Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Latin in the news

Latin's been in the paper a bit this week, firstly with an article on Monday hailing the revival of Classical Languages in NSW schools:

In schools, the classics are steadily increasing their enrolment numbers. This year, Gosford High School and St Catherine's of Waverley joined the 43 schools teaching classical languages, resulting in 342 enrolments from a typically small number that do languages. Chinese background speakers is the most popular language with 963 enrolments and Dutch is the least popular with two... Classical Greek, classical Hebrew and Latin are considered difficult and scale well, with more than half of students achieving a mark of 90 or more. They are typically taken by high-achieving students and, as the number and standard of selective schools in NSW has grown, so has demand. ''But the students also see a lot of intrinsic worth,'' said Elizabeth Jones, a member of the Classical Association of NSW and part of a group of teachers campaigning to have classical languages included in the national curriculum. ''In some ways there is so much emphasis on the here and now that there is interest in learning something that isn't 'modern suburban Sydney' but has a timeless quality. They're reading some of the greatest things ever written,'' she said.

Bruce Marshall then had a letter published in response to the article:

The same encouraging trend seen in schools in the study of classics is occurring in universities. Undergraduate numbers studying Greek and Latin are steadily rising. Postgraduate studies in these subjects are booming. And, while staff numbers in humanities subjects have suffered steady cuts, positions in classics and ancient history are regularly being replaced. This is all very encouraging to those of us in the profession.

Bruce Marshall secretary, Australasian Society for Classical Studies, Bundanoon

and a couple more letters followed in response. One supportive, the other not so much:

At the end of a 50-year career as a professional engineer, I enthusiastically support the advocacy of Bruce Marshall (Letters, October 18) and others for continued study of the ancient world in our schools and universities. While pursuing my day job with passion, I picked up some qualifications in Greek, Latin and ancient history. I soon came to appreciate the benefits of engaging with a highly intelligent and well-recorded civilisation, free of today's political and ideological baggage. Can we still learn from those ancients? Very definitely. It is about human striving and how best to live and organise ourselves. Not all wisdom comes in tweets.

John Court Denistone

What can students possibly learn from studying the imported classical detritus of a 2500-year-old society that died out after a mere few hundred years? If they need something ancient and inspiring to study, students should take a long hard look at the living cultures of the first people to leave Africa some 70,000 years ago; truly venerable cultures that make so-called ancient Greek look so gen Y, and the only cultures that can speak with the authentic voice of this country on which we live.

Peter Fyfe Erskineville

Followed by more letters today (including one from my colleague and friend):

Peter Fyfe (Letters, October 19) recommends an indigenous language as a better choice than classical Latin or Greek for those who would seek cultural insights valuable to present-day Australians. It is true that many indigenous languages are just as complex as the classical languages and will take just as many years of hard study to master. It is not true that they are somehow repositories of ancient wisdom now lost to us - the idea of the ''noble savage'' belongs back with Captain Cook. All living cultures are equally venerable and equally modern. What classical languages offer us (and let's not forget Hebrew or Sanskrit or Chinese) are windows into cultures which, like those of indigenous Australians, were radically different from our own in material terms, but from which men and women left detailed records of their thoughts, their doings and their feelings in ways that can resonate with us today, and perhaps even impart a little wisdom. Unfortunately, for indigenous languages, we don't have any comparable record.

Alex Jones Kirribilli

I wonder if Peter Fyfe is aware that his brief missive deriding the relevance of the classical languages contains no fewer than 16 words (not counting repetitions) derived from them.

Michael Salter Greenacre

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Rome wasn't built in a day

I don't watch a lot of TV, but I did catch the opening episode of Rome wasn't built in a day, a BBC documentary following a group of London builders as they attempt to build a Roman-style villa using only materials, tools and techniques, guided by a mad archaeologist and copies of Vitruvius' architecture manual. You can read a couple of reviews here and here. I thought it was pretty good, with some interesting insights into Roman practices. The builders (in the first episode at least) struggle a lot without their modern tools, and I don't blame them really. The Romans didn't have the same level of technology, but they made up for it by having a huge, cheap workforce. The six builders are trying to achieve by themselves something which (I imagine) would have involved dozens of skilled and unskilled slaves. One thing the reviews don't mention is how funny the show is. There are some very funny interactions between the builders and the archaeologist, and keep an eye on the plumber's T-shirts in particular.

The series is on the ABC on Tuesday evenings, and you can catch the first episode on iview for the next week or so.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Latin for tweet?

I'm not on twitter myself, and haven't really contemplated what the Latin for to tweet might be. The editorial in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald suggested frigere, in this short post script:
THE 18th-century philosopher Bishop Berkeley thought things existed only if they were perceived. In all modesty we wish to propose a variant of this doctrine: people exist only if they tweet, or esse est frigere, for those who prefer their axioms in questionable Latin. The basis for this is our report that social scientists have plotted the mood of the whole world from Twitter.

After examining half a billion tweets and tallying up when people tweet positive and negative words, they conclude that most of us wake up happy, then things go downhill through the work day until knock-off time, when tweeters resume their early bounciness. This astonishing finding is all well and good, but what about people who don't tweet? Might their mood swings be in the opposite direction? Here our axiom springs into action. Either they are the same as the twitterers, in which case they are superfluous, or they are different but undetectable, in which case who cares? ... All together now: frigo ergo sum. I tweet, therefore I am.
I was a bit puzzled by this verb, and admit I had to look it up to see what it meant. Here's the definition according to William Whitaker's Words (I'm on holidays and don't have a real dictionary with me):

frigo, frigere, frixi, frictus: to roast, parch, fry

I'm not sure how they chose this verb, given that definition. Perhaps there's another meaning not given on-line, or perhaps there's some joke I'm not getting. In either case I would have thought pipiare or titiare (which both describe the sounds birds make) would have been a better choice. Any other suggestions?

UPDATE: unsurprisingly, someone else has already given this some thought. Here are the Rogue Classicist's (who is actually on twitter and has much more authority than I on such matters) suggestions. While I was raeding this I was also distracted by this post, which reminded me of why I love Boris Johnson so much.

Friday, September 16, 2011


impastus stabula alta leo ceu saepe peragrans
(suadet enim vesana fames), si forte fugacem
conspexit capream aut surgentem in cornua cervum,
gaudet hians immane comasque arrexit et haeret
visceribus super incumbens; lavit improba taeter
ora cruor—
sic ruit in densos alacer Mezentius hostis.
sternitur infelix Acron et calcibus atram
tundit humum exspirans infractaque tela cruentat.
atque idem fugientem haud est dignatus Oroden
sternere nec iacta caecum dare cuspide vulnus;
obvius adversoque occurrit seque viro vir
contulit, haud furto melior sed fortibus armis.
tum super abiectum posito pede nixus et hasta:
'pars belli haud temnenda, viri, iacet altus Orodes.'
conclamant socii laetum paeana secuti;
ille autem exspirans: 'non me, quicumque es, inulto,
victor, nec longum laetabere; te quoque fata
prospectant paria atque eadem mox arva tenebis.'
ad quem subridens mixta Mezentius ira:
'nunc morere. ast de me divum pater atque hominum rex
viderit.' hoc dicens eduxit corpore telum.
(Aeneid X.723-744)

How does this extract display the heroic qualities of Mezentius? In your answer refer to both the content and the language of the extract, and to Mezentius’ speech and actions.

Mezentius is presented as the archetypal Homeric hero in Aeneid X. He is of course a mighty warrior and Aeneas’ chief adversary in the absence of Turnus. But his heroism is also seen in his fierce independence, arrogance and scorn for his enemies. Indeed his heroism is just as apparent in his flaws as in his virtues.

Mezentius’ great prowess as a warrior is his most obvious heroic trait. Virgil shows us his daring as he eagerly (alacer) rushes in to the thick of the battle, with the choice of the adjective and the use of present tense verbs (ruit, sternitur, tundit; the latter two given extra emphasis through their position at the start of a line) combining to make the action seem more immediate to the reader and thus create a deeper impression of his courage in the face of danger. The chiasmus (densos… hostis) also draws our attention to these words, highlighting the fact that Mezentius chooses to throw himself into the most dangerous (densos) part of the battle, again illustrating his courage. The chiasmus also cleverly reflects Mezentius’ situation, in the middle of the surrounding enemy. Mezentius’ decision to confront Orodes face to face also displays his bravery. The contrast between furto and fortibus armis shows Mezentius’ clearly superior strength and his rejection of sneaky, dishonourable tactics (caecum… vulnus). Virgil’s repetition and juxtaposition of viro vir also highlights the confrontation between the two men, and the unusual monosyllabic line ending gives the line an added impact on the ear of the reader.

The simile used in the opening lines of the extract also contributes to Virgil’s depiction of Mezentius as a hero. The simile has a clear Homeric flavour, and, in combination with the other similes describing Mezentius in Book X, clearly shows us the kind of hero Virgil intends him to be – firmly in the mold of Homer’s heroes, such as Achilles or Ajax. In this particular simile Mezentius is compared to a lion driven wild by hunger (another chiasmus – impastus… leo). Virgil’s choice of words such as vesana, gaudet and haeret visceribus effectively bring out the savage violence of the lion and hence Mezentius, displaying the kind of viciousness typical of a Homeric hero. The final image of the simile, that of the lion’s jaws awash with foul blood (lavit… cruor), is particularly gruesome and the juxtapostion of the negative adjectives improba and taeter paints a graphic picture of Mezentius’ savagery in the mind of the reader. The alliteration within the simile, for example of fames… forte fugacem or conspexit capream… cornua cervum, also adds to the effectiveness of these lines. The harsh sounds assist Virgil to describe the scene in a way which strikes the ears in a particularly powerful and memorable way, giving his depiction of the hero Mezentius greater depth and an increased vividness.

Mezentius’ arrogance is another important part of his heroic character. We see this especially in the way he treats his slain enemies. Both his actions and his words, for example, show disrespect to Orodes. He puts his foot on the dying man (pede posito), stands over him (super) to display his dominance and cruelly leans on the spear (nixus et hasta) which is still inside the dying man’s body (cf. line 744). His actions show no pity for the man he has wounded, in the same way that Turnus behaved towards the body of Pallas and in clear contrast to Aeneas’ actions towards the slain Lausus. Mezentius’ words also show his scorn. His speech is full of pride in his own strength as he describes Orodes as pars belli haud temnenda and altus Orodes. The sarcastic tone of these lines conveys Mezentius as a proud and boastful man. This can also be seen in his failure to heed Orodes' warning that he too will soon die (te quoque fata prospectant paria). Instead of showing humility before the gods Mezentius flies into a rage (ira), issues the blunt imperative nunc morere (the short clause effectively conveying Mezentius’ scorn again) and proudly challenges Jupiter’s power (divum pater). Such hubris is antithetical to the pietas of Aeneas, and is clearly censured by Virgil in the Aeneid, but it is still an important and typical part of the Homeric model of heroism, seen especially in the interaction between Achilles and the dying Hector, on which Virgil’s scene is clearly modelled.

And so Mezentius’ flawed heroism can be clearly seen in this extract. He is clearly a formidable warrior, with strength and bravery and also displays the arrogant pride in his own power, and the scorn for his slain enemies which typifies the Heroes of Homer’s epic poems.

Comments and criticisms are welcome!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Column 8 has been involved in a furious workplace argument about the plural form of the word ''ibis'' (the bird that tears garbage bags to shreds with apparent impunity all over the CBD). We favour ''ibi'' over the clumsy, but allegedly correct ''ibises''. Thoughts?
''Elegant and attractive though 'ibi' is, sadly the Latin plural does not apply in this case as it should follow the pattern of third declension nouns, not second declension,'' asserts Greg King, of Springwood (Plural form of the annoying bird, Column 8, yesterday). ''Thus, if you're not content with the English 'ibises', it would have to be 'ibes', or, possibly, 'ibides'.'' Beware the ibes of September?

It has to be ''ibeese'', insists Erle Bartlett, of Burra, while Kenrick Riley, of Georgica, tells us that we are wrangling with a non-issue, assuring us that ''the common ibis are like sheep - they are both singular and plural''. But Lee Godfrey, of Biggera Waters, Queensland, backs up Column 8, and says simply ''I buy 'ibi''', as does Alison Axam, who actually has a kind word to say about the creatures: ''In our house it's definitely' ibi','' writes Alison. ''They might be feathered hooligans on the ground, but a fly-by of ibi is a joy to see.'' It's true, they are a fine sight on the wing - preferably heading far away.

''This reminds me of the story of the zookeeper who couldn't decide on the plural of mongoose when ordering livestock,'' recalls Finola Border, of Petersham. ''Mongooses? Mongeese? After much deliberation he wrote 'Please send one mongoose to …', and then finished off with 'PS: better make that two'.''
I think I have pointed out before that, as any grammar book will tell you, the plural of ibis is ibitis.
Related Post

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

You can't dream in Latin...

Here are a couple of podcasts that have caught my attention over the last week from ABC Radio, one from 702 Sydney, the other from Radio National. The first is a brief look at the Oracle of Delphi, the second a longer discussion of Latin's influence on the western world.