. this entry comparing the Chinese 14-row poem with the ghazal and European sonnet.

The talk of language difficulty above is kind of amusing in that I'm currently reading a lot about ancient Mesopotamia. Latinists, you've got it cushy compared to Assyriologists.
posted by zompist at 1:42 PM on June 3


Latinists, you've got it cushy compared to Assyriologists.

I guess the flip side of that is that the total number of people who can actually read anything in any of the cuneiform script languages, even with a dictionary, is probably on the order of a few hundred people in the entire world. Something like 2% of the cuneiform tablets that still exist today have been read by even one person who was alive after the death of Caesar. Not only are the expectations of fluency incredibly low, there's almost no one else who could even plausibly check your work, so the only thing stopping Assyriologists from just running wild with their translations is their own conscience.
posted by Copronymus at 10:06 PM on June 3


vibratory manner of working: I forget the piece, but I once was in a choir that performed a song in latin that was by a German composer. We were explicitly taught the pronunciation of the latin as filtered through a German accent because of this fact.

Most probably it was Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (which is conspicuously not Classical: the Carmina were medieval fratboys' drinking songs).
posted by sukeban at 12:27 AM on June 4


Helper verbs and a loss of inflection go a long way in making the English verb more user friendly.

That sounds reasonable. But what about English gives it a reputation as being difficult to learn?


Phrasal verbs are also a nightmare for English learners. These are the verbs of form "verb+preposition" like go out or make out. Native English speakers don't tend to perceive how complicated these can be because the words are simple Germanic vocabulary (in, out, over, under, get, go, set, make, etc.) and they are very common in speech.

But if you think about it, the meaning of these verbs is often, if not usually, very opaque. Sure, an ESL learner who knows the meaning of go and out will be able to correctly understand He went out of the house as "he left the house." But what about the following verbs?

- go out "be in a relationship" or "be extinguished"
- make out "kiss" or "deduce/be able to see" or "manage"
- work out "exercise" or "calculate"
- turn out "result" or "show up"
- stand out "to be noticeable"

All these verbs use out, but if you are an ESL learner that has learned out as a word with the general sense of "outside, moving away" the resulting meanings of these verbs are totally unpredictable from the two components. Nothing about make and out separately would lead you to logically conclude that it could mean "kiss" and even if you torture out some kind of logical relationship, it won't apply to any of the other verbs in this list (let alone the ones with multiple meanings!)

You'll get the same problem with the following set:

- give out "stop working, be used up"
- give in "surrender" or "break"
- give up "surrender" or "quit"

I like to point this one out because I think it's one of the things that native English speakers are least aware of. We tend to be aware at least of our bad orthography (the difficulty of English spelling) and cross-linguistically uncommon sounds like /θ ð/ in the or path, but because phrasal verbs are so ubiquitous in English and seem so easy, we don't realize how difficult they can be for ESL learners.
posted by andrewesque at 7:24 AM on June 4 [8 favorites]


A bit more on the difficulty of phrasal verbs, pointing out not only the above observation (that the meaning is unpredictable from the components), but also that these kinds of verbs very often have several meanings and that the placement of the verb and particle is unpredictable.
posted by andrewesque at 7:27 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


Something like 2% of the cuneiform tablets that still exist today have been read by even one person who was alive after the death of Caesar.

and that 2% are all customer service complaints
posted by poffin boffin at 1:34 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


This place still open? While poking for something else, I came across this little nugget on Tacitus and the codex Aesinas (Agricola) which should be entertaining to the trace-the-treasure lovers of this world.
posted by BWA at 4:31 PM on June 4


That is one hell of a nugget.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:29 AM on June 5


(lesbiassparrow, what do you mean by "the paraphernalia of ancient languages"? To me mastering the languages themselves is obviously more difficult than understanding the grammatical traditions around them.)

I mean things like a beginning textbook devoting a page to the factititive accusative as being something critical that you know how to name and grasp, although knowing that helps you not at all to translate and that factitive accusative is only a footnote even in advanced grammars. That sort of thing.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:05 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


It's rather telling to me that the article's author refers to Cicero while quoting Beard talking about Tacitus and Thucydides. In my experience, you can read Cicero at great length after a decent amount of study, and you can take a Latin composition course and produce that kind of Latin, maybe not eloquently but at least without too many horrible errors. Yes, Latin really is elliptical and depends on words having multiple meanings. But Cicero's works are mostly trial speeches and letters and even essays where the sentence structure is at least in the neighborhood of normal spoken language. On the other hand, I read pretty much everything by Tacitus back in the day and it always struck me as very difficult literary language. Not on every page; there are passages that seem to flow along smoothly to an English speaker. But in places it's as hard as the hardest poetry.

As far as Greek goes, I always felt like Virginia Woolf was right; there's a divide between us and the people who spoke that language. And to a great extent with Latin too. I don't know how you could not feel that way.

Up until the 70s and 80s and even part of the 90s, a lot of your Latin and Greek teachers were from UK or other places where it was still common to start those languages in childhood, and I think a lot of people felt more comfortable around them as a result, which is why Woolf's essay seemed so remarkable at the time. Today, it is really difficult to get up to speed in the languages by the time you get a degree. I don't know what to do about that, and I do think having to produce the languages helps but I don't think producing Latin conversationally is really going to deepen your sense of the language in the way Beard is talking about.
posted by BibiRose at 4:42 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


As far as Greek goes, I always felt like Virginia Woolf was right; there's a divide between us and the people who spoke that language. And to a great extent with Latin too. I don't know how you could not feel that way.

Some of us speak Romance languages so we get a leg up. Similarly, Modern Greek is derived from Koine Greek. You don't get automatically from "Arma virumque cano" to "Canto a las armas y al varón" but it helps.
posted by sukeban at 4:53 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


Some of us speak Romance languages so we get a leg up. Similarly, Modern Greek is derived from Koine Greek. You don't get automatically from "Arma virumque cano" to "Canto a las armas y al varón" but it helps.

Come to think of it, a couple of years ago I had a great (architecture) student from Greece, who was quite accomplished at Koine Greek. She was accomplished at just about everything she ever did, but still, I had the impression that in Greece, a well educated person, regardless of the profession, still gets to read the classics in their original form.

(Also, my eldest daughter originally wanted to take the classical languages as part of her secondary school. I don't remember why it ended up not happening).
posted by mumimor at 10:59 AM on June 6


A conversation many years ago with a native Greek speaker left me with the impression that a native speaker of modern Greek reading classics in Koine has an experience something like a native speaker of modern English reading Chaucer. And on the Shakespeare side of Chaucer, not the Beowulf side.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 11:55 AM on June 7




languagehat points to Keeline's Is Reading Latin Impossible? : "Active Latin and comprehensible input alone are not going to make people perfect readers of ancient Latin literature, at least not for any future I can realistically imagine. For many—I suspect most—ancient Latin texts, there will remain some gap between our level of reading proficiency and the level that the text demands in order to be read fluently. That gap can be bridged by teachers and commentaries and dictionaries and perhaps by explicit knowledge about grammar and how the Latin language works, and we can in the end get meaning from these texts, and enjoy them, and eventually re-read them in the way that they were meant to be read. But on a first reading, that gap will be there for most of us most of the time."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:17 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


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