Quot Homines, Tot Sententiae: Why learn Classical Languages?

A blog by nature is ephemeral (this one more than most) so it doesn’t hurt to provide some content for my ramblings. I had a rare free Saturday morning, and was reading through Manutius’ prefaces to Greek and Latin texts, when I remembered twitter still existed. Logging on, I found an interesting article by a Theology student on what value they’ve gained studying a classical language (in this case Latin).

I’m linking it here since it’s worth reading, if only to catch something of the evident pleasure this student gets from studying Latin. In all these discussions about Ovid and rape culture, or how apparently white statues make scholars racist, it’s a nice reminder that more than anything else these languages are interesting. 

I found the article, as I find so many interesting classical nugatae lately, in the twitter feed of Olivia Thompson. OT, as always, had her own interesting take and wrote about the application of classical languages to the historian:

Compare that with the bewildering entitlement displayed in another article by a fledgling student, this time from Columbia, doing the rounds a few weeks ago. I will, of course, link the entire thing here.

This post isn’t going to convince anybody as to the worth of studying Latin and Greek – though Ironically I’ve had an easier time of doing that without the university than within – but do let’s look briefly at three small questions on offer here. Are classical languages interesting? are they in anyway useful? and (vis a vis the article above) are they, well, elitist?

Now, I think the fact that myself and many other alumni still read Greek and Latin without the Damoclean deadlines of university exams hanging over us speaks to delight and joy these languages can bring. Indeed, I spoke of classical languages – not just Latin and Greek, because there’s something about the discipline which inculcates a need to ferret out other ancient languages: I was considered unusually multilingual by my tutors at Oxford, but I know so much more now. It is the same with my course-mates, I know a non-negligible number who have gone on to pick Arabic, Classical Chinese, even native American languages.

Utility – ah utility! You capering nymph never to be seized! you shy little boat drifting always just off the jetty! – Yeah,I’m not going to even try to tackle that properly. You’re welcome to go down that rabbit hole without me. Here’s Boris Johnson. Here’s someone championing Latin for literacy. Here is the inestimable Mary Beard giving a more level headed and engaging view. Have fun, Dominus vobiscum.

Instead let’s take utility in the narrow sense implied (or at least I infer it) by the first article I cited and Thompson’s response. Do the languages offer utility outside their directly immediate areas of study?

I think we have something of an answer from the young student of Theology. Thompson’s tweet (above) does that beautifully for history.  My model for a historian in this sense has always been John Ma who is probably the most impressive Greek historian you’ve never read.

Ancient history, divorced from strict linguistic study, is often heralded as a great equaliser. I think the truth is that all it does is impoverish student and discipline alike. Which leads me to the third point of consideration and the one raised by the second linked article. Are these languages elitist? Is it too much to expect students from certain background to learn them?

As counter intuitive it may seem, I would argue quite the opposite. There is no doubt that students from private schools have an advantage when it comes to becoming Classicists. These advantages are, in some part, the kind of reasons that cause parents to spend large amounts of money on educating their brood. That students from these backgrounds all but monopolise positions in the academy is another problem all together and more to do with the incestuous nature of British universities. None the less, let’s point out the obvious that, yes, little Tristan and Isabella who have years of Latin and Greek (or Arabic, or Russian, or Mandarin…) will have an easier job of getting good at Latin and Greek in the three or four years they are at university.

Let us also make it clear that little Wayne or Jodie, who may not even have taken French, will have a more difficult time. But that difficulty exists up to a point. Universities like Oxford administer aptitude exams meant to be (haha, oh god we still claim this, haha) subject agnostic. The point of tertiary study is that you’re in a specialised environment with time and resources on your side to master whatever esoterica comes your way, and last – but not by any means least – you have like minded friends. The latter I think can make more of a difference than even the most well-meaning lecturer.

Study and mastery over these languages also helped to provide something like an objective yard-stick. Others more perceptive than I have pointed out how the movement to reception and classics in the modern world replaces core competencies (textual criticism, papyrology etc) with softer class distinguishers.

Coming from a working-class background, there have been a few impediments to my studying Classics. The languages certainly were not one of them. If anything, growing up multilingual and in a multi-ethnic area where I constantly heard other languages, I took to them rapidly. I think the complete lack of cultural baggage meant I never developed any fear of them. Sure, ‘smart people’ knew Latin but Maths and Science were also meant to be very difficult and as everyone tells you, anyone can learn their lessons if they try hard enough.

I worry, I really do, when people start moving their politics and personal tastes (in terms of the books and films they enjoy) into the curriculum and start grading on them. A working-class kid from Birmingham or Hounslow is never going to have quite the same performative version of feminism as you do, is never going to have read or watched the same things, hasn’t had the kind of experience which would engender the same politics.

It is, moreover,  insanely unfair to expect us to. That is not social contract we signed up to on matriculation. But a verb is a verb and Osthoff’s law or Lectio difficilior potior remain equally valid in estuary English or brogue. Objectivity’ isn’t much more definable than ‘utility’ when it comes to marking and comparing students, but there are grades of fairness.

Why must we be guardians of Latin and Greek? Well that’s a grandiose way of putting things but I can’t help but think that when we guard them, they guard the discipline.

Further reading

Links scattered throughout will be alphabetised and appended here when I can be bothered. I’ll also add some links of interest, not cited, as per usual. Meanwhile enjoy the Daily Mail (who else?) on ‘chav’ names here and the Tatler on posh baby names.

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One thought on “Quot Homines, Tot Sententiae: Why learn Classical Languages?

  1. David Marjanović says:

    the bewildering entitlement displayed in another article by a fledgling student, this time from Columbia, doing the rounds a few weeks ago

    What’s bewildering about it is something completely different. Its title is “The classics major is classist”, yet it simply takes something else for granted that really is classist: the fact that “a Greek class” costs “a couple thousand dollars”. This is where I just want to throw a bucketful of cold water in America’s face.

    “Free” as in “speech” and “free” as in “beer” go together.

    Like

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