On language learning and the Loeb editions

Here’s a thought-provoking article, really on the use of cribs when studying literature. I freely admit that I turn to a crib when stuck, and I guess most classicists do the same. (I leave to one side the brilliant ones who know it all.)

Didn’t know that Clive James (wonderful broadcaster!) had written about learning Latin. Must get hold of that book …

Btw our founder was one of the original editors of the Loeb texts.


Once hugely popular, an approach to language instruction that made use of a technique called interlineal translation is now dead. The method, championed by a crusading English businessman named James Hamilton in the early 19th century — and exported to America, where it remained popular into the 20th century — was supposed to open the gates of a classical education to the masses.

Hamilton’s innovation was to introduce students immediately to English translations of Greek or Latin works, rather than forcing them to stumble through dictionaries. In his instructional books, lines of English alternated with the classical languages. (Later, as the system took off, he branched into French, Italian, and German: John Stuart Mill learned German this way). In the Hamiltonian System, translations were jerry-rigged so that the English synonym typically stood directly its foreign analogue, for easy comparison.

Hamilton’s ardent view was that the the traditional method of instruction, heavy on vocab drills and syntax memorization, was tiresome, inefficient, and elitist (because it demanded years of schooling, usually private schooling). But in the current American Scholar [article not online], the writer Ernest Blum says Hamilton got both the diagnosis and the solution right, and that the Hamiltonian System should be revived.

Blum cites the dismal performance of students in the United States and elsewhere on foreign-language tests, and pins the blame on reigning pedagogical theories. These hold that students must immerse themselves fully in foreign texts, translating painstakingly on their own, so that they get a straight dose of the new language. But Blum argues that scholarship in linguistics over the past few decades demonstrates that students who follow that course will likely never learn enough words to achieve mastery.

The problem stems from Zipf’s Law, after a Harvard linguist, George Kingsley Zipf, who died in 1950. This law holds, as one summary puts it, that “almost all words are rare.” In the Greek New Testament, for example, a mere 320 words account for about 80 percent of the text. But the remaining 20 percent is made up of a fearsome 5,120 words, many of which appear only once. And that’s only one Greek book. That pattern holds in most languages. Basically, such studies of vocabulary suggest that students need to know many, many more words than they presently do — and more rare words — in order to get through books. They need a massive dose of help on the vocab front. (One scholarly estimate is that a reader must know 95 percent of the words in a book in order to guess the rest by context; few students today come close to that.) Blum says reviving the Hamiltonian system is the answer. “In no other classrooms on campus is basic information systematically withheld as a matter of policy and principle,” he writes. “What is withheld is the information on the meaning of words.”

As it happens, the Loeb Classical Library, those famous red and green books published by Harvard University Press, have the translations on the facing page of the text. For that reason they are usually banned from beginning and intermediate language classes, branded as unhelpful crutches. Blum, to be clear, says the Loebs aren’t the same as Hamiltonian texts — but it would appear that they’re the next best thing, at least for advanced beginners. Might the American Scholar article offer a hook that could get the Loebs into language classes — and, not incidentally, boost sales?

Sadly, Jeffrey Henderson, a professor of Greek at Boston University and the general editor of the Loeb Classical Library, is too scrupulous to seize the opportunity: As it happens, he endorses current language pedagogy. While it’s helpful for students to have vocabulary references on the page they are reading (perhaps in footnotes), he says in an email, exposing them to translations too soon short-circuits language mastery. “[T]ranslations to some extent always misrepresent the way the original language works,” he emails. “It’s best that the learner figure this out directly.” (He does not neglect to add that the books are wonderful choices for more seasoned classicists!)

At least one noted writer and critic dissents from the idea that beginners should steer clear of the Loebs. Clive James, in “Cultural Amnesia” (2007), says adults trying to learn Latin should reject the arguments of “purists”: “[W]hen they warn you off the Loeb Library,” he says, “they are giving you the exact reason you should hold it dear — it’s a painless dictionary.”

Leicester car park preserves Roman house

People are congratulating themselves on their sensitivity to the archaeology
they were about to destroy. Yes, congratulations. When the new building is a 9-storey car park costing thirty million pounds, you ask yourself “Where is our society going?” The answer is “Shopping, in our gas-guzzler.” Eheu!

24 dash

A £30 million, nine-storey, 2,000-space car park for Leicester’s new Highcross shopping centre has demonstrated profound respect of the ancient past.

Pick Everard architects worked closely with construction contractor Norwest Holst Limited (part of VINCI PLC) in Hammerson’s ambitious £350m Highcross development in Leicester.

During a mandatory archaeological survey of the site, University of Leicester archaeologists unearthed the remains of a Roman townhouse more than 2,000 years old and discovered the remains of a 15th century church, St Michael’s.

Because of the historic importance and rarity of these finds, the fundamental design of the car park’s substructure and pilings had to be amended.

The stunning end result is an archaeologically significant site and a uniquely designed contemporary car park in harmonious tandem, open to the public since September.

Pick Everard also worked with structural engineers to ensure the protection of the historical finds, not least so as to be able to take advantage of improved excavation and analysis techniques in the future.

But in addition to the challenge of working around this unexpected dimension, Pick Everard faced another hurdle – developing detailed designs for the three-dimensional masterpiece concept which mirrored the adjacent John Lewis flagship building in terms of imagination, aesthetic creativity and overall appearance.

Ironically, the car park was always designed with Leicester’s past in mind – a one-off bespoke mesh cladding in a hexagonal weaved pattern, the first of its kind to be used on such a scale – was chosen to echo Leicester’s old textile industry.

Pick Everard architect Chris Gilbert, said: “It was insprational working alongside Norwest Holst on this prestgious and high quality design project which has had such an enormous impact on the city.

“Our brief was taking concept designs and turning these into detailed designs that could be be built, while protecting Leicester’s proud heritage. At Pick Everard, we are committed to preserving the city’s history, as much as we are to its future.”

The Highcross John Lewis car park won ‘Large Scheme of the Year’ Award in the recent 2008 ProCon Leicestershire Property & Construction Awards.

Out-of-work Irishman writes Roman novel in his car

I like the human interest side of this story. Let’s hope the book lives up to it.


A FATHER of three young children who was made redundant nearly two years ago has hit the jackpot with his first novel, written in the front seat of his car.

The book is set in the early days of the Roman Empire, and penned by former IT worker John Stack from Garryduff, near Rochestown in Cork.

It was written last year on a laptop as he sat in his car in parking lots around Cork Harbour every day for months, escaping from the noise of his young family at home.

Although turned down by three agents in Ireland, the book about the Roman navy became the subject of a bidding war between two of the most powerful publishers in Britain, Penguin and HarperCollins.


HarperCollins won the battle and recently signed Stack to a three-book deal worth a substantial six-figure sum.

The series is to be called ‘Masters of the Sea’ and the first book, ‘Ship of Rome’, will be published on January 12. It will be one of the biggest HarperCollins titles next year. The front cover carries a glowing recommendation from Conn Iggulden, author of the bestselling ‘Emperor’ series.

Stack (36) had worked as a manager for Wrightline, an American computer design company in Cork, for 10 years but lost his job early last year when the work was transferred to India. He signed on the dole and started to work seriously on his book.

“Of course, with a young family I was worried and I applied for other jobs all the time,” he said. “But losing my job gave me the chance to really get down to writing my novel, something I had been dreaming of doing for a few years.”

He added: “I had always loved historical fiction, particularly military fiction.”

He studied Italian in college and that led to an intense interest in Roman history, which eventually gave him the spark for his novel.

“I stumbled on the idea that was to become ‘Ship of Rome’ when I was reading an academic book on the Punic Wars. The birth of the Roman navy and its precarious infancy, saved only by the corvus, seemed a fascinating tale to me.”

The corvus was the long boarding ramp that allowed the Romans to pour soldiers onto enemy ships. The spiked ramp enabled the much-smaller Roman navy defeat larger navies and played a vital role in the establishment of the Roman Empire.”For all its importance, the inventor of the corvus is not recorded,” Stack says. “He was probably a common man, an ordinary sailor, hence history’s lapse in not recording his name.

“This missing information is what drove my curiosity when writing ‘Ship of Rome’. It afforded me a blank slate, a piece of unwritten history that I could flesh out and in doing so the character of Atticus, the captain in ‘Ship of Rome’, was born.”


Once Stack got going, there was no stopping him. “Initially I wrote at home, but with three small kids in the house there wasn’t a door thick enough to keep out the noise.

“My search brought me to a spare room in a friend’s house, but again there were distractions. By chance I arrived one day to find the door locked and me without a key.

“I decided to wait so I sat in the passenger seat and started up my laptop.”

The ideas came and the words flowed, but he was worried what the neighbours might think so he drove off to a nearby car park overlooking Cork harbour.

“It’s amazing, a really private space,” he says.

It seems to be working. He has now almost finished the second book in his ‘Masters of the Sea’ series.

– John Spain, Books Editor

Why is the Germn battlefield so important?

Earth Times takes up the story of the battlefield discovered in Germany, and goes some way to explaining why people have been saying ‘history must be rewritten.’

Here’s a sentence that may tempt you to click the link above:

Ever since, German schoolchildren have been taught that Germany was mostly free of the Roman yoke, and were told to use the neutral term “Migration of the Peoples” for the later Germanic invasion of the crumbling empire.