Thursday, August 5, 2010

Back to School: Ancient Languages

I don't know how a classical education survived into the 70s in a state not famed for its educational opportunities, but I do know the high school I went to offered Latin, and my mother -- I won't say made, but I will say "leaned on" -- me to take it.
The first phrase we learned was puella pulchra (beautiful girl.) Immediately there was a student who didn't understand how a word like silvia (woods) could be female. Or how any word could be male or female. He became known as First Declension Man because he never got any further. The rest of us translated sentences from our textbook, sentences like: " 'Let us cross the river and make camp there,' Caesar said to his troops" and "The men drank too much wine and danced around the house." By third year there were four of us left, sitting in the back of the second year class, reading the Aeneid, scribbling down our translations and asking Mrs. Harrod tangled grammar questions.
When I came out of it I knew what the pluperfect was. And the subjunctive mood. And an indirect object. (10 years of English and they still hadn't drilled that into me!) I had baked a placenta (cake) and taken it to to the Foreign Language Club and not suprisingly no one had eaten it. And I was motivated to take Ancient Greek in the first two semesters of college.
What did I get out of it all? Well, when I went to Rome I could read the inscriptions on the buildings. I could sort of read Italian, too. (I was tripped up by Domingo/Sunday on a train schedule but the Romans didn't have days of the week so how could I know?) I could decipher allusions in The Hunger Games. (Panem = bread as in bread and circuses.) But probably the best thing was that I hardly ever again have encountered a word in English I didn't know. Knowing Latin and Greek, even long after the grammar faded away, made words useful to me.
Looking back, Latin class is one of my better memories of high school. There was a sense of a world opening up. It seemed to be more about discovering something new, of acquiring autonomy, than boring memorization of vocabulary. The language came to us, flexible and mysterious, and we played with it. (I made Mrs. Harrod laugh once by translating Elvis Costello's "Every Day I Write the Book.")
So in this back to school season, I hope someone somewhere is taking Latin.

1 comment:

Mary Aalgaard said...

What a great plug for Latin! And, any foreign language. It opens your mind to a new way of thinking. I like how you described your mom as "leaning on" you to take the class! Cool that you stuck it out that long.