THE DEAD LANGUAGES
BERNICE L. FOXNothing could be more ridiculous than defending the place of a department of Classical Languages in the curriculum of a college of liberal arts. That would be like defending the use of meat in preparing a meal. But members of the board and my own colleagues have sometimes asked me questions which indicate that it might not be entirely pointless to restate some facts about the study of these so-called "dead" languages.
The most obvious value is, of course, the facility a person gains in manipulating his own language. In almost exact proportion as Latin and Greek have been de-emphasized in our schools in recent years, illiteracy on the college level has increased. A member of the Monmouth College faculty not long ago asked me whether it would not be more efficient to correct this weakness with more English courses.
The answer is this is that greater learning can be concentrated in a smaller area in the study of Latin. This should have a special appeal in view of our pre-occupation with "accelerated" education. Let me show what I mean by a few instances from the three major areas in which Latin is of value to the student:
1. Grammar ---- In a Latin or Greek sentence, such parts as the subject and direct objectwill have totally different endings. Therefore, of necessity, the student learns basic sentence structure as he learns the language. In English a word like "book" is spelled the same, whether it is the subject or the object. (That book is good. I read that book.)
You cannot even depend entirely on word order. (That book I read with interest.)
2. Spelling ---- This is one of the most serious deficiencies in our students’ work. Andthere are understandable problems. Does the word end in -able or -ible? Go back to your Latin: portare gives us portable; audire gives us audible. But wouldn’t the student have to learn as many Latin words as the number of English words? No. All Latin verbs that do not end in -are would be in the -ible classification. And this is only one of many spelling aids. No Latin student who knows the word circum (around) should have any difficulty with the first two syllables of such unrelated words as circumstances, circumference, circumnavigate.
3. Meaning ---- Our students use an appallingly limited vocabulary, and their readingcomprehension is restricted by a vast ignorance of word meaning. Memorizing lists of words is of little value. I know of no better method of learning the meaning of many words than the study of Latin or Greek, for learning one word in these languages sets up a chain reaction whereby the student gets at least a vague conception of the idea in many words. For instance, the Latin word dictum means word or saying. From this the student can figure out, according to context, the meaning of diction, dictionary, predict, contradict, dictator and many more words on this same base.
I had wanted to mention many other values, but I got carried away with the direct values of Latin to the students’ understanding of their own language. Therefore, I shall merely state, without much discussion, such points as the development of "style." Some students can write papers grammatically correct, but totally lacking in forcefulness or colorfulness. Benjamin Franklin trained himself to write by imitating Joseph Addison; and no student can go through a course in Cicero without developing some sensitivity to beautifully constructed sentences, balanced ideas and powerful antitheses.
For the student who wishes to understand the Romance languages, Latin is fundamental. Studying a Romance language without any knowledge of Latin is like building a house without a foundation. Likewise, a knowledge of these "dead" civilizations, which have contributed so much to our modern way of life, is basic for the student of our social or cultural history. One does not start the study of the Civil War with Fort Sumter.
For an appreciation of much of the world’s music, art and literature, a knowledge of classical mythology is indispensable. Mythological themes are numerous, and mythological allusions are innumerable.
This leaves one other frequent question unanswered: why should not all these things be taught in courses of "classics in translation," eliminating the ordeal of learning the language itself? Some of it can be done this way, but not all of it. Poetry and humor are two very fragile substances that shatter when moved from one language to another. I have tried for years to find an adequate translation of a remark in a Terence comedy. A character states that two young lovers are behaving like amentes, not amantes. The first of these words means people out of their minds; the second means people in love. In English the line falls flat, for we do not have two words which can have these meanings by the change of a single letter.
As for poetry, try paraphrasing a beautiful English poem like Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and see how leaden it becomes: Here is an old vase with a picture on it of a boy chasing a girl. He’ll never get the kiss he wants. Too bad. But she’ll never grow old and he will never stop wanting her. How nice. It’s rather beautiful, isn’t it? And all we really know about life is that what is beautiful is a form of truth and vice versa.
That, my dear colleagues, is the murder of a lovely poem. even when Milton tried to translate a Horatian poem into English, he finally had the Latin original printed along with his translation in his collected poems. Let poetry be read as the poet wrote it, or not at all.
I would like to end my comments with a poem by Roselle Montgomery, which Dr. Thiessen read a long time ago and quoted to me:
In them immortal gods are still astir,
The towers of Ilium are lifted still;
The Parthenon sits lovely on its hill,
And Rome’s magnificence is left to her.
The fleece still beckons the adventurer,
The face of Helen moves men to desire,
And desperate Dido builds a dreadful fire
To light the way of her lost voyager.
In them survive all glamorous, dream-touched things.
If these be dead, the gods indeed are dead.
Splendor, enchantment, and romance are fled,
If Pan no longer pipes, and Psyche’s wings
No longer poise. This dull world is bereft,
And youth is robbed, with only drabness left.