Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Construal--Part Two--The Other Dead Language

So there I was, in a classroom facing the Stanford quad, unable to stay afloat. Translating French on my feet had never been a problem in high school. Later, translating Spanish would not be either. But construing Greek was just too difficult--or complicated--or something.  What I didn't realize at the time is that, unlike me, most of my classmates had studied Latin, a less ancient but equally dead language that was also inflected. They'd had years of practicing this construal thing.
Some knowledge of Latin was once considered to be the mark of a civilized person. Which isn’t to say that without Latin you couldn’t make it in the world. Ben Johnson famously said of Shakespeare, for example, that although he had “small Latin and less Greek,” he was the “Soul of the age.” But Latin was believed to help, not just in reading inscriptions during your grand tour of Europe, but in understanding how language worked, even in learning how to think.
Maybe I mean that Latin was the mark of a civilized man. Before publicly funded secondary education, it’s not my impression that the girls’ finishing schools of the merchant and landed classes in the U.S. and Britain favored Latin as a subject. French, yes; some history, maybe; a little English literature; the netting of hats and embroidery of the family crest; piano playing and water coloring— but Latin not so much.  
Through the first half of the twentieth century, however, Latin was commonly taught in public high schools in the U.S.  My sister took it in its final days in our neck of the woods, an integrated, working-class neighborhood of Sacramento, in the early 60s. I think she quite enjoyed it. But by the time I might have taken it, about eight years later, it was no longer part of the curriculum. Sputnik was one cause of its demise. Math and science, subjects that could be put to actual use, were suddenly vitally important, whereas studying Latin was not, or so some governmental agency argued.
It turned out that many of my peers in Introductory Greek at Stanford had attended prep schools. Since they were knee high to grasshoppers (and even before they started smoking Gauloises), they had been construing Latin daily.  At the time I didn't know what a prep school was. Well, I must have had some idea. I'd read A Separate Peace in high school, for example.  But my background created a filter  between what I'd read about and what I actually grasped. The young man who habitually sat next to me in class asked me out, and gradually, without posing too many embarrassing questions, I caught on to who he was and where he'd come from. It turned out that I didn't like him much. Maybe it was the chain smoking.

There must have been a few in my class who had taken Latin in public high schools located in richer neighborhoods. Maybe there were one or two who were in the same boat as I was but who caught on more quickly. Maybe others fell away too, dropping Greek as I did in the second year. I was too mortified to notice.  

I'm not blaming my failure on anything but my own incapacities, one of which was the inability to approach Prof. Raubitschek for help. 

However it happened, letting go of  Greek was a turning point. More about that later.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Construal (it has nothing to do with the female body) -- Part One

In 1971, as a freshman, I walked into an Introductory Greek class at Stanford with my brand new Chase and Phillips, the standard text.  Other students—there were about 15 of us—figured they didn’t need their books the first day and so didn’t bother standing in the long lines at the bookstore. That was their first mistake. Their second? Showing up for the second class without committing the alphabet to memory, Chapter 1 of Chase and Phillips.

Our teacher, one Antony E. Raubitschek, a Viennese scholar of international reputation who was committed to teaching undergraduate courses, already near retirement but still riding his bicycle, briefcase in a rear basket, to and from campus five days a week, took this opportunity to lecture us on the responsibilities of scholarship. Without raising his voice he managed to make even those of us who had done our homework feel that we had better change our ways and get serious or there would be hell to pay. The hell? We would disappoint Antony E. Raubitschek.

I didn’t, not right away. I made it through Chase and Phillips and, in spring quarter, Xenophon, which we ate in very small bites. But by fall quarter of my sophomore year we were reading Plato’s Apology and Crito and then, in winter and spring, Homer.  I didn’t make it through winter quarter.  It was the first class I ever dropped, my first academic failure, my first hint that either my education or my abilities were not all that they might have been.

What I couldn’t do was construe. I could, but I couldn't. In my dorm room, I could figure out what the words of a passage meant in absolute terms and what they meant in particular sentences because I was learning to recognize the case of the nouns and adjectives and the tense and mood of the verbs.  Greek is an inflected language, which means that word order varies dramatically, and meaning depends on the form of the words. The word for old man, for example,  γερων, is  spelled that way only in the nominative case—if the old man is the subject of the sentence.  It is spelled differently if something belongs to the old man, if someone delivers something to the old man, if someone hits the old man over the head, and if the old man is being greeted. Once you recognize that the word for old man has an accusative ending, for example, you scan the sentence for a nominative noun, in order to discover who is clobbering him.

Class consisted of reading through four or five previously assigned pages. Raubitschek called on us in whatever order he saw fit and we were expected to construe the lines he named: to translate them, interpret them, and, if were really on the ball, interrogate them. (That, anyway, is what raising a question of interpretation would be called now. I can't remember what we called it then, or if we called it anything.)

I could figure these complexities out, but I couldn’t hold onto them, not for the number of pages we were expected to prepare for each class. The number of new words in a four or five-page assignment was challenging enough. I couldn't seem to hold on to all that vocabulary. But harder still was making sense of the words while Raubitschek was staring at me, even though I already had, even though I knew what the passage was about.

I considered of course writing my translation right into my book, under or over the lines in question, but I saw that my neighbors were not doing that. Their books were pristine. When called upon they were truly reading what was on the page and stating its meaning, not always perfectly, but close enough so that Raubitschek could offer up a correction or two and go on to the next victim (I mean learner). 

More of this later. At present I feel the tiniest bit nauseated.