Pissing in the Pierian Spring

10.3.11 § 3 commentarii

Earlier on today I managed to work myself into a complete and utter funk. In an effort to cheer myself up, I had decided to translate one of Aesop’s fables, probably into Gallo-Brittonic, so I went and found the original text. To my not inconsiderable consternation, I discovered that I couldn’t understand a bloody word.

Why I should have felt put out by this though is absolutely beyond me. It’s entirely irrational. I never bloody studied bloody Greek. I did Latin at school for six years[1]. What Greek I do know has entirely been gleaned from handbooks on Proto-Indo-European and fitful efforts with a teach yourself book which have always gently petered out some time after the aorist is introduced. I have nothing against the aorist, it’s just that my attention wanders and I start reading about clitic structures in Modern Western Armenian. So I have a working knowledge of the language’s morphology, and can recognise cognates fairly easily. However I managed to convince myself that this might translate into even a basic reading knowledge is beyond me. I still get confused over the breathings, for god’s sake. I can never remember if the one that looks like a c is a dasia or a psili.

Nevertheless, this ego-shaking discovery set me on a plainly insane spiral of panic. I began to question whether this was actually the case for all the languages I think I know. Panicking, I began to paw madly through my books, attempting to reassure myself that it wasn’t. Can I still actually read Old English? Sweet’s Reader in Prose and Verse came out: thank fuck, I can still understand it[2]. German: check. Cornish: yes, but still failing to see the point. Now for the big test: have I retained my Latin? Yes, I have. Barely. It’s a good eleven years since I had any formal instruction in it, and being honest these days I’m far more familiar with Latin as the raw material which would become the Romance languages. Those structures and morphology lost in Vulgar Latin tend to give me trouble, and I have to remind myself that focus, say, does not mean “fire”. On the other hand, I feel confident enough that I could translate a reasonable length of text with only minimal recourse to a grammar. Unless it was Tacitus or Virgil, obviously. Something by Cato, perhaps.

Of course, it doesn’t help that I set unreasonably high standards for myself. I honestly don’t think I will be content, for example, until I can write basic texts without aid in all the major extant Romance languages, excluding the silly ones like Gallo or Romagnol. And Wallon, obviously, which I am convinced is actually a collective hallucination caused by an unhealthy exposure to cow dung. When I look at all the languages I’ve tried to learn, I feel very depressed and realise that I’ve done no more than dabble with virtually all of them. One of the courses I had to attend at university was all about “getting to know yourself as a language learner”, and it was as dull as it sounds. However, I have subsequently realised something very important about myself as a language learner: a mere interest (even a strong one) in a language is not enough motivation for me to actually stick to it. It is no coincidence that most of the languages in which I maintain a reasonable competence are those which I had to study: French, Latin, German and Italian at school because it wasn’t something I could get out of, and Spanish at work, because there was no way of communicating with half the staff otherwise. I needed to know these languages for practical purposes: passing exams, asking where the hell the fish hasn’t been cut yet. Old English I scraped through by pegging it to my German lessons. Cornish I’m not entirely sure how to explain. It’s like a feral cat that finds a sucker who’ll feed it and subsequently keeps turning up at unexpected intervals yowling piteously.

All this has convinced me that I simply can’t do independent learning for any length of time. My attention wanders, my motivation fades and I start doing something else. I need someone to keep me at it. In order to test this theory, and to reassure myself that it’s just a lack of motivation that’s the problem rather than some kind of sudden inability to learn languages, I’m thinking of taking lessons in a language I don’t actually speak. Possibly Russian, as Japanese and Mandarin make me nauseous, and the only other course on offer at the moment is “Get By in Portuguese”, which sounds positively dreadful.

~~~~

1) Having said that, though, had I not dropped out after only half a term in the Lower Sixth, I’m relatively certain that I could have persuaded my Latin teacher to add Greek into the curriculum. I often wonder what my life would be like had I not actually succumbed to the tedious teenage bacchanal of drugs, booze, casual sex and casual violence but rather continued with my education. More erudite, possibly, but certainly less rich in anecdotes suitable for startling elderly relatives.

2) I taught myself Old English while still a teenager, possibly as a result of Tolkien, possibly as a result of being really interested in runes at the time, I forget which. What I do remember is being entirely insufferable about it. Half of one English Lit class every week would be set aside for pupils to read something of their own choosing, the principle being to “get kids reading”. I remember smugly taking in an untranslated copy of Beowulf, and smugly waiting, just waiting to be taken to task for this so I could smugly point out that it was actually English and therefore perfectly admissible. Instead the teacher asked me to translate a few lines and pulled me up on mistranslating a preposition and thereby completely mangling the sense. He had done his MA thesis on some aspect of Beowulf. Not infrequently do I think that my aforementioned sink into depravity was probably a benefit to all concerned. The violent, promiscuous drunkard I turned into was infinitely preferable to the insufferable little prig I could have become.

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§ 3 Response to “Pissing in the Pierian Spring”

  • Bo says:

    I enjoyed this, as always. I've had very similar experiences with language. I had to do Greek, Latin and French at school but have never aquired more than basic passive reading competence in Spanish and Italian, and German I can barely struggle through with a dictionary. Whilst I now feel at home in Welsh, it took a fuck of a long time, and I've never learned to speak Irish though the medieval form(s) of the language I know at least as well as I know Latin.

    I still find having to translate even that tough sometimes: Georgic I unseen is really sodding hard.

    'Getting to know yourself as a language learner'? Give me strength!

  • 'I simply can’t do independent learning for any length of time. My attention wanders, my motivation fades and I start doing something else.'

    My problem exactly. I really envy people who have the combination of self discipline and love of a language to stick to it and develop true proficiency. I exercise curiosity too widely and get bored too easily.

    I did French, German, Latin and Spanish at school - soaked up French like a sponge, 'But I don’t like German. It isn’t at all a becoming language' and it's as if I never did Latin at all. Spanish I can read but can't speak, as the teacher I had preferred to talk about Spanish in English.

    I'm in Greece at the moment and although I understand everything I hear, I'm gloomily aware that effortless real-time conversation on any topic thrown at me will forever elude me. If everybody here communicated exclusively by yahoo messenger, I'd be fine.

  • Deiniol says:

    I second your feelings about German entirely, aside from Basque it's the ugliest western European language. Frankly, I think it would have been best for all concerned had Luther been of North German extraction and the basis of the standard language been Low German, which is infinitely easier to understand and nowhere near as hideous.

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