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What could Greek ever do for us?

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Written by Alexander Tulloch news.scotsman.com

Latin and Greek, dead languages? Let me say at the outset that I have no axe to grind. I am not a retired or redundant classics master bemoaning the disappearance of my subject from school curricula.

I have, on the other hand, made my living for the past 30-odd years as a modern linguist with sufficient knowledge of Latin and Greek to appreciate how vital they are for anyone who wants to acquire more than just a superficial knowledge of a modern foreign language.

If we believe that the only reason for teaching French or Spanish in schools is to give children the wherewithal to order a baguette in Boulogne or a tortilla in Torremolinos then, yes, there is little point in wasting time on the classics. But if we want to encourage students to think about how language works and to regard the study of languages as the key to understanding different cultures, then we should be exposing them to the benefits of the classics.

So why were Latin and Greek ditched? I remember the arguments put forward in the Sixties and Seventies by those who wanted to make education more accessible to the masses. Basically these can be reduced to three reasons: these ancient languages were deemed to be irrelevant, elitist and dead.

Those who considered classical studies irrelevant in the modern world were nothing if not short-sighted. They must have thought that in Wilson’s era of white-hot technology there was nothing to be gained by studying the languages and cultures of societies which existed 2,000 years ago.

The question implicit in their criticism was: How could reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars or extracts from Homer possibly produce the kind of citizen required by Great Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries?

Such blinkered thinking missed the point. The ability to cope with highly complex languages such as Latin and Greek requires not only linguistic flair, but a willingness to submit oneself to a rigorous mental discipline which few other subjects demand.

For a student to make a reasonable attempt at, say, translating passages from and into Latin or Greek - yes, that is what they had to do - he or she had to develop patience and determination, pay attention to detail, develop a concern for accuracy and submit his or her thinking processes to ruthless logic.

Obviously these abilities and attributes apply to the study of modern languages as well, but there is one very big difference. Modern teaching methods stress an ability to communicate orally but every student of French, German etc knows (even if few will admit) that when engaged in conversation with native speakers he or she will rely heavily on other, non-verbal forms of communication. A smile here, a nod there, a particular facial expression or hand gesture will frequently convey as much information as speech and fill in the gaps when our knowledge of the language is not as good as we thought it was.

But we get no such help with the classics. When translating from or into Latin and Greek all the pieces have to fit together grammatically and students have to marshal their thoughts and express themselves in a manner which avoids sloppy use of language and its concomitant misunderstandings. There is no room for error or guesswork in tackling the classics.

Then there is the question of cultural heritage. How can a study of the classics be irrelevant to a modern society when that modern society evolved in no small measure from ancient Greece and Rome? Can we not trace many of today’s ideas concerning government, society and the nature and problems of democracy back to the philosophers of ancient Greece? Is our legal system not based largely on Roman law? Are not the literature and art of the western world heavily indebted to cultural innovation and experimentation begun in ancient Greece and Rome? And are we not doing our young a great disservice if we no longer make them aware of this rich heritage and deprive them of the tools for appreciating it to the full?

The second charge of elitism is perhaps even more ridiculous than that of irrelevance. If, by elitism, we mean selecting the best and offering them opportunities and rewards which are not available to the less gifted then, yes, there was a certain basis for the criticism.

But what is wrong with that? Life is elitist. Society is elitist. A quest for the best is discernible in every walk of life. Were Real Madrid not guilty of naked elitism in wooing David Beckham away from Manchester United? When the business community head-hunts a financial wizard to run a multi-national enterprise in exchange for a co-op number salary, does this not smack of elitism? And do the Armed Forces not run unashamedly elitist selection boards in order to separate those whom they consider suitable for officer training from those whom they do not?

So why should those with the necessary intellectual acumen to do well at difficult languages be deprived the opportunity of doing so, simply because they are in the minority? Now we come to the most ridiculous charge of all: Latin and Greek are dead. How can a language be dead when it is in constant daily use?

It is almost impossible for a native English speaker to write or utter a complete sentence without using a Latin or Greek word. Just think about it. We use words such video, television, telephone, computer, architect, dramatist, antibiotic, centre, zone, pedestrian, cinema, and many more too numerous to mention in everyday conversation without batting an eyelid - and yet most of us remain blithely oblivious of their origins.

And then there are the more specific occasions when communication would break down completely were it not for these "dead" languages.

If a parent walks into school (the Greek, believe it or not, for ‘leisure’) and asks to speak to the head because he is not happy with little Johnny’s progress in mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, physics, history, geography or biology, he will be speaking Greek. If the two of them go on to discuss the curriculum or the size of the classes and the number of pupils taking French this year, they will have switched to Latin.

Or let’s suppose that after his chat with the head he then has to go and see his wife in hospital. As he walks through the doors he will see signs directing visitors to the various wards and departments: gynaecology, ophthalmology, psychiatry, cardiology, oncology, neurosurgery etc. etc. He may not realise it, but he will be reading ancient Greek written in the Latin alphabet! And if he asks to see the surgeon to discuss the diagnosis and requests a prognosis he will be speaking Greek again.

Even the word "surgeon" is from two Greek words which form a compound noun meaning nothing more than "someone who works with his hands".

No, these languages certainly are not dead. Rather it is just our awareness of the contribution they make to modern English that is asleep. Latin and Greek may no longer be evolving and changing the way a "modern" language does, but a more positive view would be to say that they are preserved in the aspic of time as a rich source of social, cultural, and linguistic information for those who have the knowledge and the ability to extract it.

Unfortunately, with every year that passes there are fewer and fewer people with such an ability.

As a postscript to this article, I would just mention a conversation I had some years ago with an army officer who wanted "the best education possible" for his son.

He informed me in no uncertain terms that he did not want his son wasting time on Latin and Greek, "which nobody speaks any more", as he intended to study astronomy at university and so was concentrating on mathematics, physics and information technology.

The irony of his remark escaped him.


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