Wednesday, August 02, 2017


Swallowing the Pill

A.C. Pearson (1861-1935), Verbal Scholarship and the Growth of Some Abstract Terms. An Inaugural Lecture Delivered on 3 March 1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), pp. 7-8:
Some ten years ago I had occasion to consult him [Henry Jackson] on a grammatical heresy which was simmering in my mind; and eventually at his request I sent him the MS of what I had prepared. He was not at all convinced, but sent me an argued reply to which I made answer as best I could, and there followed rejoinder and surrejoinder, rebutter and surrebutter, until I became ashamed of the strain I was putting on his patience.

Such, I suppose, are the discussions which an enlightened modernism deprecates as useless pedantry, although I have never been able to understand how it is possible to value the whole and to neglect the parts, or to learn a language without a knowledge of its grammar. I am old enough to have learnt Greek Accidence at a time when respect for paradigms was driven home by the cane (not that anyone knew or cared what a paradigm was—only it was just as well to be able to repeat it). This was perhaps an offence against the humanities, but I don't know that it did us much harm. Certainly our teachers did not try to conceal the ordinance of Zeus that learning is a painful process1. Not that I would resuscitate the old system in all its rigour, even if I could; so long as the pill is really swallowed I don't so much object to the sugar coating, but I should like to make sure.

1 Aesch. Ag. 177 τὸν πάθει μάθος θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
Id., pp. 13-14:
It is often pressed upon us that we waste our time in overscrupulous attention to minutiae, whereas if our object is to render intelligible an ancient author to modern readers, we can attain our purpose by using a good translation. The fallacy lies in forgetting that a little first-hand knowledge is worth any amount of cram and that the use of a modern equivalent may give an entirely misleading picture of what the original really means. Moritz Haupt's "do not translate: translation is the death of understanding" is amply justified. This saying is often quoted, but his two other rules are not so well known: (2) Use no technical terms of grammar. This was a protest against the use of such terms as zeugma, ellipse, and so forth without a sufficient analysis of the particular passage. (3) Understand your author not logically but psychologically, that is, remember his times and circumstances. A Greek writer did not think precisely as a Roman, still less as a modern Englishman. Every nation has its nuances of thought as well as of language, in which latter these nuances have their being.
Id., pp. 17-18:
For all these reasons the task of adequately interpreting a Greek classic requires a good deal of patient research. Even the names of simple material things such as τράπεζα and χείρ have associations which are by no means identical with those of table and hand. How much greater the confusion of thought if we equate democracy with δημοκρατία, the one resting on the principle of representation and the other requiring that all the citizens should take an active share in administration as well as in policy. It would be still more vain to expect that ethical concepts, which were being gradually developed out of the medley of primitive thought, should correspond with the items of our well-established vocabulary.
Id., p. 48:
There are plenty of people to-day who regard verbal scholarship as a luxury for which we cannot afford time. We must read widely, we are told, and ignore if we can the difficulties of the text. We must refrain from exploring niceties of expression and beware of a pedantic insistence upon accuracy. We must make it our business to cultivate and instil literary appreciation even at the cost of banishing grammar to another planet. Such a programme would be far from satisfactory, even if its aims were possible of achievement. Wide reading is well enough so long as it does not neglect the spirit of the maxim non multa legere sed multum. But if we value clearness of thought we cannot acquiesce in slovenliness of language. Thought and speech are inextricably interwoven and the intensive study of words is necessary for correct thinking.
Id., pp. 49-50:
When we call to mind the habitual inaccuracy of speech to which we are all liable; the disastrous consequences of wilful or unconscious exaggeration, and the scarcely smaller havoc wrought by timid or scornful ironies; the insincerities and evasions which spring from ambiguity and vagueness; the painful inefficiencies of those who have never learnt to express themselves at all; and above all the tragical misunderstandings of another's words which sear the hearts and embitter the friendships of honest men, then indeed we become aware of the value of clear and accurate speech. Just as language is the direct channel which conveys to another the workings of the inner man; so the more effective that instrument, the more intimately do we share the feelings, motives, and meditations of the speaker or writer. That Greek is eminently such an instrument few will deny. But those who study the monuments of Greek literature must seek to understand them not loosely or vaguely, not catching at the general drift of a passage and leaving the details to take care of themselves, but delving, searching and pondering until the truth is laid bare. That is the only method: for there are no short cuts.

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