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Category Archives: Ancient Language

Twelve tenses: When English outdoes Ancient Greek in precision

I have sometimes heard people say, “Ancient Greek is the most precise language in the world.” This usually comes from people who have not studied Greek for themselves and haven’t really seen its quirks first-hand.

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I don’t know how best to respond. True, there are distinctions which Greek makes that English doesn’t make, but in turn there are distinctions English makes which Greek doesn’t make. (For example, “I said” and “they said” would both be expressed εἶπον [eipon] in Ancient Greek, since the first person singular and third person plural look identical in certain tenses.) As long as the idea of overall precision is left undefined, it’s not really possible to measure whether or to what extent one language is “more precise” than another.

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A Latin counting song and thoughts on Primary Latin

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I’m sorry that I missed an update in April, but there has been at least one reason for that. I’ve been involved in a pilot program to introduce Latin to a public primary school, and so far it has been a blast.

Here’s a song I sung to the children yesterday on my guitar.

First we learned the numbers one to ten, and then played a game. I say “unus”, and someone else says “duo” and so on in the sequence, but if two people say the next number at the same time, we have to start again at “unus”. It was fun and a good way to get them to participate in saying the numbers aloud.

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Latin and Greek for your pets

Your dog can learn Latin and Ancient Greek! And everyone in the family can pick up a bit of Latin or Ancient Greek along with you and your four-legged pal.

The internet may be chocked full of cat and dog videos, but did you know there aren’t any videos of dogs responding to (grammatically correct) Latin or Ancient Greek commands? You, sir or madam, can fix that. Teach your pet Latin or Ancient Greek and film the results – I want to see your adorable furry companions nailing the ancient languages like a boss.

To get you started on teaching your animals the languages of Plato and Cicero, I’ve put together a list of suggested commands – imperatives that you can teach your dog (or cat, or rat, or any animal that can be trained to respond to verbal commands). I’ve also made a couple videos of me saying these commands in Latin and Ancient Greek, using Classical reconstructed pronunciation for both languages. Sadly, I don’t have a pet myself, but I do have Rufus here.

For the forms of the imperative, suggested commands, and some extra words that I couldn’t illustrate with my puppet dog Rufus (he can’t roll over… it really tangles him), check out the words below.

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Grammar or reading: which type of Latin or Greek textbook is better?

If ever you read Amazon reviews of Latin and Ancient Greek textbooks, you’ll find some very lively discussions on the relative merits of grammar- and readings-based textbooks. (If ‘lively’ is the right word to use!)

In this video, I outline the main differences between these two kinds of textbooks, and weigh in on the pros and cons of each.

In my experience, both types of textbook have complementary advantages – grammar textbooks let you advance faster, but readings textbooks give you more time to reinforce reading proficiency. What kinds of textbooks did you learn from? Which did you prefer, and why?

Keep calm, taxonomic Latin lives on

Calliste fastuosa; Calliste tatao

Calliste fastuosa
Calliste tatao

As of this week, taxonomic descriptions need not be written in Latin. But wait a moment – contrary to what some news reports have implied, the names of plants and animals actually still do need to be written in Latin (or, Latin with an expanded Greek vocabulary, with some loan words from English cleverly snuck in). The only things that change are the official descriptions of new species. These ‘descriptions’ are a few paragraphs that detail things like how many toes a sloth has, or whether a plant is ‘herbaceous’ or not. All known species are currently described in Latin officially (with translations generally available in major languages), and none of these current Latin descriptions will change as a result of the new standards – the change in rules only applies to new, unknown species.

But does that mean the field of taxonomy is ‘Ditching Latin’, as the headlines say?

Minime! Not in the least!

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Septimus: a Latin novella from the 1930s

Septimus: A First Latin Reader, by R. L. Chambers and K. D. Robinson.

Septimus: A First Latin Reader, by R. L. Chambers and K. D. Robinson.

My neighbour Pat has recently given me her Latin textbook, a 1950s reprint of a beautiful 1930s classic, which may actually have been the forerunner of a revolution in Latin textbooks. First published in 1936, it is titled Septimus, not because it is the seventh book in a series, but for its main character, a young British schoolboy named Septimus. When I first received the book, it was wrapped in the kind of thin brown paper that old parcels used to be covered in. I suspected that the greasy, battered brown paper was hiding something beautiful underneath, and on removing the paper I was not disappointed. As you can see above, the original cover design is perfectly preserved in yellow, green and red.

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Moving words: which languages have the closest word order to Ancient Greek?

There’s an art to translation. It involves moving concepts from one language into another while trying to refit the same thought into a different set of grammar rules. In this study I’d like to look at one obvious part of the translation process: word order change. In studying this, I don’t mean to suggest that the inevitable changes in word order are necessarily bad or represent the degree to which information is lost in the act of translation. Quite the opposite. Where it is needed, the word order should change so that the meaning can be properly conveyed. Otherwise, there would be no point in translating anything.

Art of Conversation II (L'Art de la conversation II), Rene Magritte, 1950

Art of Conversation II (L’Art de la conversation II), Rene Magritte, 1950

What I want to investigate is how much the word order changes when translating a passage from Ancient Greek (specifically Koine) into various other languages. For instance, how closely can a Latin translation mirror Greek word order? Are Romance languages any closer to Greek word order than Germanic languages? Was medieval English more similar to Koine Greek syntax than contemporary English? And roughly how close is Modern Greek to its ancestor?

In this study, I’ll explore how much word order change occurs in several published translations of the same Koine Greek sample text, analysing eleven translations spread out over six languages: Latin, English, German, French, Mandarin Chinese, and Modern Greek. What I like about studying word order is that it’s a fairly obvious part of the language and you can see it move around. This is not a subtle study about ineffable shifts in semantics. It’s a crude, chunky experiment looking at how blocks of data move positions in different languages to express more or less the same thing according to different syntax rules. Although the sample text is short, at least this exercise can give a taste of how similar and distant the various languages are to Ancient Greek in this particular respect.

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