Mille gratias iterum to you faithful returning readers, and welcome to those who are joining us! Picking up from yesterday’s post, I want to say a bit more about the introduction of “grammatical” concepts – again keeping in mind the distinctions between morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, and devoting more attention to semantics or “vocabulary.” I also want to say a bit about the “metastory” for “Tres Columnae” and some of the factors that have influenced my current thoughts about it, but that will happen in the second of two (or more) posts today.
Of course, both the order of “grammatical” concepts and the details of the metastory are subject to the wishes of you, the Tres Columnae participants. We’re not building an industrial-age, take-it-or-leave-it product here! When Henry Ford offered the Model T in “any color you wish, as long as it’s black” (a famous quote that can actually be attributed to Ford), the Industrial Age was young and the consumer was both passive and receptive. But in the Web 2.0 world, it seems hopelessly naive to think that one person could have all the answers – or could impose “all the answers” on the community! So “Tres Columnae” will always welcome, seek, and covet your input on every aspect of the product and the process. Stay tuned next week when we’ll talk about software platforms!
I want to focus on semantics or “vocabulary” today because this is a woefully neglected part of language learning, at least in our beloved field of Latin. Most textbooks, whether they’re of the grammar-translation or reading method approach, present “vocabulary” as a list of Latin words with one or two English equivalents. That’s fine as far as it goes (obviously pater “means” father and currere “means” to run), but how and when do we deal with synonyms or near-synonyms. Just today as I write there’s been a lengthy discussion on the Latin-BestPractices listserv about the words vel, aut, and an, which all “mean” or in English but have totally different pragmatics and connotations. Earlier this week, my own Latin I classes got fascinated by the different shades of meaning of caedere, occīdere, and necāre, which all “mean” to kill. Yet, if you look at a typical Latin textbook, it has little to say about these issues. I’m not quite sure how “Tres Columnae” will need to approach synonyms, but I know we need to engage with them early – as soon as we’ve discovered two “ways to say the same thing” – and in a sustained, intentional way. Stay tuned for more, and please share your thoughts about the best way to handle this issue!
Another “vocabulary” or semantic issue has to do with untranslatable words or concepts. How can 21st-century Americans, heirs to over a millenium of “guilt culture”, comprehend what a Roman, heir to centuries of “shame culture”, means by pietās or dignitās? Not only “vocabulary,” but also “grammar” can be untranslatable. The meaning of a sentence like ad forum ambulābātur is crystal-clear, and it’s obvious that a Roman, in expressing the idea this way, wants to focus on the walking by not mentioning who did it. But English has no impersonal passive constructions, so how do we represent this idea in English? “It was being walked to the forum” makes it sound like “it” was a dog. “A walk to the forum happened”? “There was walking to the forum going on”? Latin textbooks may try to avoid the problem by avoiding mention of impersonal passives, but then how is the poor intermediate-level learner to cope with such a sentence in a text? I don’t pretend to have answers for these questions, but I think they’re important issues to raise, both among teachers and in dialogue between teachers and their students. Of course, that dialogue is one of the three columns in the Paideia model, and it’s one reason for the title “Tres Columnae.”
So “grammar” and “vocabulary” are inextricably linked, and one factor in the order of their presentation has to be the context in which they’re presented. With a “down the chart” approach, the linkage is less evident – but it wouldn’t make any sense to present second-declension nouns as vocabulary items if you’d only gone “down” as far as first-declension nouns! With a reading-method or oral-aural approach, the linkage is obvious: if you’re telling (or reading) stories about family life, you obviously need to learn words for family members, and it would make sense to learn about genitive and/or dative case nouns to express the relationships between them. I’ll have more to say about families in the next post, coming in just a bit. For now, I’d like to ask for your thoughts on any (or all) aspects of this post.
Tune in shortly for more….