The difficulty of Latin – Mary Beard's contribution

Tacitus was no elitist

It is the sheer difficulty of learning the Latin language that makes it a great social leveller

Mary Beard
Tuesday January 16, 2007
The Guardian

Imagine an evening at the theatre listening to words like this. “Thine arms were gyved! Nay, no gyve, no touch, was laid on me. 'Twas there I mocked him, in his gyves…” It's hardly a thrilling prospect. But if the study of Greek and Latin in this country had been quietly stopped after the first world war (as nearly happened), this is how we would now all be experiencing Greek tragedy, for that was a quote from Gilbert Murray's translation of Euripides's Bacchae, published in 1904. It's the leader of the chorus talking to the god Dionysus, who's just escaped from prison – a “gyve” is apparently an old-fashioned word for a chain. In a Greek-less world, that would be about as close to Euripides as we could get.

There are many good reasons for fostering the study of classical languages. Will Hutton recently wrote powerfully in the Observer about how important Roman history is to our own political culture. And what would be lost if we lost our direct links to ancient literature in the original tongue?

Over the past few decades, classical drama has been one of the jewels in the crown of British theatre, from Diana Rigg's wonderful Medea to Tony Harrison's Oresteia. This has been possible precisely because we still have that link to the original words. Tony Harrison knows Greek. Even Diana Rigg would have failed to move an audience with Gilbert Murray's translation.

Murray was not a dud. In the early 20th century his translations seemed up to the minute, and they were politically influential. His translation of Euripides's Trojan Women (a devastating exposure of the after-effects of armed conflict) was performed in Chicago in 1915 as part of the campaign to keep the United States out of the war. If it now seems hopelessly archaic, that's because every generation rediscovers and retranslates the classics for themselves, re-engaging with the original texts.

If we do decide to keep the classics, there's still the issue of who should learn the languages, and how. For centuries Greek has been an exotic minority option. This debate centres on Latin and on the question of whether it is too difficult. In particular, should its GCSE be made easier so that more children, across the ability range can enjoy it?

This is to miss the point. Learning Latin properly is very hard. That is part of the pleasure and the challenge, and it does no one a good turn to pretend otherwise. It's not that the Romans were cleverer than us, but the writing they left behind (which is why, after all, most of us want to study them) is difficult, complex and highly literary. Reading the Roman historian Tacitus is probably best compared to getting to grips with Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

We should not be confusing social exclusivity with an intellectually elitist subject. All bright children, no matter how wealthy or privileged they are, should have the opportunity to learn classical languages. One of the biggest crimes of the national curriculum is having eased Latin out of the maintained sector (though not entirely, I'm pleased to report). But it is no more sensible to put Latin on the curriculum of the less academically able than it is to put Mandarin Chinese or quantum physics there.

In fact, paradoxically, it is the sheer difficulty of Latin that makes it something of a social leveller, and a route to intellectual upward mobility. Questioning my colleagues who teach classics at Cambridge (a university in which roughly 40% of undergraduates across the board still come from the private sector), I found that only about 20% had attended independent schools.

The good news is that, whatever its posh image, Latin is a hard subject in which the academically able thrive. It's rather like maths: money alone can't make you good at it.


3 Responses

  1. Having successfully taught Latin to students with statements of Special Educational Needs for a number of years, I'm delighted to learn that it wasn’t possible! I’m also curious why my colleagues in the Science Department weren't preparing the students for degrees in quantum physics at the same time. Moreover I’m wondering how much experience Mary has of teaching Latin to lower ability school students. It’s great to be told something’s not possible by someone who has never tried it!
    One of the many problems with her argument is that Latin isn't in itself any harder than maths, physics or Mandarin Chinese, as professors in those subjects will be quick to point out. The issue is how far along the path of competence in a particular subject the GCSE exams should be set. The school teaching community is seeing GCSE numbers in permanent decline and colleagues losing their jobs due to falling class sizes and lower grades. The closure of departments in turn decreases access to the subject for all students, including the most able.
    At the same time, Mary wants her 80 undergraduates each year to arrive with an unchanged level of linguistic ability. Apparently all the issues raised by the reduction in school teaching time should be dealt with by schools, with none of it passed on to universities. She argues for the continued inclusion of literature, but fails to realise that the majority of students who study Latin to GCSE don’t do so because of the literature element, and she forgets that most students who start Latin never even get to GCSE or the literature anyway. Presumably they have learnt nothing. Reading original Latin literature simply does not appear in the top ten reasons why students start Latin.
    Finally, Mary doesn’t attempt to explain why the GCSE should be designed around the needs of the 3% of candidates who pursue their Latin to degree level, rather than around the 97% who don’t.

  2. Without tackling the major issues here, I'd just like to query the common assumption that Mandarin Chinese is difficult, like Physics and, perhaps, Latin. To learn Mandarin needs a good memory, because every character is different, and we were required to know 5,000 of them by the end of our second year, but there are no inflections, nothing that a European language specialist would recognise as grammar. True, to speak correctly one should learn each 'word' with its rising on falling tone, but that again is memory, not skill.

    Incidentally, having learned both Latin and Chinese I have found hardly any use for the Chinese, but daily use for the Latin.

  3. Well, I am wondering why there has been no mention of Japanese here. With 3 forms of writing- & 4 if one counts Romaji; Japanese Hiragana ; Katakana & Kanji is arguably much more challenging than Mandarin alone taking into consideration the Kanji has On & Kun readings as well as the Japanese equiv.

    My daughter studies Latin & Japanese at University here in Australia; in my tertiary days I studied Japanese with Russian. I watch her study and often she asks us to help to test her vocab in Latin. IMO Latin is more difficult than either Japanese or Russian. The inflection – complexity of the Grammar combined with the fact that the language is no longer spoken and the vocal tone is lost to us- viz. Caesar as Kaiser & Cicero as Kikero- circa as Kirka etc- well how do we actually know for sure how this language was actually spoken?

    Latin is one of the most difficult of languages to learn; however the US diplomatic line is that Japanese is the hardest of all languages to learn for English speakers. One wonders if those commentators had ever tried to assimilate Scottish Gaelic?

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