Monday, August 22, 2011


Thinking and Speaking in Elegant Latin

John Stuart Blackie, Notes of a Life (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1910), pp. 19-22:
Of Dr Mearns' learning, in the technical sense of the word, I can, however, say nothing, but so far as Greek and Latin were concerned, my other theological instructor, Dr Laurence Brown, was a man, most unquestionably, rigged out classically in a style of which our Scottish Divinity Halls have still too few examples. Dr Brown had been educated in Holland, and acquired there that familiar habit of thinking and speaking in elegant Latin which the perverse pedantic methods stereotyped in the great English schools render it so difficult even now for the best English scholars to attain. Dr Brown's example acted as a useful spur to me in carrying on that course of Greek and Latin reading, without which no thorough theological training is possible. Every student in those days, and I believe still, had to compose a theological discourse in the Latin language, and this is done by the Divinity student bonâ fide, not pro forma only through a grinder, as used to be the case with young advocates and medical men in Edinburgh. Being a born enemy of all hollow work, I, of course, worked up my Latin so high as to make a very respectable appearance in this exercise, and not only so, but I ventured on speaking Latin publicly, with some measure of success, which made me a sort of marked man in that department. As I have always maintained, and see more clearly every day, that the English and Scottish schoolmasters and professors make a great mistake in dropping the old element of conversation and free speaking out of their method of teaching the learned languages, I will mention here how it was that I acquired that habit myself. Dr Brown, as I said, could think and speak Latin quite as readily as English, and had the habit of always criticising in Latin the Latin discourses delivered by the students. He had the habit also of insisting that no criticism should be made on the Latin exercise of any student except in the Latin language. The consequence of this was that no criticism was ever given on Latin discourses at all, except by the Professor. To me this appeared rather a cowardly and inglorious procedure, so I determined, when a convenient opportunity should arise, to redeem the honour of the class from this blot. One day the usual appeal was made by the Professor, "Tam vero, si quis habet quae de hac oratione dicat, in medium proferat!" whereupon I rose up and began to make some observations in English, but the old Doctor, immediately striking his hand emphatically on the table, said, " At hoc non fas est, domine; quae Latine scripta, ea et Latine judicanda sunt," an observation for which I was perfectly prepared, and came out at once with a few sentences of well-worded Ciceronian Latin, which elicited the admiration of the venerable old divine, and made me a notable man, even among Aberdeen Latinists. This habit of thinking and speaking readily in Latin I have never since lost, and have also applied the same method of learning to all languages whatsoever; for I have not the slightest doubt of its being the only rational and philosophical method: a method at once the most natural, and, if properly managed, the most easy and the most accurate. I do not think I fell upon this method merely from the Doctor's example; it must have had its root in the plastic activity of my own mind, which always leads me to adopt a method of proceeding in everything, acting from within outwards. The mere receptive operation of reading I instinctively converted into a gymnastic of thinking and speaking: and I remember distinctly that, after reading several chapters of my favourite author Cicero, I used to spout his phrases, and form them on the spot into new sentences of my own, which, to fix them more vividly in my mind, I scrawled out upon the broad white wooden mantelpiece of the room where I studied. These things I have set down minutely for the benefit of those who may imagine that there is a peculiar organ or faculty by which languages are acquired. I believe there is no such thing. All that is necessary to acquire one, or two, or half a dozen languages, is only common-sense, favourable circumstances, a fair amount of mental activity, and a natural pleasure in utterance.
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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