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.