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Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Find newer posts soon at my forthcoming blog, Revolutionary Time.

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.