Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Ἡσιόδου Θεογονία 924-933

αὐτὸς [Ζεὺς] δ᾽ ἐκ κεφαλῆς γλαυκώπιδα Τριτογένειαν
δεινὴν ἐγρεκύδοιμον ἀγέστρατον ἀτρυτώνην
πότνιαν, ᾗ κέλαδοί τε ἅδον πόλεμοί τε μάχαι τε,
Ἥρη δ᾽ Ἥφαιστον κλυτὸν οὐ φιλότητι μιγεῖσα
γείνατο, καὶ ζαμένησε καὶ ἤρισε ᾧ παρακοίτῃ,
ἐκ πάντων τέχνῃσι κεκασμένον Οὐρανιώνων.
Ἥρη δὲ ζαμένησε καὶ ἤρισε ᾧ παρακοίτῃ.
ἐκ ταύτης δ᾽ ἔριδος ἣ μὲν τέκε φαίδιμον υἱὸν
Ἥφαιστον, φιλότητος ἄτερ Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο,
ἐκ πάντων παλάμῃσι κεκασμένον Οὐρανιώνων.

Hephæstus is one of my favourite figures in Greek mythology, not only for his qualities, which any programmer or maker of things is bound to feel an affinity with, but also for the fascinating character dynamics surrounding his forced marriage to Aphrodite.


Until I read this passage, though, I hadn't really paid any attention to the manner of his birth, which in Hesiod's version presents quite a few interesting character dynamics itself. Of course the tension between the philandering Zeus and Hera, goddess of marriage, is well-known, but in the context of the theogony, where the Olympians are just taking their places on the scene, Hera is wife number seven, and her rôle as the defender of matrimony had not yet taken root. It doesn't take long for the quarreling to start, though: Zeus, having swallowed the pregnant titan Metis to avoid the prophesy by which any son she fathered would have a weapon stronger than the thunderbolt (and thereby overthrow Zeus), gives birth to Athena out of his own head. Having children without recourse to his wife makes the latter furious—that's her job!—and so to get even, she fathers Hephæstus without recourse to him. (Note that this differs from Homer's version of events.)

I suppose that Zeus still comes out ahead in this little battle of asexual reproduction, both because Hephæstus came out deformed, and because Athena was viewed as a far more important deity in the Greek pantheon. But it's an interesting link between the two, all the more so since they have such similar rôles, in terms of teaching men how to do things (in the form of wisdom and strategy with Athena, and technology and implementation, for Hephæstus). By all accounts, Athena and Hephæstus got on reasonably well, so even though with their birth stories one might have imagined they would become rivals, it seems instead to have created a sort of bond between them, even though technically they are not even half-brother and sister.

Posted by jon at 7:10 PM in Languages 
 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Осип Мандельштам: В лицо морозу я гляжу один

В лицо морозу я гляжу один,—
Он — никуда, я — ниоткуда,
И все утюжится, плоится без морщин
Равнины дышащее чудо.

А солнце щурится в крахмальной нищете,
Его прищур спокоен и утешен,
Десятизначные леса—почти что те...
А снег хрустит в глазах, как чистый хлеб безгрешен.



I had expected by now to start sharing some of the appreciation I've gained for Tang poetry. This has been an unexpected development in my study of Chinese, since the language is hard enough to appropriate that I never expected to have the time, or even the ability, to get much out of its poetics, especially when they are expressed in a more archaic form of the language than the contemporary 普通话 I am focusing on. After all, how much would one expect a Chinese ESL learner to get out of Shakespeare?

Well, that discussion will be left for another day, because my Chinese lately has been suffering some neglect thanks to an unexpected boom in my Russian reading. I've learned to just roll with it when a sudden breakthrough comes in a language, even if it isn't the one that I'm currently focused on. (Remember, Chinese itself was an unexpected breakthrough that came when I was trying to focus on Sanskrit.) Even if the last few months have set me back on my Chinese progress, reading hundreds of pages of Russian fiction makes up for it. After all, it's not as though I had any deadlines for any of these languages, except the goals I set for myself, and the overall benefit of these waves of progress ultimately ends up with me knowing and mastering a great deal more, than if I held myself to a narrow road arbitrarily.

Osip Mandelstam lived a hard life, and in context, the fact that he likely never got any exposure to Tang poetry probably comes in rather far down on the list of his hardships. That context notwithstanding, it is a shame all the same, since his Acmeist style seems like a reincarnation of Tang poetics, albeit in a language that could be not be more different, and in a time and place that could not be more different as well.

The poem above, written late in Mandelstam's untimely short life, creates such a pure image. It embodies to me what the Acmeist ideals are all about. At the same time, focusing as it does on nature, it harkens back to timeless themes. In Chinese (and Japanese) poetry, such minimalist poems are seconded by minimalist language, vague allusions and a sparse economy of words serving to enhance the perceived purity of the word painting. Chinese being an isolating language—and classical Chinese extremely so—means that almost no space be wasted on grammatical elements (number, tense, or any of the usual elements of conjugation or declension).

Russian could not be more different. It's a language that I would have thought would be poorly suited to this style of poetry. It's a—I don't know whether it's because of the poem's imagery but this is the word I have in mind—"slushy" language. Утюжится, морщин, дышащее... the words hang around, and flow into each other, with grammatical elements all over the place adding nuance and detail to their relationships.

It's precisely this paradox, not hidden in this poem but fully assumed, while still creating such a pure image, that makes this poem stand out to me, and made me want to share it.

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Languages 
 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Angyaliurvigpaliciquq, or "On Linguistic Polysynthesis"

One of the things I love about the Cherokee language is the fact that it is a polysynthetic language. Rather than define what that means in technical jargon, I think it's easier just to look at a few example words.

For instance, the word ᎦᏥᏯᏍᏕᎵᏍᎬᎢ in Cherokee means "I was helping them". One word. If I wanted to say "you were helping him", it would become ᎯᏯᏍᏕᎵᏍᎬᎢ.

Cherokee has a unique alphabet, so in order to make this discussion more accessible, let me offer a few examples from Yupik, which is written in the Latin alphabet. The Eskimo-Aleut languages are the most polysynthetic of them all, although the Iroquoian languages, like Cherokee, have a cool "slotting system" that makes them good candidates for study too—if you decide to study one polysynthetic language for its "Sapir-Whorf value", as I recommend. I myself have no first-hand knowledge of Yupik, however, so I am indebted for most of these examples (as well as for much of my knowledge on this topic), to Marianne Mithun's brilliant The Languages of Native North America.



So in Yupik, you get these big words like ayagciqsugnarqnillruuq, which means "he said he would probably go"—contrast with ayagciqnillruyugnarquq "he probably said he would go". (The "probably" part comes from the infix -yugnarqe-.) So, essentially, a polysynthetic language is one in which words are built up of meaningful pieces, called morphemes, with the effect that a single word can often convey what it would take a whole sentence to say in a non-polysynthetic language.

It's not unreasonable, seeing these examples, to wonder on what basis these are considered to be single words. We know how German and Swedish have "super long words" like Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, but that these are really just because they write their compound words together, whereas in English we would say the same thing, but use a space or a hyphen. Is die Waschmaschine really any different from "the washing machine"?

(Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung means "motor vehicle liability insurance", and it isn't so hard to imagine that, if English spelling rules were different, we might just as well write "motorVehicleLiabilityInsurance" in our own language, which isn't so strange. In the spoken language, English and German use compound nouns in basically the same way.)

This is a fair question, in fact scholar Wm. C. Hannas sums it up nicely like this:

In fairness, it must be acknowledged that "word" has been one of the trickiest terms for linguists working with any language to define. Structural linguistics, with its outside-in view of language, has failed to provide any commonly accepted definition of the term, which surprises most people who feel intuitively when they use the term "word " that they and their listeners know what it means. Linguists, with some embarrassment, have ended up accepting a definition of word that is anathema to this speech-oriented discipline, namely, that a "word" is something one finds written between two blank spaces.

Hannas is speaking with Chinese in mind, where, due to the writing system, there's some controversy as to whether e.g. 火车 should be thought of as one word or two. The Chinese even make riddles based on the way word boundaries are hidden, like 冬天你能穿多少就穿多少,夏天你能穿多少就穿多少 。(Even in English, ambiguities exist: how would you count "don't"? Is it "apple sauce" or "applesauce"?) But when it comes to polysynthetic languages, most of which are native American, and have seen very minimal usage as written or read languages (making the "written between two blank spaces" heuristic fairly meaningless), there are techniques linguists can use to determine whether a word boundary is in order or not.

The first couple techniques can be illustrated in English, and how it distinguishes between a word composed of morphemes, and separate words. Now English is a bit weird, in that most of our morphemes come from Latin or Greek, but if I want to coin a neologism like "televisionology", everyone will know that the word is supposed to mean "the study of television", and even without seeing it written, everyone will know it's one word, because tele- and -ology are not words that can stand on their own—even though they have meaning on their own, to English speakers.

The second "sign" of one-wordedness can be illustrated by the word "one-wordedness" itself. It is something I can say in English (even if it is stylistically questionable) and be understood—but I could also convey the same thought with multiple words, "the condition or quality of being a single word". (And, again, the suffixes -ed and -ness are meaningless on their own, while they do have clear meaning when used as suffixes.) Those big Yupik words that describe a whole thought can also be expressed using smaller words in a sentence; it's a style choice.

Finally, there are ways in which speakers reveal what they consider to be separate or inseparable units of speech. These can be linguistic: in some languages, stress always falls on a given syllable in a word—although in others, like French, stress always falls in a given syllable in a phrase, which rather defeats the purpose (but in practice it is easy to see which is which by putting obviously distinct words together, which will show you at once which kind of language you are dealing with). But one can also tell sociologically, for instance by telling someone to dictate something to you one word at a time so you can write it all down. Try dictating in this manner a sentence using "televisionology" and "the study of television", and you'll easily see how you naturally treat both terms differently, in such a context.


Sorry, Welsh: polysynthesis goes further than just compounding.

I have two other points to make before I can wrap this up. First, although using polymorphemic words such as, well, polymorphemic, televisionology, and one-wordedness, has allowed me to use English examples, I want to emphasise again that in polysynthetic languages, the options for word-building are far more powerful. Sure, English can produce the occasional oddity like antidisestablishmentarianism, whose complex meaning can be deduced from its parts, even though those most of those parts are not words on their own. Polysynthetic languages operate on a wholly different level. Yupik's grammar can produce words for almost any thought the speaker would care to express, from qusngilliurtuq, "he is cooking reindeer meat", to angyaliurvigpaliciquq "he will build a big place for working on boats".

The second point is that, if you read about these languages in English, beware of being taken in by misleading translations, which are sometimes used to exaggerate what honestly are fascinating features of these languages. For instance, you might read that qamigartuq means "he goes seal hunting with a small sled and kayak during the spring", and legitimately be amazed at how pithy and concise this language is. And it is a phenomenally unique language. However, "seal hunting with a small sled and kayak" could easily be the translator using a wordy and overly-precise translation of what, to an Eskimo, basically just means "hunting"—because obviously unless you specify otherwise, it must be seal-hunting, and it goes without saying that a small sled and kayak are what you do it with.

I could just as well translate "Thanksgiving" into French as fête de la récolte pendant laquelle l'on mange de la dinde en famille et se montre reconnaissant tout en se souvenant de l’amitié entre les peuples blancs et amérindiens. What a crazy word those Americans have! (Literally "harvest festival during which one eats turkey with his family and gives thanks, while also recalling the friendship between the white settlers and American Indians") It is of course not the word itself but the heavy-handed translation that is ridiculous—even if it might be culturally appropriate to translate it that way, in order to give a French listener the appropriate context. Such things often come up when polysynthetic languages are discussed, not least because the example material often talks about specific plants, animals, and rituals that have no direct correlation to modern society. These funny translations then get repeated, no doubt in an honest effort to tout their uniqueness, but it is important to remember that this uniqueness is to be found in the ways that they compound words and meanings, not in the humourous possible combinations that can arise from their grammatical properties.

So, before you chortle at any polysynthetic examples you might read in other languages, consider what horrors English is (theoretically) capable of: batdancemania, baseballphobia, fartopedia... It's not because a word can be coined, and understood, in a language, that said word actually is used, let alone accepted by the language community.

In polysynthetic languages, where nearly any sentence can be expressed by a single word, the fact that "a single word exists to express X" does not at all imply that said word is used, let alone that it would find itself in a dictionary of that language. Thus the attempted longest word in the Yupik language, tengssuucecuaraliyukapigtellrunricugnarpengaqaa "maybe you did not really want to make me a small airplane?" is apparently dismissed by Yupik speakers as an absurd-sounding non-word, just as most native English speakers probably bristle at how stupid "televisionologist" sounds. No one would really say that (we'd say "TV critic"), and I'm sure that if you reluctantly made a small airplane for an Eskimo, he'd ask you about it using a different sort of question.

Polysynthetic languages are amazing, then, but it's because of all the possibilities that they have due to their grammar, not because of unusual vocabulary. Too often I feel like this gets lost in translation.

Posted by jon at 6:52 PM in Languages 
 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Chinese Myths


Still on the topic of Chinese—it's hard for me to envision writing about anything else these days, it seems like the language is pouring into my head as fast as I can take it in, so it feels like it would be bad luck to interrupt it by working on anything else!

Even so, I can't help but think about how much faster my progress would have been with this language had I not been led astray by quite a few oft-repeated myths about it. These are things that I'd always heard about Chinese, even reading them in books by many a respected linguist, and have since found, after looking at the language more closely, simply not to be true.

So, at the risk of repeating myself a bit since the last article, I wanted to address these unhelpful myths directly here. (Apologies for anyone who came, based on the article title, looking for a discussion of Hungry Ghosts or the Yama Kings!)

Each character represents a word

There's an argument to be made that this is true of classical Chinese, but there is no way one can argue such a concept in Mandarin. Unfortunately, one can go on for quite a ways learning characters before one realises this is true, because all those "Learn the Chinese Characters" books just list characters with their meanings, giving you no indication that you're getting a completely distorted view of the language that way.

No, knowing 行 is not going to help you learn 银行, even if it might help you grasp, or at least easily remember, 自行车. That may be an unfair example, since 银行 has an exceptional pronunciation, but what about 记者 and 或者? You can't seriously argue to me that words like 参观 or 当然, to say nothing of borrowings like 加拿大, can be naturally (as opposed to etymologically) broken down into the distinct meanings of their characters. And even if you could do so, it would be infinitely slower than taking the more straightforward approach of learning words like 照相机, 电视, or 公共汽车 directly.


Trying to learn Chinese from a book like this is a bad idea.

No: a Chinese character represents a syllable, and some syllables happen to have independent meaning of their own. People don't learn English by learning Latin and Greek first so they can understand the roots at work in cinema and television; taking a character-centric approach to learning Chinese is just as wasteful. I would not have wasted countless hours learning characters in isolation in my previous attempts to learn Chinese if only I had known this, but I was misled by this myth and the following one.

Every word has one syllable

Closely related, and also a relic of classical Chinese, is the notion that the words are monosyllabic. Beside what was said in the previous point, this myth causes one to miss one of the most important components of Chinese listening comprehension. Similarly sounding syllables are already a huge difficulty in Chinese—not only do you have to catch slight distinctions in rapid speech such as yan vs. yang, ching vs. qing, etc., but even otherwise identical syllables must be distinguished by tone (more on that later, though).

What one loses by considering words in isolation, then, is not only the lexical meaning of multisyllable compounds (which were the object of the first point), but also the very critical ways that words are used together to avoid ambiguity. For example, 话 and 画 are both pronounced hua-4, but zhong-1 guo-2 hua-4 will always be understood as 中国画, and pu-3 tong-1 hua-4 is unambiguously 普通话. No one will misunderstand the first as "Chinese speech" or the second as "common painting", because usage patterns don't allow this.


Understanding this is not only essential to understand the spoken language, but also to speak correctly. I'm fairly certain, though I haven't mastered any of this yet, that the rules which govern when to say 唱歌 or 美丽 vs. 唱 or 美 on their own come from this, rather like in French we always say où ça? to ask "where?" rather than où?; the latter may be sufficiently unambiguous in written form, but not in the spoken language. (And no one ever interprets it as ou ça ? "or that?", which simply isn't said on its own—one would say, ou bien celui-là?)

Of course, both of these myths also stem from the tendency to refer to one single "Chinese language", which encompases not only modern Mandarin but also all the regional dialects as well as Classical Chinese. In the latter's case especially, some of these myths hold true to a larger extent. (Though certainly not completely, just look at the all-important 君子 of Confucianism). But one need only glance at the modern Mandarin transcription of the Shishishishishi poem (which begins yǒu yí wèi zhù zài to see just how much the language has evolved to accommodate for the massive pronunciation changes that have taken place over the centuries.

Tones

Tones are no myth, of course: it's impossible to communicate in Mandarin without them. But, since this is such an alien concept to English speakers, one is fed a lot of misinformation about them along with the actual truths. If I had my way, we would stop talking about tones altogether, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Tones are important enough that most teaching materials give them a lot of focus in the first units, having the students hear and repeat ma-1, ma-2, ma-3, ma-4, and ma over and over again, hoping that they will learn to hear and reproduce the difference.

The worst offenders in this myth characterise tones as musical notes, leaving some thinking you have to sing the language at all times. (On the opposite end are morons who think you can leave the tones for later, which would make about as much sense as leaving the initial consonants to be learned at a later date—if you are missing the phonemic elements of what makes a word distinct in a language, you are missing the point completely.) Now, I never believed the music note theory (it's often debunked, anyway), but it's easy to see how it keeps cropping up, since one does often hear that "musicians do better with pronouncing tonal languages, because their background helps them deal with the tones."

Here's the thing, though: actors and musicians are generally better at picking up any foreign language (or accent), not because they're used to "tones" (as in musical tones), but because they're used to mimicking intonation. That's the term I think should be used for Chinese as a foreign language learners, intonation. It's not a scary word, it doesn't come across as alien the way "tone" does, and it clearly communicates what you need to do.


You don't need be Chinese to mimic intonation.

The intonation of a word or phrase in Chinese can determine it's meaning. So when you hear a word, try to pronounce it exactly as you hear it, as though you were an actor trying to do an impersonation of the person on the tape. If you can do that, you will pronounce things correctly, even if you don't know that this or that syllable is third of fourth tone. Every language has its own intonation patterns, and we all pick them up this way. Sure, Chinese may be at bit different, in that intonation has lexical meaning, as opposed to showing sarcasm, anger, humour, or some more subjective effect, but it's still all intonation, and that's not such a scary concept.

So I consider my time trying to say ma-1, ma-2, ma-3, ma-4, and ma perfectly in isolation as more or less wasted, it would have been enough to know that I had to strive to imitate intonation exactly (which learners should always do, to minimise their foreign accents) from day one, and started out straight away saying 你好,谢谢,and 再见 exactly the way I heard them on the recording—in particular, with the exact same intonation.

Conclusion

Those are the myths that were the biggest obstacles to my initial approach to Chinese, they'll probably disappear in the next twenty years as more and more Westerners learn the language and stop repeating nonsense (especially about the character-word relation). One other major myth is not listed here, because it hasn't affected my own learning, but one still finds it all over the place, including in reputable publications: the myth that there is a single, common, written Chinese language that is shared by all the dialects (Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hakka, Min-nan, etc.). It is true that there is one common form of written Chinese, but it is written Mandarin, whose characters read with, e.g., Cantonese pronunciation would perhaps be understandable, but certainly not come across naturally to a Cantonese speaker. To be sure, many words are the same and can be understood, even if pronounced differently, like 大学 which is read da4 xue2 in Mandarin but tua ok in Min-nan (and daigaku in Japanese, a completely separate language, for that matter).

But, just as one might expect, from the above discussion of polysyllabic usages to work around the specific ambiguities that come from Mandarin pronunciation, written Mandarin must use phrases and circumlocutions that would sound bizarre to a speaker of another dialect. For instance why is 为什么 in Mandarin but 点解 in Cantonese, which have a different number of syllables, and for etymological reasons, even many words that are the same length are correctly written using different characters (e.g. Shanghainese use of 勿 in place of 不).

Anyway, this is all academic to me, since I am focusing only on Standard Mandarin for the HSK, after which I might possibly tackle some 漫画 of the 四大名著 (since there's no chance of me ever being able to read the originals). But it is a common misconception, and misconceptions around dialect issues can lead to very wrong conclusions about a language.

With that, that's enough procrastinating for now, time to head back to my Anki deck!

Posted by jon at 8:00 PM in Languages 
 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

An Update on Chinese

Between doing the "high-powered consultant" thing and the "fatherhood" thing, I've fallen a bit behind on my blog and on my Sanskrit. The biggest hit to the latter, however, has actually been an unexpected and very welcome surge in progress in Chinese, a resolution which goes back much farther than my recent Sanskrit one.

You hear stories of people who get in a car wreck or have a stroke and have brain damage, such that they can't speak properly, and then after a few years, the brain re-arranges itself somehow, and they overcome their previous handicap. I think my first attempt to tackle Chinese was the learning equivalent of just such a car wreck, and, unbeknownst to me, my brain has been adjusting to the shock ever since. Earlier this year, things just sort of clicked into place, and now I'm making rapid progress again.

What 'clicked', exactly? The writing system, the tones, and the unusual phonology (j / zh, q / ch, x / sh, etc.). And when they clicked, I suddenly saw a clear path in front of me for learning the language.

汉字和生词

I'll start with the writing system. Thousands of characters to learn, little built-in phonetic help, etc., etc. Everyone knows learning to read Chinese is hard. People graduate from universities majoring in Chinese and can't read a newspaper, yadda yadda yadda. In my first go at Chinese, I learned about 300 characters, and basically had nothing to show for it. In the last two months I'm up to 700 words, and steadily adding ten a day, confident that I'll be up to a 4000 word vocabulary around this time next year.

I had three breakthroughs on this. The first was simply, as I learned more about how the language worked, to stopping thinking in terms of characters and start thinking in terms of words. This is an essential step any beginner goes through, but it stopped me being perplexed by terms like 火车 (which before I thought of as "fire car"—and let's not even get into what I thought a 龙虾 was!) and let me get on with memorising words in a reasonable manner.

Secondly, back in 2006 I reasoned that, without immersion, learning the characters would be an impossibly difficult task, simply because I would not be surrounded by them every day, and seeing them less often would make them harder to remember. Using Anki (something all Chinese as a foreign language students now do) solves that problem, by ensuring that I am exposed to all my learned vocabulary at algorithmically determined intervals. Now my vocabulary is growing at such a rate that I actually have difficulty keeping up with the grammar lessons that accompany it (I'm using the NPCR textbooks both for language learning and for my Anki deck.)

Finally, I've moved to typing on a phone or computer pretty much exclusively, rather than stopping to learn how to write each character by hand. This is a massive time saver, and came from the realisation that there are really no practical use cases under which I would need to write Chinese on pen and paper (and, in the odd event that I did, I know enough to be able to copy the words off of my phone screen). I'll have pen-pals through e-mail or QQ, maybe someday I'll use the language for work (which would be in Microsoft Office), but in all cases I'd be writing on a computer. Once one accepts this shortcut, learning ten words a day and going over my revision words takes about four minutes on a good day, rather than the half-hour plus I would need otherwise.

口语

My other, classic, beginner hang-up was tones, and to a lesser extent the whole phonology. Pinyin serves its purpose, but what really got me off the ground was to stop relying on it, and concentrate instead on listening to the words in Chinese, and imitating how they are said, mimicking the intonation as accurately as I can. I'll still need to find a tutor to help me in this regard, but the fact that I'm now using the recordings more often than the textbook (whereas in 2006 I was probably 90% textbook, 10% audio) has improved my pronunciation a great deal already.


I never found explanations
like this helpful.
Two things helped this pronunciation approach 'click' for me. One was a discussion online about the Qingdao accent, in which some Westerners couldn't understand how a failure to distinguish s and sh, in an already syllable-poor language, could be intelligible to Mandarin speakers. How would 四 and 十 be distinguished? The answer came back that only foreigners look so hard to the consonant sound to distinguish the syllable, while native Chinese speakers focus more on tone to tell which is which. You can actually change the initial letter, in some cases, and still be understood if your tone is correct. (There are analogies to this in English: I might not be able to pick up all the sounds someone with a heavy Irish or Tennessee accent is making, but still be able to grasp most of the sense from their rhythm and intonation.)

The second "a-ha" came from a remark about Westerners' bad accents, that you could tell who learned using pinyin romanisation and who learned using Wade-Giles, because each system led to systematic mispronunciations among people who mentally linked the pronunciation to the romanisation. I realised therefore that I would need to stop thinking of Mandarin as being written in a phonetic alphabet in pinyin, and start thinking of the language as a set of distinct syllables, with the pinyin simply serving to identify which of the standard syllables went with which character. From that point, traps like the fact that the vowel in zi sounds nothing like ji or that tian doesn't rhyme with an fade away. In fact, it leads to me sometimes knowing the word, its tone, and pronunciation, but not remembering the exact pinyin—which is something that happens to native speakers as well.

明天

So two massive roadblocks have been removed; that doesn't mean this language doesn't have more in store for me. Now I'm busy trying to wrap my brain around things like 把 constructions, and I know that down the road I'll have to deal with 成语. Still, learning radically different ways of constructing thought is probably the second-most thing I love about language learning, and I knew going in that I would probably make approximately as much progress in ten years of Chinese study that I did in one year of learning French.

Still, it is fascinating and enjoyable, and, far more than another European language would at this point, it is giving me the thing that I love the most about learning a new language—opening the door for me to a completely new world, one that previously I had no way of knowing about.

Posted by jon at 7:05 PM in Languages 
 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

A rare find

If you've ever wanted to learn how to do long division in Cherokee, this amazing textbook from 1870 will be just what you were looking for:


Seriously, though, I was fascinated to discover it, and since I recommend studying Cherokee, it is a very interesting new source of reading material.

Posted by jon at 7:00 PM in Languages 
 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Nia lingvo kaj ĝia utileco

Oni tiel ofte diras al esperantistoj, ke ilia lingvo ne estas "utila". Lastetempe, mi pensis pri tio, ne nur pri Esperanto, sed ankaŭ pli ĉiuj la aliaj lingvoj, kiujn mi lernas. Jes, neniu dirus, ke la franca aŭ la rusa estas neutilaj, sed la sanskrita, la latina, aŭ la malnova greka?

Eĉ la ĉina, la plej parolata lingvo de l'mondo, ofte al mi ŝajnas neutila lerni. Ne ĉar la lingvo estas neutila (certe ne!), sed ĉar mi neniam lernos ĝin sufiĉe bone, por legi librojn, fari seriozajn negocojn, ktp. Ĝi havas tro da literoj, kaj min tro ofte interesas aliaj lingvoj. Do mi dubas forte havi la disciplinon, por lerni la pli ol trimil literojn, kiujn mi devus.

Ĉiuj tiuj pensadoj min kondukis al la demando, kial mi lernas lingvojn? Kaj mi malkovris, ke la respondo malsamas laŭ la lingvo, sed, eĉ pli, ĝi malsamas je multaj aliuloj, kiuj lernas multajn lingvojn.


Mi iam lernetas lingvon, ĵus por koni ĝin, kaj kiel ĝi funkcias (ekzemple, la araba, la ĉeroka, kaj la gaela estis tiaj lingvoj por mi). Mi ne bezonas lerni ilin vere, sed nur koni iom de la gramatika por havi ideon de kiel ili funkcias. Multaj lingvistoj, ŝajnas al mi, lernas lingvojn por tiu kialo.

Sed plejofte por mi, mi lernas lingvon por malkovri ĝiajn trezorojn, ĉefe literaturajn trezorojn. Mi lernis la francan por Victor Hugo kaj Molière, la rusan por Tolstoj kaj Dostojevskij, la latinan por Cicerono kaj Ovidio, kaj la grekan por Platono kaj Homero. Malsame ol la lingvoj de la unua grupo (kiujn mi povas halti kiam mi pensas, ke mi sufiĉe havas ideon de ilia funkcio, kaj ne gravas), mi devas lerni ĉi tiujn lingvojn ĝis la momento, kiam mi povas legi tiujn verkojn. Kaj mi tiam devas legi ilin! La sanskrita, por mi, migras ĉi-jare de la unua grupo je la dua.

Restas du lingvoj, kiujn mi ne povas vere loki en tiujn du grupojn: la esperanta, kaj la ĉina. La ĉinan mi ne lernus, se ne ekzistus ekzameno,
汉语水平考试 aŭ HSK, kiu permesas atingi ateston de onies nivelo. Mi pensas, ke tiu atesto povus fortiĝi mian CV, kaj ĝi donas al mi specifan celon. Ne, mi ne povas lerni la tutan ĉinan lingvon, sed mi povas atingi HSK3 aŭ HSK4, se mi laboras.

Do, restas nur la esperanto nun. Mi jam parolas ĝin ege pli bone, ol la nivelo HSK4 por la ĉina. Sed kial? Mi certe sufiĉe konas ĝian funkcion, do ĝi ne estu en la unua grupo, kaj eĉ se mi klopodas legi almenaŭ unu esperantan libron ĉiujare, mi ne povas diri ke mi uzas ĝin por sia literaturo, do ĝi ankaŭ ne ĝustiĝas en la dua grupo. Malsame ol la ĉina, atesto de esperanta kapablo ne helpus mian CV: esti esperantisto povas eĉ malhelpi, ĉe kelkaj malkleruloj, kiu vidas nur ekscentrecon.

Kial, do? Finfine, mi parolas, skribas, kaj legas esperante ĉar mi ŝatas ĝin. Ĝi ne estas lingvo de iu lando aŭ kulturo (nur eble iufoje raŭmismo), sed ĝi estas penssistemo. Pensi esperante iufoje helpas min vidi alie la mondon, kaj tiu estas agrabla ekzerco. Mi ja parolas esperanton, mi apenaŭ povus forgesi ĝin, kaj ŝatas al mi uzi ĝin de tempo al tempo. Kio estas netaŭga en tio?

Posted by jon at 6:21 PM in Languages 
 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Help me choose my New Year's resolution!

Voting is now closed. Thanks to everyone who voted!


Posted by jon at 12:45 AM in Languages 
 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Ο ΚΥΚΛΩΨ (Θεογονία 139-146)

Γείνατο δ᾽ αὖ Κύκλωπας ὑπέρβιον ἦτορ ἔχοντας,
Βρόντην τε Στερόπην τε καὶ Ἄργην ὀβριμόθυμον,
οἳ Ζηνὶ βροντήν τε δόσαν τεῦξάν τε κεραυνόν.
Οἳ δή τοι τὰ μὲν ἄλλα θεοῖς ἐναλίγκιοι ἦσαν,
μοῦνος δ᾽ ὀφθαλμὸς μέσσῳ ἐνέκειτο μετώπῳ.
Κύκλωπες δ᾽ ὄνομ᾽ ἦσαν ἐπώνυμον, οὕνεκ᾽ ἄρα σφέων
κυκλοτερὴς ὀφθαλμὸς ἕεις ἐνέκειτο μετώπῳ·
ἰσχὺς δ᾽ ἠδὲ βίη καὶ μηχαναὶ ἦσαν ἐπ᾽ ἔργοις.

I have written before about Homer's φῆρες ὀρεσκῷοι, and how I did not accept that these were originally mythical beasts (i.e., centaurs), but that this understanding evolved over time from a primitive fear the early Greeks had of horse-riding tribes from the north. There would have been a time when the Greeks, who did not ride, would have discovered a riding people for the first time, and that would plausibly have been an alien and awe-inspiring memory in their collective consciousness, to see men on horseback.

The desire to find a rational explanation to the φῆρες ὀρεσκῷοι is all the stronger due to the fact that, unlike the Odyssey, there are no other mythical beasts in the Iliad, so the idea of centaurs seems somewhat out of place there. In Hesiod's Theogony, however, which I take as primarily a religious text, one suddenly comes across these three cyclopes, and the text leaves no ambiguity as to what they looked like—and that we are clearly dealing with fantastic creatures.

But what are they doing here? What religious feeling or theological necessity would lead one to posit the existence of these sons of Gaia, and to define them specifically as having one round eye in the centre of their foreheads? It seems like such an odd, creative stroke, to add them to the poem.

They do play an important rôle in the poem, as the manufacturers of Zeus' thunderbolt. The Hecatonchires are introduced in the very next section of the poem, so it's clear enough that the pieces are being put in place here for the Titanomachy. The many-armeds' fantastic appearance makes sense enough: they are beings of unimaginable strength, so their appearance reflects this (just as the creatures of Apocalypse 4 κυκλόθεν καὶ ἔσωθεν γέμουσιν ὀφθαλμῶν, which is a symbol of their attributes).

But the cyclopes are powerful, stubborn, and unparalleled craftsmen (Poseidon's trident, Artemis' and Apollo's bows, and Hades' helmet are also attributed to their work.) Perhaps the single eye is intended to reflect their single-mindedness? Rather like the brilliant computer programmer who lacks social skills, maybe the Greeks saw in their best craftsmen a similar stubborn introversion?

I like this explanation the best. However, I could advance another for the sake of argument. Brontes, Steropes, and Arges are nothing like Homer's Polyphemus, leaving little doubt that the two versions of the mythological κύκλωψ have separate origins. Perhaps these came together later, and the one-eyed aspect was grafted on to the former three because the name round-eyed led people to associate them with the monstrous creature. Lines 143-5 would have to be taken as a later insertion, in that case.

It's been suggested that the idea for the monstrous cyclops comes from skulls of the dwarf elephants, which the Greeks could have found, and attributed to a one-eyed giant, plausibly enough. If Polyphemus were the only early cyclops one came across, I might be persuaded by this theory. As it is, though, their placement in the Theogony where they are, in the company of the Hecatonchires, leads me to argue instead that they are both understood as primitive forces, whose physical attributes are intended to reflect their imperfect, yet incredibly powerful, natures.

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Languages 
 

Monday, 5 November 2012

ΟΜΗΡΟΥ ΙΛΙΑΣ· ῥαψωδία Β, 204-6

Οὐκ ἀγαθὸν πολυκοιρανίη. Εἷς κοίρανος ἔστω,
εἷς βασιλεύς, ᾧ δῶκε Κρόνου πάϊς ἀγκυλομήτεω
σκῆπτρόν τ᾽ ἠδὲ θέμιστας, ἵνά σφισι βουλεύῃσι.

I've set this quote aside for a long time, hesitant to do a blog post about it, as I felt this morsel of Homeric political science was over-quoted already. "Might as well do an article on Hamlet's To be or not to be soliloquy," I thought. But now, the fact that it's been so long since I've written about a classical text (let alone a Greek one), and the fact that I do find this aside interesting on many levels, convinces me to write about it. It's even somewhat timely, what with the election and all. (Besides which, my fears about any excerpt of ancient Greek getting "too much airplay" are probably pretty ridiculous in the first place!)

Where to start? Part of what makes this statement so authoritative is its source. If one considers, as I do, the Iliad to be the starting point for Western Civilisation, then the fact that "monarchy is the best policy" is espoused from the very beginning is noteworthy.

Its real significance, however, comes from the fact that, already here, we have the all the complex facets of the assertion already coming into play. The same tension that, for example, exists in democracies, which by definition have many participants, and their militaries, which must have an absolute chain of command, is already present here.

It is a question we do not think about often enough: we accept that the military must have a strict chain of command, because we accept that this is necessary for it to be effective. A military that does not have this will fail in battle. Yet, if this is so, then isn't it also true that civil society is less effectively governed when there is no clear chain of command?

What fascinates me is that all this is present in Homer. Yes, we can read this passage as a primitive defense of the divine right of kings. But it is not that: it is a reminder that the buck must stop somewhere. The Achæans were not ruled by a benevolent dictator, nor was Homer saying that they ought to be. They were a league of kings, bound together under the rule of one king, whom, Homer says, they must recognise as the final arbiter of disputes. Homer's words apply just as well to squabbling congressmen who must respect the office of the president as they do to Agamemnon.

This is borne out again by the justification given: Yes, this is the divinely ordered way of the universe, but the heavenly court is no dictatorship, either: Zeus is the heavenly analogue, who rules the gods as final arbiter, but they remain independently-willed deities, just as the speaker of the house is no slave to the president, but all the same must recognise his authority and position.

I point all this out, not to assert that the American republic's ideals are rooted in paganism (though monarchists in centuries past have argued that republics are exactly that), but only to express my admiration for these three lines of verse, which at first blush appear to be making a very straightforward argument for monarchy, but which upon further reflexion have so much more to say.

Posted by jon at 6:45 PM in Languages 
 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

For those who read Gregg shorthand

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Languages 
 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

ᎣᏏᏲ, ᏣᎳᎩᏍᎪ ᎯᏬᏂᎭ

Of late I have been revising my Cherokee, a language which, as one might expect, I rarely have occasion to use. Okay, in all honesty, a language I have never had any occasion to use. Even so, every time I do study Cherokee I get something out of the experience, so I felt it worthwhile to write an article explaining why.

I have written before about how learning an endangered language is a meaningful way to build a connexion with a culture that is at risk of dying out (Benefits of Yiddish for the non-Jew). I have also written before about how learning some languages can be of benefit, because the mere ability to think in them actually increases mental capacity (Why Everyone Should Learn a Celtic Language).

The Cherokee language holds merit in both respects. While learning a language may not be something most people consider a social justice action, I have already explained, with regard to Yiddish, how the unparalleled exposure one gains to a culture through its language can be exceptionally meaningful when that culture has been brought close to extinction. Those statements hold just as true for the Cherokee, as indeed for all American Indians.

Cherokee originally held my interest, among the many native American languages, for a number of reasons that make it unique. For an American Indian language, it retains an above-average number of speakers, making it easier to find material in the language. (This is relative, of course—if one brought every Cherokee speaker in the world together, it would still not be enough to sell out an NHL arena.)

Besides accessibility, though, what truly made Cherokee irresistible to me were its writing system, and its unique linguistic properties.

Cherokee is the only native American language to use an indigenous writing system, the Cherokee syllabary developed by Sequoyah. This was the only case in recorded history of an illiterate member of a non-literate people independently creating an effective writing system, making Sequoyah the linguists' equivalent of the Wright Brothers or James Watt. It is one of the most impressive achievements of all time, made all the more so by the fact that nothing like it has ever happened before or since.

The syllabary takes some getting used to. There are 85 characters to learn, and while many of them have deceptively familiar forms, the pronunciation is completely different. D is pronounced a. A is pronounced go. K is pronounced tso, while 4 is pronounced se. Ꮳ, Ꮆ, Ꮸ, and Ꮯ all may look a bit like our letter C, but are all completely different letters, pronounced jah, loh, tsunh, and dli.

Besides taking some time to get used to, that means that Cherokee words are often much longer than they appear. For example ᏥᎪᎯ might look to an English-speaker like "haa", but is actually pronounced tsigohi. In spite of the time it takes to get used to reading and writing Cherokee syllables, however, I strongly feel that it is worth it: unlike any other native American language, it means one gets to use a writing system totally adapted to the language, and one with a unique history behind it as well. (And just because an Indian language is written in the Latin alphabet doesn't mean it will be easy to read.)

Cherokee really captured my attention, however, when I begin to study its grammar. I am already on the record as a proponent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and believe that learning new ways to process language in our minds actually allows our minds to function in new ways as well. It makes us more creative, and more intelligent. Well, if I thought the VSO word order of the Celtic languages was unique, Cherokee's grammatical properties have blown my mind.

The only surviving member of the Southern Iroquoian languages, and one of only a small number of native American languages still spoken by children, Cherokee has linguistic properties unlike anything I have ever seen. Verb conjugations change according to the category of the object of the verb.

I'm sorry if that sentence is hard to understand, but no European or Asian language I've ever studied has any such concept, making it hard to express: "give me" can be ᏕᏍᎩᏁᎲᏏ if I'm saying give me something liquid, ᏕᏍᎩᎧᏏ in the case of give me something living, and ᏕᏍᎩᏅᏏ for give me something long. A polysynthetic language, very complex ideas can be conveyed with a single word. Some words have inalienable possession: the phrases ᏗᏇᏅᏒᎢ ᎨᎦ "I am going home" and ᏗᏤᏅᏒᎢ ᎮᎦ "you are going home" actually vary not only in the verb conjugation, but in its object, since the word for home changes according to whose home it is—the word cannot be separated from its relation. A distinction between living and non-living things permeates the grammar. The pronoun system is amazingly intricate (inclusive and exclusive first person plural forms, etc.). I could go on and on.

I congratulate any readers who are still reading this, as reading about grammatical properties of any language, let alone a language one does not know, probably cannot make for very interesting reading. Rather than prolong the agony, let me just summarise by saying that learning to think in Cherokee is a mind-expanding experience. For this reason, I have found that studying this language is its own reward, and one I do not regret undertaking.

Posted by jon at 12:30 AM in Languages 
 

Friday, 23 September 2011

HSK Proficiency and Literacy

I have talked before about my interest in pursuing the HSK as a long-term goal. The idea of a ranked certificate to showcase my Chinese ability appealed to me as a way to put a definite achievement milestone along the practically infinite road of learning Chinese characters. I will probably never be able to say I speak Chinese fluently, but if I pass HSK level 3 or 4, I will at least have that to hang my hat on.

Recently, though, I decided to test out just how much Chinese proficiency that level of mastery would actually get me. Using the character lists I found here, I coded up a little program that takes a website and highlights the characters that are included at a given HSK level.

The resulting program was actually pretty interesting to play around with. Trying it on different websites, with different types of content, allowed me to see, visually, how much I would be able to read after having learned a given number of characters. For example, here is a section from the Wikipedia article on railroads (chosen as an example of a page with fairly straightforward content), with only the level one vocabulary (176 characters) highlighted in pink:

That should make it fairly clear that at HSK Level 1, one remains quite illiterate. (As I can testify from experience!) Now here is the same text with HSK levels 1-4 highlighted (the most I ever expect to learn, 1067 characters). In this and the following image, the different shades of pink are progressively lighter according to the level of the character (1, 2, 3, or 4 in this case):

Finally, here is what one who achieves the full HSK levels 1-6 (that's 2631 characters) would know. Again, the lightest characters are those of the highest level; the black ones are those that a reader still would not recognise even after learning the entire HSK list:

While it is said that at level 4, one has mastered enough characters to read 90% of Chinese text, and at level 6 that number rises to 98%, viewing the texts in this way allows one to see things in more practical terms: a level 4 reader can read a text, but it will require a lot of trips to the dictionary to do so, making it quite a chore to get through anything more than half a page long.

At level 6, reading is much more fluid, but still by no means perfect. Still, dictionary trips are rare enough that one should be able to read real texts, even long ones, when motivated enough to do so (in the example above, learning 轨—gui3, 'rail'—alone, would eliminate half of the black characters remaining in the text).

This is probably why the HSK only tests up to this level: once one has attained this level of literacy, the remaining 1500-odd characters that an adult Chinese person knows can be picked up in the wild, in the course of immersing oneself in the Chinese language, rather than through further classroom learning.

I thought I would share these findings, because I think it is a useful visual illustration, even for someone who cannot read any Chinese, of what knowing a certain number of characters actually gets you.

Posted by jon at 7:30 AM in Languages 
 

Friday, 5 December 2008

A Brilliant Way to Better Latin

Classical Latin is a very artificial language, which both in prose and poetry favours complex constructions that to this day define what Western culture considers erudite sounding, intellectual speech. Because of this, it is hard to read, in a "pick up a book and read it" sort of way. This sentence from Cæsar is a typical, and by no means extreme example:

Ubi (Cæsar) se diutius duci intellexit et diem instare quo die frumentum militibus metiri oporteret, convocatis eorum principibus, quorum magnam copiam in castris habebat, in his Diviciaco et Lisco, qui summo magistratui præerat, quem vergobretum appellant Ædui, qui creatur annuus et vitæ necisque in suos habet potestatem, graviter eos accusat, quòd, quum neque emi neque ex agris sumi possit, tam necessario tempore, tam propinquis hostibus ab iis non sublevetur, præsertim quum magnâ ex parte eorum precibus adductus bellum susceperit, multo etiam graviùs quòd sit destitutus queritur.

That's from de Bello Gallico I.16, and you don't need to know any Latin to get my point: all that is one sentence! You need to keep a lot in your head to keep track of that many subordinate clauses, and that means that even with a perfect grasp of Latin grammar and vocabulary, you still need to read very attentively. And Cæsar is considered one of the easiest classical authors to read! (I'm told that some of Thucydides' sentences run over four pages.)

In contrast, a lot of the Latin written after the fall of Rome, mostly by monks, is a lot closer to the way we talk today. The Gesta Romanorum is exactly the kind of book you can just pick up and read once you know the basics of Latin grammar and vocab, but it's not considered appropriate to give to students because its style is so "barbarous" in comparison to the eloquent classicism of Cæsar and Cicero. (I really have to question that reasoning—it seems to me to be akin to giving King Lear to kindergarteners because Dr. Seuss' works lack literary merit—but that's an whole other article.)

This leaves students of Latin and Greek with a hurdle even greater than that of students in modern languages: not only do they have the same difficult leap from the textbook to the real thing, but the only "real thing" they come into contact with is exceedingly difficult in terms of its content!

Even though grammars, dictionaries, and introductions to Latin abound, there is still relatively little material that guides the beginner gradually yet expeditiously towards a confident mastery of classical material. For all too many aspirants, the leap (or toss) into the primary texts has entailed a falling into a kind of void: suddenly, the project slows down, often ending in a perpetual stall.

That quote comes from Claude Pavur at Saint Louis University, whose site takes one approach to the problem which you can read about there. While I don't doubt that his accelerated readers are a godsend to some, it's not a method that resonates with me. (In fairness, he's targetting the 'beginning intermediate' level whereas I probably fall closer to 'advanced intermediate'.) But I am in total agreement with him as to what the problem is:

Under such conditions, reading Latin becomes puzzle-solving, an adventure in decoding, a challenge to patience, a therapeutic escape in "busy work" — anything but an instructive and vital encounter with an interesting, complex, and vastly influential culture that often offers great writing, important ideas, valuable teachings, and significant personalities.

What I ended up doing back in university was instead turning to mediæval texts like the Gesta Romanorum that were easier to read, or less erudite Roman texts like the Passio Perpetuæ. They might not be the pinnacles of world literature that the canonical classics are, but at least I could have "an instructive and vital encounter with an interesting, complex, and vastly influential culture" through them. But I still moved like a snail through classical Latin, going to the dictionary with what seemed like every other word.

It so happens however that I recently stumbled across a fantastic new way to learn Classical Latin that makes getting across this hurdle so much easier. It came to me when I was looking for Ovid's Metamorphoses on Google Books, which has a huge selection of beautifully typeset Latin and Greek books printed in the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries (when, as I've already asserted, typesetting conventions were also superior to those of the present day). I found just what I was looking for: an 1821 edition of Ovid, beautifully typeset with js and ligatures. At first I noted with amusement that the explanatory notes, pointing out the meaning of difficult words or allusions, were themselves in Latin, which didn't seem very helpful on the editor's part! But as I started looking it over I discovered something even more amazing: in addition to the footnotes, each page has a paraphrase of the text in simple-to-understand Latin! After some assiduous searching, I was also able to find an even more copiously annotated edition of Virgil based on the same principle (this time with a Talmud-inspired page layout, no less). Here's an excerpt:

An intermediate-level student can usually understand the Interpretatio and Notæ on his own, but the poem itself would be too difficult without a lot of dictionary work. But with their help, he can understand the sense and context of the poem (all the while excercising his Latin skills), and so figure out how to read the verses all by himself.

This strikes me as such a brilliant way to bridge the gap between learning the basics of Latin and learning how to deal with the intricate literary complexity of the great classics. And the reader is never discouraged to be looking at the "interpretation", since it is still Latin after all: There's no shame in being told that tellus means terra—the reader will go on to discover the nuances on his own, and through his own experience, which is much better than just being told it and adding it to one's vocab list to memorize. (And if you don't recognise even the simple word in the paraphrase, then looking it up is only half the chore, because you know that when you do you will most likely learn two words in the process, since it is a priori the synonym of another word you don't know in the text itself.)

The effect of all this is that you no longer feel "I don't know Latin because I can't read pages of Virgil effortlessly"; instead you feel that "I can read Latin, but Virgil is a difficult author who takes some effort to tackle"—which after all is just what English students feel when dealing with Shakespeare or Milton for the first time. It's an important difference for the reader's self-confidence—and a more realistic acknowledgement of the difficulty of the great classics.

My own level in Latin was until recently stuck precisely in that rut between being able to read the Gesta Romanorum without ever picking up a dictionary, but feeling like an idiot when confronted with a page of Cicero (the goal of my recent Latin kick has been to at last rectify that). Now with these books I am really looking forward to "leveling up" on Virgil and Ovid, and bet I will progress twice as fast thanks to this brilliant, yet sadly no doubt long-forgotten, idea!

Posted by jon at 12:10 AM in Languages 
 

Friday, 11 December 2009

A tale of two campaigns

I've written previously about the ways in which Latin and Greek complement each other in traditional classical education. Another interesting parallel exists in the texts that are most often read by students as their first introduction to real classical prose: for Latin, Cæsar's De bello gallico, and for Greek, Xenophon's Ἀνάβασις.

Both texts are chosen by teachers because of their style is clear and direct (and therefore not too confusing for beginners), and because their style and vocabulary are considered exemplary by the standards of classical prose for the two languages.

It is surprising, then, to note that, by pure coincidence and independently of their suitability for education, the books' actual contents are very similar. Both are autobiographical texts, narrated in the third person, about military campaigns that the author took part in. As such, they are edifying reading, both for history—giving the reader a vivid picture of the very different world that people lived in over 2000 years ago, and as guides to leadership: both tales are some of the most inspiring texts in history in this regard, and the simpler world they took place in makes it easy to take lessons from the various leadership techniques and trials that the protagonists went through.

Despite the similarities, though, I think it would be unfair to Cæsar to equate the two. Firstly, the historical impact of Julius Cæsar on world history dwarfs that of Artaxerxes, let alone Xenophon, so the opportunity to hear him in his own words is so much the more valuable. Not only that, but he is the commander in chief of the campaign he narrates from start to finish, while Xenophon only comes to a position of leadership through necessity. And of course, although both outcomes can give instructive lessons, Cæsar was victorious in his conquest of Gaul, while the Anabasis, a story of a successful escape, takes place in the shadow of Cyrus' defeated attempt to overthrow his brother. Cæsar is a genius in terms of leadership and military strategy (as he intends his writings to get across to us), and also in literary terms: his Latin prose really is outstanding, and he probably still holds the literary title for best use of understatement.

Xenophon cannot be put on the same level, in my opinion. In fact I suspect that were I teaching Greek I might use Plato's Apology and Symposium as my baseline texts for Attic prose. (I think it might also be cool to compare and contrast Xenophon's and Plato's Apologies, but I haven't gotten around to doing this yet myself, so I can't vouch for this approach.) They are sublime stylistically without being too difficult, and the lessons they teach are perhaps of greater use to beginning students. The Anabasis is an adventure story, very exciting, to be sure—but you have to be able to read Greek at a certain level for a page-turner to be a page-turner!

That is not to sell the Anabasis short, though. When military campaigns go wrong, as here or in the events recounted in the movie Black Hawk Down, the ensuing story is often more exciting and more replete with heroism than when everything goes according to plan. (Cæsar's victory at Alesia, however, is a fine counterexample.) When I was a beginning student, in both Latin and Greek I skipped over these texts in favour of others that seemed more interesting to me at the time, but now that I've had time to go back to them later in life I really do think that their place at (Cæsar) or near (Xenophon) the beginning of any classicist's reading list is well deserved.

Posted by default at 7:45 PM in Languages 
 
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