Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sayers on Latin

I must tip my tam to Father Larry Beane for linking at his blog this discussion which Dorothy Sayers gave to a gathering of the Association for Latin Teaching in 1952.  Her stimulating and lively talk contains much wisdom, and much good practical advice for the teaching of Latin.  If I had to boil everything she says to one principle, it would be that Latin is a language that is alive, and it ought to be taught as though it were alive.  That is in itself a radical notion.  It is true and essential and obvious to lovers of the language, but radical nonetheless.  After all, it is well known that Latin has no practical value in the real world.  In the face of this sort of modern wisdom, Sayers has this to say:

"The trouble is that the allegedly literate and educated population of this country is no longer composed of public schoolboys and parsons’ daughters, but of a vast mass of young persons who have been turned loose on the world at the age of sixteen, and very many of whom have learnt no Latin at all. And that most of them, and of their parents, and apparently of the persons who decide what educational fodder shall be sponsored by the State, and quite certainly of those who provide the popular literature and journalism which influences their thinking, are under the impression that Latin is a bit of antiquated upper class trimming, of no practical value to anyone... If I were asked what, of all the things I was ever taught, has been of the greatest practical use to me, I should have to answer, the Latin Grammar."

She goes on to list and defend some of the benefits of inculcating Latin in the fertile minds of our young people.
  • It helps, structurally, in the mastering of one's own language, and in fact, it is crucial for this purpose.
  • Half of our vocabulary is from Latin.
  • Latin is extremely helpful, Sayers calls it the key, for all Romance languages, and indirectly for all inflected languages.
  • Western literature is filled with Latin phrases and allusions.
  • Besides vocabulary, great vistas are opened to us intellectually when we learn just how one word derives from another.
Regarding the choice of pronunciation, she has much to say of the pros and cons of three basic approaches, 1. Classical Latin. 2. what some call Protestant pronunciation, for it came into vogue as a part of what we might call the early nationalist or anti-Romanist movements; this approach sort of brings Latin into conformity with the vernacular, which certainly does not help in promoting Latin as a unifying language.  And 3. Ecclesiastical Latin.  I refer you to her excellent paper for elaboration.

I particularly enjoyed, however, the following remark with regard to the thought of Caesar speaking in the Augustan or classical manner: 

"...I have never discovered, nor can I see, any reasonable use or excuse for the ” waynee, weedee, weekee ” convention. It is not merely that I have a profound sympathy with one of my friends who says he just cannot believe that Caesar was the kind of man to talk in that kind of way. Caesar may, indeed, have done so, but what then ? We do not, except experimentally at the Mermaid Theatre, or in a Third Programme broadcast by Neville Coghill, insist on pronouncing the English of Shakespeare and Chaucer as Shakespeare and Chaucer pronounced it. Antiquarian research is useful and enlightening; but for the general use and enjoyment of literature we adopt other standards."

Most moving to me in her argument is her own testimony of how mixed up her education was in this regard.  She learned one method after the last, until she found that, as well as she knew the grammar, she simply could not read Latin literature very smoothly. 

In teaching Ecclesiastical Latin to our children, starting early, and doing so in a consistent manner, we are not only giving them the multifaceted blessings of a liberal education, but we are also giving them what must be considered a truly Christian form of the language.  When we can appreciate Luther's Latin, when we can "converse" with him, and with Anselm, and Augustine, with Gregory and Benedict, with Chemnitz and Baier, indeed when we can pray with the Church, in terms of the Psalms, of the Mass, and of countless devotional prayers which the tradition of the Church is waiting to bequeath to us, then we will realize and actualize the spiritual blessings that Latin has in store for an educated church.

I leave off this little tribute to her nearly sixty year old essay by quoting here Sayers' advice on the teaching of Latin to our eager young students:
"Catch ‘em young and get the Accidence into them along with the multiplication-table (if they still learn that). Eleven years old is too late — they are beginning to think.

1.Throw that dreary man Cicero out of the window, and request the divine Virgil (with the utmost love and respect) to take a seat along with his fellow-Augustans and the First Consul, until your pupils are ready to be ushered into the presence.

2.Choose a pronunciation and stick to it.

3.Start your youngsters off upon the mediaeval syntax and the easiest and simplest mediaeval texts. (Books ? No, I know there are no books. I will come to that later.) Let the reading go as fast as possible, getting on to long, sustained extracts as soon as may be, and using a crib if necessary (except, of course, for Unseens).

4.If possible, let them speak Latin in class. Let them write simple proses — not about Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but about their cats and dogs and what they do at home. Don’t bother too much about style, so long as they get something down ; and if they ask what is the Latin for “Skye Terrier” or “motor-scooter,” bear in mind that a trifle of that kind would not have flummoxed Abelard or Roger Bacon. The singing of Latin hymns and carols would help too. And they might write and act their own Latin Nativity Play.

5.Let them get up their classical myths and general background in English. It would do no harm to introduce them to Ovid and Virgil in a good translation, if you can find one. Caesar, if you like (though the girls won’t care much about him). How about the letters of the Younger Pliny, which cover the link-up with Christianity? The most important thing is to display the people who spoke Latin as real people, living right on from Caesar’s time into the Middle Ages.

6.When the time comes — that is, when they can read with ease and have a decent vocabulary — let them go on to the Augustans in the original, pointing out that these are works of literature and intended to be enjoyed as such. Pick the really exciting, moving and memorable bits, and let them express themselves freely about the sportsmanship displayed at the Funeral Games in honour of Anchises! This is your moment for wrestling with the quantitative metres, and with the difference between Mediaeval and Classical syntax. It should at worst offer little more difficulty than the difference between modern English and the English of Chaucer."

1 comment:

Joseph Schmidt said...

I'm taking the time to learn Latin because many Lutheran works of the past have never been translated yet and I think it is important to know what they say. :)