Thursday, June 02, 2016


Greek and Latin Live

J.K. Stephen (1859-1892), The Living Languages. A Defense of the Compulsory Study of Greek at Cambridge (Cambridge: Macmillan and Bowes, 1891), pp. 8-10:
I believe that the "dead languages" are not dead. They are living. There is no language—not English, which is understood from Alaska to Cape Town, and, literally, from China to Peru—not French, which is read and talked by every educated man in Europe—which has given such proofs of vitality in the truest sense of the word, as Latin and Greek.

Greek and Latin live. They live in the first place by the existence of modern tongues which more or less exactly reproduce them, and for the study of which, especially in the case of Greek, an acquaintance with the ancient forms gives immense facilities. They live because the books which are written in Greek and in Latin are still eagerly and constantly read by thousands of readers throughout the civilized world. Do not the same emotions which thrill the reader who surrenders himself to the magic of Shakspere, still wake in the heart of him who studies the words put together ages ago by Homer and Aeschylus, by Lucretius and Virgil? Is it a dead language in which Horace furnishes the apt and unsurpassed expression of a thousand thoughts familiar in our mouths as household words? Is there any sign of death in the flexible and accurate language in which the Fathers of the Christian Church still speak to students of ecclesiastical lore, or the great Jurists of Justinian's reign still expound the principles of their noble science for the benefit of youths studious of learning? The power to endure through long series of centuries is a sign not of death but of vitality: and it is an abuse of terms to speak of a language as dead which has preserved for us in all the freshness of their original fire, those scattered remnants of Sappho which sparkle like jewels on " the stretched fore-finger of all time." An abuse of terms: for it is no answer to my criticism to say that "a dead language" is merely a convenient synonym for a language which is no longer currently spoken among men. The phrase, like most phrases, inevitably implies a certain attitude towards the objects to which it is applied. Whatever meaning it may originally. have had, it serves to fortify and emphasise the contemptuous attitude towards classical studies which belongs to the latter part of our own century: and, to do their work properly, the words "dead languages" should be amplified, as in men's minds they often are, into the more complete and rounded phrase fathered on Cobbett by the Authors of the Rejected Addresses. I prefer to speak of Latin and Greek as par excellence "the living languages": holding that no languages are more truly alive than those by the reintroduction of which into the studies of educated men, Europe was rescued from darkness and brought into the paths of reform, and which have ever since been heard in the Courts and class-rooms of our great centres of education: and freely accepting that attitude towards Latin and Greek which the reversal of the common phrase may seem to imply.
Id., p. 11:
I do not claim to be, I will not say a finished Greek scholar, but even a Greek scholar of average capacity among those who have made classics a subject of prolonged study during boyhood. I never worked at Greek, except incidentally and for my own pleasure, after I had left school. I never competed in any examination for which a knowledge of Greek was required, after that in which I obtained an Entrance Scholarship at Cambridge. I do not read Greek easily: nor write it at all, though I daresay I could hammer out a score of Iambics if my life depended on it. It is therefore with diffidence that I speak on the subject. Nevertheless I do not hold that my lack of scholarship precludes me from taking part in this controversy. On the contrary I think it is in certain ways a circumstance adding weight to my remarks: first because I cannot be accused of any professional prejudice in favour of studies which I have long abandoned, in which I never gained any particular distinction, and which have no direct connection with those subjects on which I now give instruction for gain: secondly because I claim, so far as is consistent with due modesty, to be the sort of person whose interests are principally concerned in the question now at issue.
Id., pp. 12-13:
I have said that I am not, and never was, never shall be, and never should have been a Greek scholar. But I began Greek before I was ten, and did not leave off studying it daily during term time until I was nearly twenty. I am afraid to reckon up the time which I must have devoted to reading Greek, writing Greek, and endeavouring to master the rudiments of Greek grammar. I think it highly probable that I have forgotten more Greek than I remember. I cannot point to any practical or pecuniary advantage derived by me directly from the study of Greek. But I can honestly say that I do not regret a single hour of those which I spent in the study of the language: nor is there any sort of knowledge which I would rather have imbibed than even that part of my boyish knowledge of Greek which I have forgotten.
Id., p. 23:
I think the language is a good one to teach boys precisely because it is a difficult one to learn. I believe that the numerous difficulties which make Greek lessons a trouble and a torment to stupid boys, constitute part of a most wholesome discipline. The rules about cases and genders, moods and tenses, declensions and conjugations, prepositions and conjunctions, which a boy is compelled to learn by heart, to apply rigorously and in detail, and realise continuously: the deductions he must grasp: the inferences he must draw: the analogies he must perceive: in short the rigours of syntax and the severities of accidence: all these difficulties, harassing and irritating as they may seem from day to day, are eminently salutary in the long run.

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