book notice: Ad Infinitum: a Biography of Latin

Nicholas Ostler nostler at
Fri Jan 4 23:19:54 UTC 2008

Dear Ron, Hal

Nice to see a review of my book kicking up some dust!

Perhaps 2500 years of history is bound to kick up clouds of ironies, but
I can't help noting that it took Western Europe about 1500 years (say
from Varro to Nebrija) to work out that the metalinguistic concepts
elaborated for Greek (and very quickly generalized to Latin) might in
fact be applied to any language. So the basis for Ron's plaint that
'people used to get the basis of language-learning from their Latin
classes' has only been true for the last five centuries at most, until
the notorious 1960s undid - or replaced - the basis of our traditional

Before 1500, every educated person had those concepts in the back of
his/her mind, but the few who learnt foreign languages don't seem to
have noticed that they could be applied. (Possibly this was because
those foreign languages had no official standards, and so were
necessarily seen as rough and ready.) The communicative method is
certainly not new: in fact, informally, it predates 'grammar-translation'.

The first official grammar of a European language was Nebrija's of
Castilian Spanish in 1492, and after that grammars of European languages
came thick and fast. (In fact, J. Barton had produced a 'French Donatus'
in 1409 to help Englishmen learn French, and L.B. Alberti had written
Regole della lingua fiorentina ca 1437-41.) [These details are all from
Sylvain Auroux's marvellous 'la revolution technologique de la
grammatisation' Liege, Mardaga 1994.] And language teaching was one
explicit goal of these works from the first.

In principle, the scholars bilingual in Arabic and Italian/Spanish,
mostly working in tandem with Latin scholars, who kicked off the
Aristotelian revolution in the 12th-13th centuries should have had a
sense that Arabic too was a grammatical language, since Sibawayhi, its
great grammarian, had been an 8th-century scholar. But their work or
influence doesn't seem to have led to any widening of European minds on
where to look for the application of grammar.

It is certainly another irony, this time of the 20th century, that
learning rules was seen as being in opposition to learning to
communicate - precisely when Chomsky's revolution in linguistics was
emphasizing that all language was rule-governed behaviour, and not just
de facto, but intrinsically, and because without the rules any language
would be unlearnable!


Harold Schiffman wrote:
> Ron,
> You're certainly not wrong when you say that students don't have much
> metalinguistic knowledge; I taught Tamil for 28 years and saw a
> gradual decline in ability to deal with categories such as 'noun,
> verb, preposition' to say nothing about 'POSTpositions' which they
> needed to know for
> Tamil.  I'm not sure whether teaching language communicatively (which
> you refer to as 'cutesy') is responsible, but something is.  But I
> think teaching it communicatively has advantages; maybe we need a
> combination of the two.  I know I learned most of the languages that I
> really mastered by being immersed in the cultural context, after I had
> learned the basic grammar.  But some of the stuff I learned by rote,
> such as the prepositions in German that take the dative only
> (aus,bei,mit,nach,seit,von,zu) and those that take both dative and
> accusative (an,auf,hinter,in,neben,ueber,unter,vor,zwischen) I can
> still call up to remind me of the grammatical stuff I need to
> (especially) write a grammatical German sentence.
> The return to an 'emphasis on form' is I think an admission that
> inattention to grammar can be a detriment and a disadvantage when
> using a language.
> Hal S.
> On Jan 4, 2008 11:18 AM, Ronald Kephart <rkephart at> wrote:
>> 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?
>> Ron

Nicholas Ostler

Chairman, Foundation for Endangered Languages
Registered Charity: England and Wales 1070616
172 Bailbrook Lane, Bath, BA1 7AA, England
nostler at

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