Penance

This one is from Brian Bishop:

Occasionally I erupt, asserting as self-evident Latin to be a language. I now repent and wish to expiate my error with references to the British context.

I generally recommend Clive James’ ‘Cultural amnesia’ (ISBN 978-0-330-41886-7) to colleagues. He uses 103 famous names on which to hang wide-ranging commentaries. In particular I have just read his essay
discussing the style of Edward Gibbon in his ‘The decline and fall of the Roman empire’. On page 265 James discusses the tiresome necessity to read and reread Gibbon’s sentences to “settle on what must be meant”. “… there is still something to the assumption that a sentence, however the reader gets to the end of it, should be intelligible by the time he does, and that if he is forced to begin again he has been hoodwinked into helping the writer do the writing.”

The Latinist Guido Angelino consistently held that Latin style was (loosely) divided into colloquial or linear and literary or classical (v. http://www.latinitatis.com/latinitas/textus/angelinolat.htm and essays

titled ‘De lingua latina colloquiali’, De latino vulgari seu colloquiali’).

Teaching planning should start by identifying the objective. Some teachers acknowledge the ineluctable fact that their objectives are decided for them in detail by examination boards and in general by educational establishment superiors and pupils’ or (more forcibly) parents’ expectations — the highest grades in the most subjects.

For centuries Latin has been defined, not as a free language, but as the imitation of its most elegant patterns, such as Cicero and Virgil.

Incidentally, imitation is explored in the I Tatti ‘Ciceronian controversies’ (ISBN 0-674-02520-2). The rich and intellectual used to have time and resources to match those invested by the ancient masters of
their craft, and their other studies were largely derived from their Latin studies; but these days, even for the rich and intellectual, time and resources have to be devoted to unrelated modern studies, with Latin needing justification in the terms of those studies, if not alien statistics. If you steal time in your Latin course to indulge in practices outside the official image, such as conversing in Latin or looking at other applications
of the language, that proves that you have been timetabled too generously, and the time could be better spent on subjects that are more appealing to children or their parents, that attract more generous marking, or seem more specifically vocational.

Those in authority still limit specifications or syllabuses to the style and content of the most elegant ancient authors: there is a belief that Caesar is too simple or too bellicose, whilst not appealing to the girls (although Catullus is admitted so as to appear daring); Aulus Gellius is deemed insufficiently elegant; post-Roman authors (despite the elegance of Erasmus and Buchanan) are rejected as being mere imitators (although Tacitus and Ovid had had to learn their craft and were not averse to imitating). On the other hand passages for translation in examinations aimed at students around age 16 are distorted in rewrites of their claimed originals, and the stories used in most modern courses return to the unsophistication of a
normal, rather than a brilliant, Roman.

Whilst acknowledging that teachers of Latin have to adhere to the requirements set by higher authorities, I can only speculate ignorantly as to the drivers and objectives of those authorities. I have failed to discover the basis for choosing, changing and decreasing the designated vocabulary lists (one of the word frequency tables, the vocabulary content of courses, individual idiosyncracies?). Have any teachers on examination requirement or quality assurance panels not had the occasion to consider whether less sophisticated or later texts might attract more students, yet remain equally valid and possibly more valuable? There is a contradiction in that the gradual dumbing down of the language requirements, equip students less to understand and appreciate the higher-flown classical set texts.

Why do authorities remain wedded to studying the sophisticated style and only classical authors? Is it to appear to continue a no longer appropriate tradition? Is it that they know no better? Is it that, steeped in long sentences of complex clauses, they are frightened by straightforward passages? Is it that those with new views do not ascend to such levels?

Whatever the truth of the matter, for the foreseeable future, I accept that Latin died with Petronius and is unutterable, and that the only aspect of the language worthy of consideration is that catalogued as classical. My task, therefore, is not to teach but to train my charges to solve to order the intricate inanimate codes set before them. Furthermore, I shall carry that style, much praised in Gibbon, into my English.

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