Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Latin is Hard

G.G. Ramsay (1839-1921), "The Classics and Popular Education," Classical Association of Scotland. Proceedings (1903-1904) 2-25 (at 8):
It is objected that the classical languages repel by their difficulty—that the learner is oppressed by a mass of dry technical details, grammatical and so forth—that the average boy never gets as far as the literature at all, forgets all he has learned of it as soon as learnt, and has no occasion to use his painfully-acquired knowledge in after life. And it is suggested that in studies of less difficulty, more akin to modern life, acquisition would be easier and more pleasant, progress would be more rapid, while the pupil would carry away a larger body of knowledge, all of it useful in later life.

But I have no faith in the idea that everything in learning can be made easy and pleasant to the learner. The path to knowledge cannot be made an easy path. No mental mastery can ever be acquired except by downright hard effort, by accurate learning of hard lessons, by looking difficulties in the face, and by gradually discovering that the mind possesses within itself the means of overcoming them. I believe that mere difficulty, if encountered in a worthy subject, has its uses. Mr Gladstone thus writes to Mrs Gladstone in 1861: "Tell Harry (her son) that he is right; Latin is hard; and it is in great part because it is hard that it is useful."
See also Ramsay's Should Women Study the Classics? Opening Lecture at the Arts Course at Queen Margaret College, Glasgow, November 3rd, 1891 (Glasgow: James MacLehouse & Sons, 1891), pp. 20-21:
In Latin it requires several intellectual operations to grasp the full meaning and connection of each inflected word; and the non-inflected words are very few in number. Take a sentence of two words only: vellem mortuos, 'I would that they were dead.' To understand this sentence thoroughly, a student must know (1) the person, (2) tense, (3) voice, (4) number, (5) mood, of the verb vellem; (6) that it comes from volo, meaning (7), "I wish" ; and that (8) the subjunctive has here a particular shade of meaning. As to mortuos, he must know that it is (9) the accusative, (10) plural, (11) masculine, from (12) mortuus, meaning (13) "dead"; and (14) the reason why the accusative is necessary. In all, fourteen distinct intellectual operations for the proper comprehension of two words!

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