Aaron Turner

The study of ancient languages

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I've been considering learning at least one of the ancient "dead" languages - Latin or Greek. Realizing this will be a significant investment of time, and that it competes with many other interests that also perennially resurface and tempt me to invest time, I've been giving some thought to rational reasons for studying these particular languages. This includes an attempt to understand the intent of Latin instruction in classic education, and the reasons why this instruction has now been abandoned.

So far, I've considered three main motivations for studying ancient languages.

1. Reading source material without translation

Particularly when reading philosophical or historical material, I am aware of and concerned over the effect of multiple translations upon the accurate transmission of the ideas of the original author. Translation will also destroy any poetical or rhythmic form of the original material, though for me this is of secondary importance. However, I also recognize this search for the "original intent" to be something of a fool's quest for all literature more than a few hundred years old. At the very least, these writings have been copied (manually) multiple times prior to translation, and the scribes are likely to have "improved" upon the original language, thereby adding their bias to the work.

2. Cultural Heritage

When I'm reading authors from the 1940s and earlier, and they are referring to Greek and Latin works which "every schoolboy knows by heart", and make heavy use of Latin phrases which are assumed to be part of the reader's vocabulary, I cannot help but wonder if I've missed out on some key cultural knowledge. The fact is that this knowledge has now been retired from the mainstream of culture, and will soon perish. Other cultural knowledge has grown in its place, but clearly lacks the richness of these ancient sources.

3. Understanding of Modern Language, and Grammar

Latin in particular is a direct root of the modern Western languages. I have no interest in learning other modern European languages - my high school French has been a useless appendage, I am not a traveler, and except for the occasional reading of translated literature, as noted above, almost everything I read on a daily basis was originally published in English. However, it is clear that the process of learning the Latin grammar forces the student to fully understand the structure and proper use of modern languages based in Latin. And, since grammar has largely been eliminated from modern education, this may be a key reason for taking up the study. A better understanding of vocabulary will also result from knowing the original meanings of the root words.

So here is what I'd like those of you who either have had a classical education, or have studied these languages voluntarily, to answer:

a) Have I correctly identified the motivations behind the study of ancient languages? What have I missed?

B) Why, in your opinion, has instruction in ancient languages been removed from modern schooling?

c) As the parent of home-schooled children, is there an enduring benefit to instructing them in Latin (or Greek)?

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Have I correctly identified the motivations behind the study of ancient languages? What have I missed?

How about YOUR reasons to want to study an ancient foreign language?

:) Why, in your opinion, has instruction in ancient languages been removed from modern schooling?

Probably the same reasons other kinds of knowledge have been removed from modern schooling.

As the parent of home-schooled children, is there an enduring benefit to instructing them in Latin (or Greek)?

I took two years of Latin and four of Spanish and got some grammar and vocabulary from the former and an occasionally useful skill from the latter. I agree with Dr. Peikoff that learning a language is not a necessary part of a basic education.

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I also agree that learning a foreign language is not a necessary part of a basic education. If it were not required, I wouldn't be taking any foreign language at all. Since it is required, though, I chose the one that is most in line with my interests, which happens to be a dead language.

My own experience with Greek has deepened my knowledge of certain aspects of English grammar, but I wouldn't consider that deepening particularly useful. All it's done is explicitly identified things I was already doing automatically, just from being a native speaker. Most of us only need a "working knowledge" of grammar (which is still more than a lot of people have), and we can leave all the intricacies to professional grammarians and editors. As long as your kids can communicate intelligently, I wouldn't bore and confuse them with a dead language, unless they express interest in something that would make it worthwhile.

As a subject for your own study, I would strongly advise against trying to learn if there are other things that are going to divert your attention from it periodically. I speak from my own experience with Greek, and although my classmates who are also learning Latin say it is much easier, I think trying to study it with "vacations" of a sort thrown into the middle would dramatically increase the difficulty of learning either language. With Greek, you are talking about a language that can have 15 different forms of a single noun, and over 500 forms of a verb with very subtle differences in meaning that can be extremely difficult to grasp for the native English speaker. (Latin doesn't have quite that many forms, but it is still highly inflected and is a rather daunting task).

Automatizing what one has learned is the key, and that just isn't possible without daily practice; I'm an extremely fast learner and with 2 hours of homework in Greek every single day, I still have difficulties automatizing it simply because it is so dramatically different from anything we do in English. If there is significant interest in doing things that can only be accomplished with knowledge of a dead language, then it can be very rewarding (I'm not sorry in the least I chose Greek). The list of reasons you gave sound more like the reasons Classics departments give to students in an attempt to convince them they should be interested, rather than a list of real, personal interests. Unless you have the latter, I would warn you that studying a dead language will probably be not only a miserable experience, but one that won't hold your attention well enough to make any real progress possible. If you do have strong personal interests, though, go for it, just know it's a lot of work.

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How about YOUR reasons to want to study an ancient foreign language?

What I listed earlier were elements of my decision process. As indicated, I have rejected the argument that the quest for original sources was a meaningful reason. The "cultural heritage" issue is what brought me to consider the matter in more depth, even though that heritage is leaving us. I remain undecided how important that heritage is to recover. The final element - grammar and a richer understanding of English - would be my only solid reason for pursuing an education in a classic language.

To properly express thought in language is essential to the thinking process. Full clarity in expression cannot be achieved without a deep understanding of vocabulary, as well as a solid understanding of grammar. Abstract grammar (as separated from a particular language) forms a significant component of (Aristotlean) Logic, knowledge of which is equally essential to the proper development of deductive and inductive reasoning.

It is my desire to dramatically improve my understanding of these tools of thought - so that I can similarly improve my ability to reason and communicate. This particular decision on ancient language study will be driven by what I discover (prior to starting the study) of its utility in revealing the essential structure of English grammar and vocabulary. My reason for posting these questions here was to receive some feedback from those who have been through this study.

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3. Understanding of Modern Language, and Grammar

Latin in particular is a direct root of the modern Western languages. I have no interest in learning other modern European languages - my high school French has been a useless appendage, I am not a traveler, and except for the occasional reading of translated literature, as noted above, almost everything I read on a daily basis was originally published in English. However, it is clear that the process of learning the Latin grammar forces the student to fully understand the structure and proper use of modern languages based in Latin. And, since grammar has largely been eliminated from modern education, this may be a key reason for taking up the study. A better understanding of vocabulary will also result from knowing the original meanings of the root words.

If your goal is to learn grammar, the most effective and efficient way is to study English grammar. If you would like to widen your vocabulary and know the meanings of words we use in English, it would also be highly more efficient to study English vocabulary directly. I've heard claims that up to fourty percent of the words in the English language descended from Latin in some form (many probably from French)--but that would mean your study would not help you understand the meanings of sixty percent of your vocabulary.

I disagree that the elimination of grammar from some curriculums is a reason for taking up Latin. That simply means grammar should be included again, to me.

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I learned so much about English by taking German. It really helped me to appreciate grammar. For that alone, I would highly encourage you to study a foreign language.

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I learned so much about English by taking German. It really helped me to appreciate grammar. For that alone, I would highly encourage you to study a foreign language.

If learning about English was his only goal, wouldn't it be better to directly study English? If your goal is to learn Greek history, you could study Rome and some parts would certainly overlap, but it would be much more efficient to read Greek history itself. That seems obvious. Why should it be different with languages?

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If learning about English was his only goal, wouldn't it be better to directly study English? If your goal is to learn Greek history, you could study Rome and some parts would certainly overlap, but it would be much more efficient to read Greek history itself. That seems obvious. Why should it be different with languages?

I also learned a lot about English grammar when I took German. The reason, partly, was that I wasn't taught English grammar very well in the first place. But there were other reasons too.

1) Learning about another language makes one appreciate what is different and unique about English. There are things in English that most people probably take for granted, because that's just the way they are.

For example, the order of subject and verb. In English, it's usually subject followed by verb. So to many people, the subject is just the thing that comes first. But in German, the order can be reversed in some circumstances. For instance, if one wanted to say "We study the first lesson", the German word order would be the same as in English. But if one wanted to say "Today we study the first lesson", the German word order would be something like "Today study we the first lesson" (if I'm remembering correctly after all these years). Seeing this made me focus more on just what a subject and verb is; and what the function of words like "today" is.

2) There are some concepts in English that don't get emphasized as much as in German grammar, because they're less prominent. For instance, German nouns and pronouns have four cases, but English nouns have only two cases; English pronouns only three. So the issue of case is less emphasized in English, but it's still important (whether to use "me" or "I", for example*), and I became more aware of it when I studied a language in which it was emphasized more. (Another example of this is the subjunctive mood of a verb.) In other words, it's important in English, but it's easier to learn in German, because it stands out more.

Perhaps learning another language also helps in the study of grammar, because one then has more concretes to integrate.

-----

*Note, for instance, the radically different meanings of:

"She loves pizza more than I." vs

"She loves pizza more than me."

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3. Understanding of Modern Language, and Grammar

Latin in particular is a direct root of the modern Western languages.

Yes and no. Latin is the direct ancestor of the "Romance Languages" (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, plus less common languages that don't come with a country), but it is not an ancestor of English, which is a "Germanic Language". What we did get from Latin and medieval French was a LOT of vocabulary. Our grammar on the other hand is still derived from the Germanic model, much simplified of course. Nonetheless grammarians have tried to impose a more Latin grammar on us. The injunction to not split an infinitive comes to us from Latin grammarians (I am not sure but I think in Latin and the Romance languages it is impossible to split an infinitive as it is one word, but such a restriction is arbitrary in a language like ours where it is two words).

I nevertheless find it useful to study a foreign language (it doesn't really matter which one for this; even a language as close to ours as German will work) since it does cause you to compare/contrast grammars and you perforce end up with a deeper understanding of our grammar. As for Latin and Greek, the vocabularies--which we have borrowed so much of--can't hurt!

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Dear Aaron,

1) There's little concern about lost "original intent", because all of the Classical works underwent an unfathomably exhausive review during the past 500 years by European educated men. They not only dug out single and forgotten manuscripts from medieval cathedrals, but they read everything, and read it again, over and over; all lacunae (holes in the works) had been found, all extemporaneous comments struck out. Believe me, if you and I think a later Christian addition would be inappropriate, the humanists thought it would be insufferable, and couldn't tolerate even the thought of it. They combed every text, generations upon generations of them, and removed any such thing. After all, what is that cultural heritage which previous generations valued, and which you think possibly worth learning, if it's muddled with frivolous changes? The works wouldn't affect men to such a degree if the original value was unrecoverable.

2) You're right about the richness of the Classical cultural heritage. If you can avoid the veritable minefield that the modern "scholars" have set up in front of you, the result will be well worth the effort. It's a bit like trying to describe Ayn Rand and Objectivism to someone who hasn't read them yet; in Classics, the amount of hero-worship available is almost unbounded, and the values for living on this earth are practically limitless. Of course, to a person who hasn't been exposed to it yet, it's very hard to concretize what I'm talking about, so I'll simply leave the subject with the testimony of 500 years of European men of letters, who cherished this cultural learning as much as you can imagine, and even more. There was a reason why Harvard considered only one thing important enough for students to have, if they thought about entering college: the ability to fluently read Cicero and Virgil; not church Latin, but the old Romans.

3) Finally, the languages themselves: having studied both by now, I can say that Latin is very accessible (more about Greek in a second). After just one year of Latin you can begin to competently read the works, and are no longer at the mercy of teachers. Greek is a more difficult language to learn, and less necessary to know. Don't get me wrong, it has plenty of valuable things to read; the only issue is time. I've studied Greek for two years already, and by now am interested in expanding only the Latin proficiency further. The reason is not that there aren't some good and interesting things in Greek; it's that every word of Latin is golden. Virgil's poetry, for instance, is just like honey off your tongue; it's an indescribable sensation, matched maybe by some poetry from Dryden, and a few passages from Shakespeare. And the content matches the style. It seems that every single piece of literature we have in Classical Latin is extremely good (while Greek literature is of uneven merit). So if you have to choose, Latin is definitely the one to go with. People were as busy with their lives in the Renaissance, and had as little time as now, but everyone personally read the Romans for their cultural education, while Greek, although by no means abandoned, was left to people with free time to spare.

A quick note in regards to grammar: in addition to the inestimable heap of values the students stand to gain, the Latin grammar helps them a lot with using English well. The way Latin grammar works makes understanding English grammar a vastly more richer experience than just learning English grammar by itself. Consider that the English language was not even studied in English or American schools until the 19th century. The 18th century (and earlier) English grammar was used in conjunction with Latin rules; and their prose was extremely rich and dignified. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, is a thoroughly good example of that, and it's hard to imagine a late 19th century intellectual writing in that way. I can also cite here an 18th century letter from a woman, a completely mundane letter to a newspaper, which yet captivates you with its charm; or a simple letter from a 15-year old boy which would put subsequent writers to shame with its quiet and endearing dignity. So Latin grammar really helps.

But of course now we come back to the mine-field that is the modern Classics. I don't expect you will find much of what I said above to be shared by the modern opinion. If it's accurate to say that Philosophy has gotten corrupted, then Classics has completely degenerated; it is practically gone. An average scholarly report, or a typical Preface to a Roman work, will sooner make you cast the book away, or at least shrug in utter indifference, than instill reasons for its reading. The only safe introduction is to read the old works themselves, bypassing the Prefaces as if a plague; and then not all literature, since poetry takes time getting used to, but prose writing. For instance, (translations of) Polybius, Livy, Cicero's essays on Friendship and on Old Age, etc., are all superlative works for getting your feet wet. Also, Culture of Classicism is a rare good modern work on the subject, sketching a picture of Classics in America in a scholarly way, showing the role the Romans played in the American Revolution and the education of the original country in liberty.

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