Monday, March 11, 2013

Learning a dead language for no good reason

I'm teaching myself Latin. By reading a book. The book is called "Latin for Dummies." I'm doing it because I thought Greek would be too hard.

Everything in that first paragraph is true. Or, as our ancient Romans friends would have said, "Omnia in illa prima paragraph verum est." I think. My Latin isn't very good yet.

I do a lot of things that no one else would bother doing. Learning Latin from a book is one. Walking 17 miles to work is another. Rooting for the Cleveland Browns is yet another.

None of those activities has a useful purpose, which is why I do them. I remember useless stuff. I engage in useless pastimes. I think about useless things. I am completely useless (or again, as a native Latin speaker would say, "Ego sum prorsus inutilis.")

The problem I'm finding with Latin is that it seems to have little connection with English in terms of word order and verb conjugation. That's probably not entirely true, but I'm early in the learning process and my head is spinning trying to figure out stuff like cases and declensions.

"Latin for Dummies" tries its best to give you Latin phrases you might actually find useful, but that's the problem with a dead language: There are no useful phrases. I don't foresee running into one of the Caesars any time soon, so whatever knowledge I gain in this process is going to be gained for the sake of....well, knowledge.

This is an actual sample conversation offered up on pages 68 and 69 of "Latin for Dummies" (I am not, I assure you, making this up):

PATER (father):  Nepos noster uxorem cupit. ("Our grandson wishes for a wife.")

MATER (mother): Pater filio puellam aptam inveniet. ("His father will find his son a suitable girl.")

PATER: Era difficile fratri meo ubi coniugem filiae suae petebat. ("It was difficult for my brother when he was seeking a husband for his daughter.")

MATER: Sed fratris tui filia est non pulchra! ("But your brother's daughter is not pretty!")

PATER: Screw-us you-us! ("I disagree!") (NOTE: This last line is one that I may actually have made up.)

I'm trying to think of a situation in which knowing these sentences would be useful in any language.

Because that's the general problem with language instruction, isn't it? They teach you all kinds of vocabulary and phrases that are, like me, useless.

I took 14 years of French instruction. That's right, 14 years. Everyone in my school took it from 1st through 6th grade, then most of us continued on in middle school, and a dwindling number continued on through high school.

During my senior year, there were two of us (me and Michelle Dillard) who took the comically unnecessary French V. It wasn't even a class offered during regular school hours. I had to come in at 6:30 on Thursday mornings to take it (by myself...Michelle did it at a separate time) with Madame Whitehorn, a saint of a woman who put up with the 98% of kids who didn't care at all for French to enjoy teaching the 2% who did.

Anyway, I went on to take a few semesters more from the Jesuits at John Carroll University, who at least had the decency to offer up a native French speaker (Monsieur Aube, an aging and hilarious French-Canadian) to teach those of us who tested into 300-level French.

My point is, through all those years of French, I learned maybe four or five things that had any practical value. And by "practical value," I mean stuff I could actually use if I spent any amount of time in Paris.

The French textbooks refused to impart this type of knowledge on us. Instead, they focused on unrealistic classroom situations in which everyone asked for pencils, erased blackboards, and opened and closed doors and windows. And that was about it.

I spent nine hours in Paris once, and not once did I have a need to erase any blackboards or ask anyone for a pencil. I did open and close a few doors, but I didn't bother to inform the Parisians of my door-swinging intentions.

Here are five things that WOULD have been useful to know in French during my short time in Paris, had I figured out how to say them:

(1) "Wait, you're an old woman and you're going to stay here in the men's room cleaning while I stand over there and pee?"

(2) "Really?"

(3) "Because it's awfully hard to pee with you in the room."

(4) "I'm just saying."

(5) "I've missed the last train back to my hotel in London? Is there a particular patch of sidewalk where you would suggest I sleep tonight while I wait for the first train tomorrow morning?"

By the way, I was going to render one of those suggested French sentences in Latin, just to continue the ongoing joke and all. And I realized there was no way I would know the Latin for "pee," so I looked in a Latin dictionary. It turns out the word for "urinate" is "micturio." Finally, something useful!

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