"The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education"

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Part II: Latin grammar: the most practical subject

I call this a very lamentable history. Yet there are two things I feel bound to say with all the emphasis I can command. First: if you set aside classical specialists and the products of those public schools which still cling to the great tradition, I, mute and inglorious as I am, and having forgotten nearly all I ever learned, still know more Latin than most young people with whom I come in contact. Secondly: that if I were asked what, of all the things I was ever taught, has been of the greatest practical use to me, I should have to answer: the Latin Grammar.

... An early grounding in the Latin Grammar has these advantages:

1. It is the quickest and easiest way to gain mastery over one's own language, because it supplies the structure upon which all language is built. I never had any formal instruction in English grammar, nor have I ever felt the need of it, though I find I write more grammatically than most of my juniors. It seems to me that the study of English grammar in isolation from the inflected origins of language must be quite bewildering. English is a highly sophisticated, highly analytical language, whose forms, syntax and construction can be grasped and handled correctly only by a good deal of hard reasoning, for the inflections are not there to enable one to distinguish automatically one case or one construction from another. To embark on any complex English construction without the Latin Grammar is like trying to find one's way across country without map or signposts. That is why so few people nowadays can put together an English paragraph without being betrayed into a false concord, a hanging or wrongly attached participle, or a wrong consecution; and why many of them fall back upon writing in a series of short sentences, like a series of gasps, punctuated only by full stops.

2. Latin is the key to fifty per cent. of our vocabulary-either directly, or through French and other Romance languages. Without some acquaintance with the Latin roots, the meaning of each word has to be learnt and memorised separately-including, of course, that of the new formations with which the sciences are continually presenting us. Incidentally, the vocabulary of the common man is becoming more and more restricted, and this is not surprising.

3. Latin is the key to all the Romance languages directly, and indirectly to all inflected languages. The sort of argument which continually crops up in correspondence upon the teaching of Latin is: "Why should children waste time learning a dead language when Spanish or what-have-you would be much more useful to him in business?" The proper answer, which is practically never given, is the counter-question: "Why should a child waste time learning half a dozen languages from scratch, when Latin would enable him to learn them all in a fraction of the time?" When I wanted to work on Dante, I taught myself to read the mediaeval Italian in a very few weeks' time, with the aid of Latin, an Italian Grammar, and the initial assistance of a crib. To learn to speak and write the modern tongue correctly would demand tuition and more time-but not much and not long. Old as I am, I would back myself to learn Spanish, Portuguese or Provencal with equal ease. But knowing French would not have helped me very much to read Italian, and I doubt whether, without the Latin substructure, Italian would help me very far with Portuguese; although, of course, the more languages one knows, the easier it is to learn more. It is difficult to be sure, because it is impossible for me to empty my mind of the Latin, even in imagination. But I know how very different a task it would be to start upon a language like Czech or Chinese, which would not open to the Latin key.

And I remember, too, in my own school-teaching days, being confronted by a class of girls of fifteen or sixteen, who had to have some German pumped into them for an exam. They had done French in the ordinary way, but now had to offer a second language. I remember saying-stupidly and without thinking, for I was still young-"No, you can't say, 'Ich bin gegeben ein Buch', 'I have been given' isn't a true Passive". I remember their bewildered faces. And I remember realizing that we had come to the Wood where Things have no Names, and that everything would have to be laboriously thought out and explained from the very beginning. And that they hadn't got much time.

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