Short Note: Classics and Languages

For the first time in weeks I’ve found the time to do a little writing. I’m in the midst of writing a series of posts on Classics and the East and so naturally this means I need to check Twitter, where I came across an interesting conversation on an article by Paul Lay. The article may be found here. It concerns the lamentable poverty of our language learning here in the UK and the affect that this has on history as a discipline.

Do languages help the would be historian? The answer should be a resounding ‘yes’ but I’m having a little trouble seeing that they do. Even as my fingers hit the keys, I know that to be a heretical statement but I can’t help but feel its one leaden with reality. There is a far cry between the prescriptive and descriptive reality of that statement!

My take on this is slightly tongue in cheek, completely ensconced with Classics as a discipline (hence the ancient focus), and a little bit of this:


On one hand, of course languages ought to be a serious boon to any would be historian. From a research perspective they magnify what you’re able to access. I really could not imagine studying Homer without German or French. That’s not to say the English material isn’t absolutely wonderful but German, for example, has opened up a wealth of technical resources (such as the LfgrE) and differing point of views (I quite like the stronger neo-analytical tint to German scholarship. Sshh! don’t tell anyone!).

There’s also the human element to additional languages. Since graduating, some of the more memorable classical conversations I’ve had have been in Greek (Spartan law and culture) and French (the formation of the aorist). Think back to the second world war and the refugee scholars flocking to the UK from Germany. How much poorer scholarship would be without that commingling of different linguistic traditions. (Incidentally, these scholars are the subject of a wonderful edited volume).

In any historical discipline, it’s important to be aware of one’s biases and social conditioning and being able to draw on resources in other languages helps with that. (Note: there are caveats, we’re not discussing these here though).

What about primary sources? Familiar ground for those defending language as part of historical study. After all how can you study a period if you don’t at least know its language? Interpretation of a foreign culture is hard enough as it is, why add another layer of imperceptibility between you and your sources?

Classicists, however, shudder at the simple primary/secondary dichotomy (I’ll leave to what degree we might call Cassius Dio or Aurelius Victor, for example, primary sources to some Historical Crocodile) and even the idea of an ‘original’ text can cause consternation. Reading ‘original’ texts is tied up with specialist directors, grammars, classes on palaeography and editorial technique.

I’m going to, in a move that would infuriate textual critics, quote West quoting Fraenkel who was writing an introduction to Leo to illustrate this:

West comment for blog

As West surmises ‘textual criticism is not the be-all and end-all of classical scholarship….But it is an indefensible part of it’. When we pour through manuscripts and try to find out whether someone wrote δε or τε, or which line is an interpolation, or whether the o in subito keeps its natural length in this instance what we’re really asking is “what did x really write?” which is actually a separate issue altogether from “what did x want his audience to hear” and “how was this received?”.

Readers, all three of them, will have noticed that nothing I’ve said so far supports the idea that languages aren’t important to Classicists. If anything, all I’ve done is give some mean preview to just how important languages are to the discipline. After all Classics is essentially Classical Philology which by its very nature is focused on language and its usage. Epigraphy, palaeography, textual emendation etc, all these stem from the same vital skills which begin when learning how to conjugate amare. If anything, language is much more important to us than other disciplines.

Well, whip out your handbooks of classical rhetoric if you can’t see what’s coming. I did say there is a difference between the reality of the statement ‘language is important to history’ and its actual, pragmatic, reality.


What if you wish to become an historian? (in this case pro historian lege classicist) how useful are languages then? There’s a social dictum against speaking like this about academe, at least amongst the middle classes: Academic jobs are meant to be seen as callings, not subject to the same criteria as others. On the other hand, I’m a working class lad and work in a brusque no nonsense sector. I’m hardly above such questions.

Moreover, ‘historian’ is more or less an academic position nowadays unless you possess a near wondrous mix of skill and luck. Seriously, find a friend in publishing and ask them about the Nielsen ratings for the vast majority of history books….ouch….

Simply reviewing the products of the last handful of generations of scholars shows a serious reduction in the breadth of languages engaged with. Hebrew was the first casualty as the bible has lost its previous vaunted position amongst us. One would think that languages of areal importance (e.g Akkadian, Aramaic etc) or genetic affiliation (Sanskrit stands out) wield some impact in the Classics but…not really. Sure, there was a brief flourishing of interest but nowadays outside of UCLA or, to some degree Harvard, Classicists have moved away from Indo-European studies.

This isn’t all bad, a lot of comparative work was pretty outrageously general and tepid in its applicability. The focus of the Classics department must absolutely remain on Greek and Latin. We’re not a world philology department. Such a goal is unattainable and undesirable (though you should watch this regardless).

We’re long past the days of Classicists glibly commenting on the Mahabharata or how thinly drawn characters are in Akkadian literature. That’s a good thing. But we’ve lost the ability to use these comparanda to better understand the context of what we study. One would hope that this reduction in scope would bring with it a renewed, tighter, focus on Greek and Latin but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

If you look at recent monographs, articles, or theses recently submitted or in progress, work requiring a broad variety of ancient languages is out. Work requiring detailed mastery of Latin and Greek is also, by and large, out. You’re much better off focusing on something with ‘reception’, ‘environment’ or ‘feminist’ in the title. A ‘plea for polyglots’? That hardly seems to be the case. The trend has been a steady reduction in philological rigour towards more theoretical projects.

Whether this trend is something good or ill I leave to you to decide, I’m not willing to comment. Perhaps its too early to tell. By some ironic twist of fate it’s the more linguistically dexterous Classicists I know who ended up outside the academy. It’s an intellectually fulfilling past time and helps one engage with the ancient world. It’s just not very likely to help you become an historian…