book notice: Ad Infinitum: a Biography of Latin

Ronald Kephart rkephart at
Fri Jan 4 16:18:38 UTC 2008

On 1/4/08 8:30 AM, "Harold Schiffman" <hfsclpp at> wrote (quoting):

> Those of us who stood before dusty blackboards intoning "amo amas
> amat" often wondered why we were doing it. What was the point? In my
> class a favourite declension was bellum - "war" - which we chanted in
> the nominative, vocative and accusative plural as "bla bla bla". Our
> teachers assured us that Latin would help us in studying other
> languages. So why didn't we just study those other languages and have
> done with it?

You know, an unmentioned outcome of studying Latin (or maybe classical
Greek) is that students generally came out of it with some metalinguistic
concepts and vocabulary, such as: noun, verb, preposition, case, etc. This
happened I think because these languages were taught using the old
"grammar-translation" method. This is also how I began learning Spanish in
high school way back in 1959.

Nowadays when I teach intro to linguistics I find that I cannot assume that
my university students know what a pronoun or a preposition is. I think
there are two reasons for this:

(1) The apparent uselessness of "language arts" in primary and secondary
education (and when they try to be useful, they likely as not get it wrong,
as in calling "the" an "adjective");

(2) The fact that contemporary spoken languages are now frequently taught
using all sorts of cutesy, feel-good methods that don't provide the sort of
analytic knowledge that the older methods did.

Am I wrong?


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