Playing Catan in Ancient Greek

I’m a big advocate for playing games in a target language. I think it creates a language focus which isn’t the language itself, so that you are communicating about something else, not about language, and that creates a need to use the language actively and passively to express, and negotiate, meaning between speakers.

For some time I’d been interested in doing (Settlers of) Catan in Ancient Greek. It’s a great game, which isn’t highly dependent on verbal ability – you could play the whole game in silence if you wanted to, but it offers a limited set of vocabulary and expressions needed for core gameplay. Last term during my Patrologist classes, I’d thought of getting my conversational Greek students to play it, but I’d run out of time to prep and execute it. Not so this term!

Catan is easily played online, which makes it also a great game for distanced, online video-chatting learners. We ran a game today, and I think it worked reasonably well. We used the site colonist.io, which works reasonably well. It helps to get players familiar with both the game and the website beforehand. Players can play against bots, so they can get in a bit of practice before you do it in-language.

I’ve put together a cheat sheet of core vocabulary which you can use if you too want to play in Ancient Greek, I hope it will be of use to you! And, if I’m free, I’m always up for a game myself.

Catan in Ancient Greek v 0.2

Towards genuine reading courses in Latin and Greek

We’re now drawing in on the end of the 3rd year in which I’ve offered continuous structured small-group classes online in Ancient Greek and Latin. And one thing I have been working both on and towards is offering intermediate and advanced type classes. What do I mean by those? Well, anything where a student is past the point of needing to learn the fundamentals of the language as covered in typical intro/grammar books. I cover those things in my beginner classes, even though those beginner classes are also oriented towards communication and in-language work.

What happens in most classics departments is, sad to say, that beyond your first year, your class has an assigned text, and each week you have to translate X number of lines or however many words, and then in your class you sit around in a metaphorical or literal circle and translate sentence by sentence and your professor offers their feedback on the translation, points out your grammar mistakes, and makes various comments about things of literary or historical significance. I would say that describes a rather large bulk of classics degrees.

That seems somewhat boring to me. So this year in particular, I’ve offered intermediate level reading classes, where we have an assigned piece of text, I expect students to do some prep on it beforehand as needed, and in class we read it in Latin/Greek, and I ask questions in Latin/Greek, and we clarify difficulties or discuss some of the points in Latin/Greek. The most successful of these has been a sequence of 4 subjects in which I’ve read theological Latin from the early church period until right up to the Reformation currently, in a smorgasbord/sampler/anthology style.

The vision/model of reading/text based class I’m working towards, and will begin offering in more earnest in 2021, involves reading a set text week to week, with a set amount of material in particular, and coming to class to read/interpret/discuss all in the target language. At the same time, we’ll cover difficult to understand sentences, and unusual vocabulary, as it arises, as well as do paraphrase, question and answer at various levels, etc.. All in language.

One of my questions has always been, ‘how to make this manageable?’ Especially given the jump from ‘textbook Greek’ to real Greek. Well, by controlling the length of text. I have, now, a fair idea of how much text can be reasonably covered in an hour session, with certain amounts of experience. So, my plan to address this is to start to offer stages of intermediate/advanced classes – a very first post-beginner class will read Plato’s Crito, for example, which is 4172 words, roughly 410 words a session. In the process we’ll be able to develop Greek-Language glosses, explanations, paraphrases, etc, for the text: a new type of ‘Reader’s Edition’. And as I go on as a teacher, and as students go on with me, we’ll read longer works with longer sections, with more reading outside class but more discussion of themes and literary/historical (and theological where pertinent) questions in class. In a few years I hope to have students reading relatively long pieces of Greek and Latin, as naturally as any language.

This is part of my master plan – not just to teach more people Greek and Latin, but to create a new generation of Greek and Latin learners who are speakers, and readers, and can get through lots of material, and can talk and write about it effectively.

Next year, if you’re wondering, I have plans to teach a range of texts in this mode, dependent on demand: Platonic dialogues, Boethius, Medieval and Neo-Latin authors, Reformation Latin writings, Biblical and Patristic texts, and anything else I can convince you to take, or you can convince me to offer.

Biblingo, a review

Biblingo is an app developed for learning the biblical languages (very specifically, New Testament Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew), through a (semi-)communicative approach. I became aware of Biblingo some time ago, and followed some of their pre-launch promotional material, but more recently decided to test it out with a 10-day free trial.

Firstly, a little background. I studied Hebrew at Seminary for 3 years, doing quite well along a traditional grammar-translation track. I didn’t succeed very well in keeping Hebrew up, and so my Hebrew slowly atrophied. I did teach a course on the exegesis of Amos in Hebrew (in Mongolian), but my ability to read Hebrew now is very weak. I have off and on considered taking some communicative courses to get some Hebrew back in a more robust and active mode, but it is relatively low down my everyday priority list of languages.

You can sign up for a 10-day free trial of Biblingo at present, and that’s what I did. It gives you access to the four current ‘modules’ – Language Learning, Flashcards, Alphabet, and Bible Reading. Beyond that, one needs a subscription, for either or both languages.

The user interface is very pleasant, and generally easy to navigate. You are given some short pop-up intro videos to get you oriented, and if you don’t know the alphabet at all, there are a number of video lessons to get you acquainted with it. Those video lessons are high quality presentations, but there are no exercises to familiarise you with using the alphabet. You also have a range of choices for pronunciation in each language.

The core of the engine at present appears to be the Language Learning module. This starts off as all locked, and you need to do and complete lessons in sequence, with 3 levels, a total of 26 units across them, and 4 sub-lessons per unit. Each lesson consists of a sequence of Vocabulary, Grammar, and ‘Final Act’ or application. I can’t say if the format and organisation changes in the more advanced units, as I haven’t gotten there.

Vocabulary begins by offering you 6ish new vocabulary items, each presented with a short video or an image, with an audio track. You can click for an english language gloss, but I did not use that feature, preferring to associate image directly with word/phrase. This did leave me unsure about exactly what some verbs were portraying, but my presumption is that I’ll figure that out as I progress.

The images and videos are high quality, and tied to an imagined biblical world, that is you will see people in biblical settings, with biblical type clothing, doing biblical type things. There’s no telephones and where is the bibliothèque here.

Vocabulary proceeds through several stages: presentation, then passive knowledge (selecting the right answer from multiple choices), and ‘active’ knowledge – inputting the correct word(s) by either typing or using a word bank.

Generally, I found the typing frustrating. Partly this was some technical issues with my own Hebrew keyboard layout, but the app would benefit greatly from some kind of typing tutorial mini-app. Similar to, say, duolingo, it doesn’t penalise you for minor misspellings, such as accents, but offers a gentle reminder and a chance to ‘practice’ (i.e. retype), though the retype is not compulsory. I did notice that even when I had entered the Hebrew correctly, I was sometimes told to ‘watch my spelling’, perhaps because of a mismatch in coding between the Hebrew keyboard I was using and what the app expected. I had no problems when testing out the Greek side.

I’m not quite convinced that simply entering vocabulary by typing it out quite counts as ‘active knowledge’. It certainly helps spelling. But it still seems to me a rather limited treatment of active recall. The Hebrew/Image presentation is a good improvement over bilingual flashcards, but we are still mostly being presented with isolated vocabulary items.

Grammar in each lesson takes the vocabulary you have learnt, and puts it into sentences, with one or at most two new grammar elements per unit. Again you are prompted with a video or image, and with a symbolic presentation. The symbolic presentation uses symbols to prompt for things like definite articles, 1/2/3rd person pronouns, and the like, which would not be obvious from the videos alone. This is quite a novel feature and well executed. The movement through this section is very similar to vocabulary – presentation, ‘passive’ recognition (multiple choice with 4, then 8 options), and then active input.

The last section is usually quite short, and asks for active response to a slightly harder prompt, requiring some creative application of materials you have learnt. It is a way of testing that you’ve understood and can apply in a more adaptive way, the things you have been shown with more restricted vocabulary.

Overall the sequence of lessons is well done, it moves in very bit-sized pieces, and gives lots of opportunity for exposure and integration. I will say that a few features and perhaps critique are in order though.

The multiple choice responses could be improved on the UI level by offering keyboard numbered responses. The typed-response was frustrating in not recognising some correct responses because of presumably some Hebrew Unicode representation issues, and so I ended up using the wordbank more, which makes those exercises a little more ‘passive’ again. There’s no way to skip lessons, or even to skip to, e.g., the latter part of a lesson that you’ve already completed, you have to work through each one in sequence, and if you ‘retake’ a lesson, you need to go through it from the start.

The inability to skip/unlock was frustrating, partly because I wanted to check out some more advanced Greek lessons. I have a very solid knowledge of Greek, but the linear direction of the app prevented me using features that would be useful for me, without investing significant time.

Two other modules are present in the app. Flashcard Deck is a spaced-recognition presentation of vocabulary that either (a) you have tackled in the lessons, (b) some preset decks (fairly limited at present), or (c) custom decks (to which you can add words from the Bible Reading module). The flashcard deck presents the vocabulary in ‘sets’, and asks you to work through the same association>passive>active sequence as are presented in the Language Learning module. For that reason it was also, in my view, a little tedious. I couldn’t indicate I ‘strongly’ knew a word for instance, and so I had no choice but to see it over and over, nor vice versa. I would like to have seen a more fine-grained version of ‘how well you know a word’ in the vocabulary engine.

The last module, and the most recently released, is Bible Reading. This is really meant for more advanced learners, it seems, so for this review I’ll talk a bit more about the Greek version. Essentially, you have the chance to browse the Bible at Book, Chapter, Verse level, and at each level it indicates what percentage of the words you know. You can thus sort and look for parts that you know more vocabulary, and which therefore should be easier to read.

Then, when you select a book, each word (or morphemes in the Hebrew version) is colour coded based on whether you know 0, learning-some, learning-all, or know-all sense of the word. Each word can be clicked, and you are given a ‘dictionary pop-up’ which divides the word into various senses, divided by semantic domain (this seems to draw on Louw-Nida). Pictures are given where available, but otherwise English glosses. Each word also has parsing information.

Navigating the Greek version of this, it was fairly cumbersome to try and ‘fast-track’ what I already know. So I couldn’t easily bring the app up-to-speed with what I knew, without again investing significant time in teaching it.

Nonetheless, especially for someone working from scratch, this is a good feature. Though it could be improved – it still presents the biblical text, and only the biblical text, as its reading input. So your ‘input’ options in biblingo are either isolated sentences in the language learning module, or raw biblical books.

Pros

The biblingo interface is smooth, and the underlying principles are generally sound. The de-emphasis of explicit grammar, the modulisation and indeed granularization of learning chunks, and the focus on image/video material for direct association of vocab, are all great features. So, too, is the use of a symbolic code for sentence structures.

I’ve now done a week of Hebrew, 15mins or more a day, and I feel like I understand everything i’ve been presented and can respond to it clearly, directly, and in Hebrew. That’s what you want in language learning, and that’s what I’m getting on this app.

Cons

The structure of learning is very linear, and each sub-unit has to be worked through in sequence, and as a block. There remains something of an emphasis on passive recognition, even in ‘active’ exercises. Comprehensible Input is limited to isolated sentences, and there is no truly ‘communicative’ component to Biblingo – I am interpreting meaning at an atomised level, but only for the purpose of language learning, not for any other purpose. I am also not actively outputting meaning-based language, and there’s no negotiating of meaning between parties, it’s all one way in that sense.

The fine-grained nature of ‘know/don’t know’ is not adequately, or at least adequately transparently, presented to the learner, so it feels like overkill on some words, underkill on others, and knowledge also appears to be mostly tied to vocabulary knowledge. For biblingo to be more data-driven and user-responsive, it needs to find ways to track learners’ exposure, and comprehension, of other features of language (e.g. syntax).

I would also suggest that biblingo simply doesn’t provide enough, and enough variety, of comprehensible input. The gap between ‘isolated sentences’ and ‘biblical texts’, is enough to mean that the jump from one to the other is too far. Learners need extensive exposure to CI, and that means broad and wide and varied input. This has long been a problem for historical languages, and is only starting to be addressed for Latin. It’s an ongoing problem for Greek, which I try to solve for my own students in a variety of creative ways (mostly involving finding new easy things for them to read).

Overall

Despite these criticisms, I find biblingo engaging enough as an app, and I am learning some genuine Hebrew without explicit grammar (which I mostly try to ignore even when it pops up), and without translation. That’s a very significant difference to any other app/program/asynchronous set of materials out there (though there are some other options, yes), and for which the biblingo team ought to be applauded. And, work on biblingo (to all appearances) is ongoing, so it may yet improve and offer more and richer ways to learn.

To find out more about Biblingo, see their website.

 

Upcoming courses, October 2020

Of course, you can just go and read the course descriptions, but it might be helpful to give an overview of what I’m running:

Greek 101, 103, 105

These are all courses keyed to Athenaze, where we work through the text of the book 5 chapters every 10 week block. The course is text-based, but the class is run primarily in Greek, with just enough English to help you through. 101 is chapters 1-5, 103 is chapters 11-15, and 105 is chapters 21-25.

LGPSI 1

This course is an ab initio introduction to Ancient Greek, using the author’s own Lingua Graeca per se Illustrata text. Additionally, we’ll use communicative Greek to help learn ancient Greek through Greek. Partnering in this course will also help directly support LGPSI development. I envisage running subsequent LGPSI courses throughout 2021.

Greek 221: LXX Readings

In this intermediate class we’ll read a selection of texts from the Septuagint and use in-Greek discussion to discuss meaning, grammar, and features. It assumes you are moderately comfortable with some spoken Ancient Greek, and have a reasonable familiarity with Greek overall.

Greek 272: Conversational Greek for post-beginners

This is a course that focuses on free-ranging conversational activities, including story-telling, interviews, Q&A, movie-talk, picture-talk, etc., to help students (or teachers!) who ‘know’ Greek but haven’t really spoken much Greek before, to get into ancient Greek as a spoken language.

Latin 104

I am only running a single beginner’s stream of Latin. We’re working through Familia Romana, and this cohort is up to chapter 31. The classes run entirely in Latin. As we will finish Familia Romana in 104, we’ll also do some additional readings from Ørberg type supplements to round out the year.

Latin 214: Theological Latin 1400-1650

The fourth of a series of intermediate courses, in which we read a sample of christian Latin authors. The class runs almost entirely in Latin, and we will be reading renaissance and reformation authors in this module.

Latin 262: Latin RPG

A series of 10 gaming sessions in which we’ll play a rules-light version of Shadowrun, entirely in Latin.

 

2021 Plans

In 2021 I plan to run a mix of the intro courses (Greek 101-106, as well as semester-long intensives), and a Latin sequence (101-104). At the intermediate level I plan to run reading groups in biblical and patristic Greek, ancient Greek novels (Athiopica, maybe others), a series of 4 Plato reading groups, an intermediate Latin reading series (focused on Roma Aeterna and possible other Ørbergiana), and some medieval Latin.

NaNoWriMo for Latin/Greek 2020 edition

Last year I set up a small group that made an effort to write some short original fiction in Latin and/or Greek. We set up a google group and used it for some informal discussion and encouragement.

Two lessons I learned from last year:

  1. Even 3000 words is a considerable goal if this is your first attempt writing Latin. So this year I’m going to propose that people set a range of goals that are even more modest. Never written an original piece in Latin before? Try 500 for the month.
  2. November is too late to start, if you’re plan is to open up a document file on Nov 1 and start writing. You want to spend September and October thinking, planning, jotting ideas, storyboarding, etc., so that you have some idea of what you are going to write. You want to have a rolling start, so get the engine going, the wheels in motion, and then Nov 1 you can accelerate to your heart’s content.

I’ll post again about this a few times in the lead-up. For now feel free to send me an email at thepatrologist@gmail.com to sign yourself up for our group.

On Authentic Texts in language learning

Today I want to get back to talking about “authentic” texts and language learning. It would behoove you to read the prior post that sets this one up.

Firstly, let’s talk about terminology. Very often people talk about “authentic texts”, and in classical languages they really mean something like “Authentic texts are defined as “written by members of a language and culture group for members of the same language and culture group” (Galloway 1998 ???)[1]

I think this is a lot better as a definition than what is normally bandied about. The main point is that authentic texts are not authored primarily for language learners, or for the purpose of learning the language. They may not be authored by native-speakers, they may also not be targeted at native-speakers. They are ‘real’ texts whose primary purpose is communicative, not pedagogical.

In this discussion then, I’m going to go back to using ‘authentic’ in the above sense, and leave off using “non-learner directed speech” (which is useful in clarifying what ‘authentic’ means in this context). But I will use LDS (“learner directed texts”) for those texts whose primary audience are learners and primary purpose is pedagogical.

Why are people so keen on authentic texts in language learning? Here are five reasons I find commonly or strongly posited in historical language education:

  1. Students’ goal texts, the reasons they are learning these languages, are authentic texts, so getting some authentic texts is actually getting to where you are going.
  2. Learner-directed texts are seen as easy, and so less valuable for learners.
  3. Learner-directed texts are seen as not being representative of good, or best, language usage. They are often considered inauthentic representations of Latin or Greek speech. For example, accommodations to English word ordering, or reduced particle usage in Greek.
  4. Authentic texts are motivational. A corollary to (1) really, but if you can get some authentic texts early, students feel like they are getting ‘the real deal’, and that is motivating.
  5. That the gap between Learner-directed texts and authentic texts is still quite considerable even after a lot of introductory material, and so authentic texts are seen as a better preparation for reading un-scaffolded authentic ancient texts.

Before going on, I just want to note that what counts as authentic is often, really, quite narrowly understood. It is often defined very much by traditional canonical perceptions, and only elite literary texts are considered authentic enough. For both Latin and Greek, the huge (really, vast) tracts of post-classical literature are swept out of consideration.

Of all these reasons, (4) is the one that is most understandable and most readily taken into account. And, careful curation of authentic texts can be done – by having a good repository of shorter authentic texts, such as fragments, verse, graffiti, etc., as well as less high-literature texts. These, presented to learners along the way, do give a sense of, “Yes! I read some real Greek!” And with some learner accommodations such as minimal glossing, occasional helps, and techniques such as embedded/tiered readings, more authentic texts can be made more accessible.

However, the others I find the others less convincing. The whole point of LDS is that it is accommodated to learners. And LDS should be accommodated to learners! Even if a text or speech’s purpose isn’t pedagogical, its content and manner should be. That, in my view, is how and why you should split purpose from content – communicative language learning shouldn’t give you oodles of material whose primary purpose is learning, but communicating, and by communicating we learn – when the language is comprehensible.

(5) is a real problem. As much as I sympathise and whole-heartedly agree with those calling for more and more and ever more CI novellas and the like with highly restricted vocabulary, there’s also a particular and peculiar gap at the intermediate stage – between the end of practically all textbooks and the encountering of wild, unsheltered “real” (and let us distinguish between this idea of “real” and a technical definition of “authentic” above) historical texts. There’s a reason Xenophon and Plato are such common 2nd year texts – they seem low on the mountain. But they aren’t necessarily easy.

I’d really like to see more LDS written at the post-beginner level. High quality, good Graecitas, post-textbook but pre-literary texts. Stories, poetry, etc., that is slightly sheltered in vocabulary in particular, and so is accommodated in content, but not necessarily in purpose. Tell a good story in a novella (or a novel!), so that it’s communicative in purpose, but learner-friendly. More and more of this would help bridge the gap.

Since, we should not forget, most of the goal texts of learners are high-register literature, as I said in my prior post. And the gap between ‘end of learner books’ (of whatever series) and ‘literature’ is still pretty difficult. A lot of our learners fall of the cliff at that stage – they did fine in intro classes, but they never really learn to scale the heights, and pretty soon they are back wandering around the foothills searching for silver bullets.

 

[1] I got this from ACTFL here, but it’s not entirely possible to follow the citation trail, since Galloway has several 1998 publications (Presumably: V. Galloway.)

Getting from sea level to the summit of Sagarmatha

This started as a long twitter thread about something else, but I’ve split it into at least two posts (that might be ironic).

 

First, let me suggest one (among many) analogies for language learning – climbing a slope to the top of a mountain. In our case, the mountain summit is generally ‘reading high level literary texts’, so the mountain is quite high.

 

Imagine, then, that you run an English program for English as a second language learners. And your incoming students tell you that their goal is to read, and write critically about, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Johnson, Austen, Twain, Yeats, Eliot, and so on. And really, we should never underestimate exactly how big a challenge that is – in training readers of classical languages to reach classical literature, we’re going from zero to Shakespeare. I stuck Beowulf in the list there because it probably neatly approximates the place of Homer – still the same language, but chronologically and chronolectically different.

 

So the mountain is steep. And I take it that what we are trying to do is lower the gradient of the slop as much as possible, to make the incline as close to flat as possible. That means in vocabulary, but also other features of language, syntax, morphology, etc etc.. Sequencing vocabulary appears as one of the most easily quantifiable issues, but it is certainly not the only one.

 

And we want to avoid two problems: too steep a slope, and ‘steps’ instead of a slope, especially steep steps, which are jumps between difficulty that a learner can’t navigate. That’s what, in my view, a good course of input-oriented materials does – it flattens out that curve as much as humanly possible, and provides whatever other helps and adaptations it can, to help learners ascend as easily as possible.

 

In doing so, ‘flattening the gradient’ also achieves something else – it improves accessibility. Because learning Latin or Ancient Greek or other historical languages isn’t inherently more difficult than other languages (because in the end they are but languages). However, if you structure your teaching around some other principle, e.g. “well, we have to cover all the grammar in two semesters and if you make it you make it, but most don’t. So we’re going to weed out the weak” (the boot camp mentality, where Latin is only learnt by the mentally adept, or the academically enduring), the outcome will always be a high percentage of failure. Why? because you started the treadmill on an incline of 15 and told everyone it couldn’t be set lower.

 

No doubt someone might say, “well, sure, we can flatten the gradient to almost 0, but then it’s going to take forever to get to the summit.” Honestly, I think that’s a false problem. Yes, theoretically, we could have so much possible reading material, that gets harder and/or more complex at such an achingly slow pace, that it takes too long. But anyone capable of making bigger steps/leaps/whatever, can. Imagine that our mountain path circles the mountain. Nothing is going to stop more capable learners from running up the lower slopes. Or from climbing directly from one spot up to the parallel path on the next rotation round.

So, as much as possible, I’m trying to flatten the gradient as close to 0 as reasonably possible, without holding any learners back, but more importantly not leaving any behindWith the end goal that we all get as high as possible (ultimate language proficiency attainment level), and as fit as possible (ability to continue on at that level for a sustained period of time).

Misunderstanding CI, Krashen, and Ørberg

So, I recently saw this blog post, and I am offering something of a public rejoinder here. I don’t know Carla Hurt, and I actually have no particular issue with the specific intervention suggested here, but there’s a systemic misunderstanding of CI, Krashen, and Ørberg in this post that is reflective of a more widespread misunderstanding of those three things.

So, firstly, the comprehensible input hypothesis. Hurt offers it in this format:

“a learner should be introduced to the each feature of the language incrementally, by receiving input that contains their previous level of competence plus the next feature (i + 1).”

That, however, is not the comprehensible input hypothesis. The CI hypothesis is that learners have a mental representation of language, as well as extra-linguistic information (i), and when presented with input that contains (i+1) where 1 represents ‘the next amount of information beyond i, which is comprehensible to the learner, then they will acquire that next increment.

It is specifically not a claim about explicit language learning, about general competence in a language, and most importantly here it is not a claim about the order of introducing features of a language. The Natural Order hypothesis, which has good research support, tells us that learners acquire features of a language in a predictable and unskippable order, but that is not an order for teaching, and Krashen would explicitly reject that idea.

Rather, Krashen, and those who have built upon his work or otherwise implemented CI based strategies in their teaching, understand language acquisition to be a primarily implicit process in which learners subconsciously acquire i+1 without being explicitly taught what the +1 ever is at any stage, and nor should you try to control the +1. Meaningful messages in communicative contexts is the driving force of CI-based methods, not incremental introduction of new language features.

Understanding this shows why Hurt’s title is wide of the mark – the issues she draws attention to is not a failure of CI as a principle.

And yet, understanding CI in this way also helps to understand why Lingua Latina per se Illustrata is not a CI-based book or method. Ørberg wrote LLPSI along the lines of the direct or natural method, which has some affinities to CI, and it is true that “Latin CI folk” really do love Ørberg, but LLPSI is not a CI based book.

You can see that in the very fact that Ørberg introduces new grammatical features, step by step, building on what the learner should know, and then expects the learner to explicitly grasp those features, and learn them based on a few exposures. Ørberg’s book(s) are not designed to provide lots and lots of comprehensible input, they are designed to teach through a grammatical sequence. For CI folk, LLPSI’s great strength is that it does indeed provide a considerable amount of comprehensible input, with at least a reasonably compelling story. But mistaking LLPSI for CI or vice versa is a very common mistake in the Latin teaching world.

To repeat: a CI based approach is not built upon specifically attempting to sequence the grammar (syntax and morphology) that a learner is exposed to. Nor does it have any expectation that students will notice, or develop an explicit, awareness of those features. It’s built on comprehending messages whose purpose is primarily communication, not primarily pedagogical.

So Hurt’s particular issue is the target feature of accusative endings. And her lament is,

“The error comes in believing that if a student successfully translates a sentence which happens to contain the target grammar feature, they necessarily understood the target grammar feature.”

Which I agree with. Correct translation is no guarantee that a learner has understood a grammar feature. It isn’t even necessarily an indicator that a student has comprehended the sentence. Personally, I am more interested in whether they have comprehended it than whether they can translate it, but that’s a separate question.

Hurt points out that piling up SOV examples doesn’t help, and this is where she uses LLPSI as her example text. And it’s true – learners will assume the first noun is the subject, and won’t necessarily process the inflectional endings. That, though, has nothing to do with CI or LLPSI, but rather the First Noun Principle (FNP). The FNP means that learners (across the board, cross linguistically) process input by assuming that the first noun or pronoun they encounter is likely the subject. Similar to this is the Lexical Preference Principle – learners will tend to process lexical items (e.g. a temporal adverb, heri) rather than an inflectional ending (e.g. perfect tense, –vit). And it works, of course, until it doesn’t (Latin isn’t even strictly SOV anyway, so it is bound to break down).

Hurt’s response is:

“My favoured approach to teaching students to really heed the accusative case is to give them many examples of a sentence type I call “SOV-OV” and work on them in an environment that gives instant feedback:”

Which is pretty close to VanPatten’s work on Processing Instruction, which involves just these types of specifically structuring input to remove the dependency on, e.g., those above principles. For example, provide tensed sentences without lexical items marking time, and then ask for tense-based responses. Similarly, providing specific instruction that disables the First Noun Principle will cause learners to process other features, such as inflectional noun endings.

However, it’s not even (necessarily) clear that this is a case of the failure of Comprehensible Input. Processing Instruction does appear to work, but I wonder whether this emphasis gets quite close to a form of the Noticing Hypothesis developed by Schmidt, a hypothesis that has been critiqued partly for having no particularly clear underlying basis, nor being testable.

As I stated at the outset, I think the type of intervention Carla Hurt recommends or uses here is actually quite valuable, but I do so because of what it does: it asks learners to process input by relying on a feature of the language they need to acquire (inflectional endings). However, the broader misunderstandings of CI, Krashen, and Ørberg, need to be challenged because we can’t keep having debates where we misunderstand and misrepresent others’ views and approaches.

Voice in Latin, some thoughts

In Greek, my understanding on Voice has been largely shaped by Kemmer, Allen, and R. Aubrey. To whit, Ancient Greek operates with an Active-Middle voice system, and the sooner you come to grips with that and jettison concepts like a distinct morphological passive, and ‘deponent’, the better.

But what about Latin, what’s going on in Latin? I don’t have all the answers for Latin, but here’s where my thinking is at.

Latin really does have an active <> passive system. Active voice verbs are what you’d expect, and Passive verbs generally involve syntactic transformation to replace the agent-subject with patient-subject, and demote agent to an optional oblique phrase.

daedalus ordinatrum programmat – the hacker programmed the computer >
ordinatrum programmatur [a daedalo] – the computer is programmed by the hacker

But Latin has two groups of verbs that we want to think about today. The first are those traditionally called ‘deponent’, that is “active in meaning, passive in form”. I prefer to call this “passiva tantum” or passive-only verbs. The second are those that have active forms but rarely use them. I call these “passive preferred”.

To my mind, there are two problems with calling verbs ‘deponent’ in the traditional sense. Firstly, the idea that they deposuerunt, ‘set aside’ their active forms and started using passive forms with active meaning is [mostly] a fiction (though there are some verbs that have switched over in the history of Latin). Secondly, it suggests that there is a mismatch of form and meaning in deponent verbs, which I think risks missing why they are passive in form.

While I’d want to hold back from imposing Ancient Greek as the grid in which we understand Latin, just as much as we shouldn’t understand Latin on English’s terms, this is where a bit of awareness of Middleness in Greek really helps. Because a large number of Latin passive-only verbs correspond to Greek middle-only verbs, and presumable for the same sets of reasons.

ornor, perluor, lavor – middle forms denoting bodily grooming and adornment.
progredior, etc. – middle forms denoting translation body movement
apiscor, potior – middle forms involving the subject as indirect beneficiary
osculor, amplector, luctor, etc. – middle forms involving reciprocal 2-party action
congregor, colligor – middle forms involving collective action
delector, misereor, vereor, meditor – middle forms of cognitive experience in which the subject is experience and the ‘object’ acts as stimulus
morior, nascor, orior, etc. – middle forms of spontaneous change of state

And so on. By understanding prototypical Latin passive-only verbs as historical middles, helps understand ‘why’ they are middle – they fit a certain logic. It stops us thinking that they are someone odd, breaking the rules, or exceptional. And in doing so, I think this helps students a great deal – you don’t need to make a big fuss about this and just getting people used to the fact that these verbs use passive-type endings.

It also helps understand some active/passive alternations, e.g. veho>vehor, mergo>mergor, moveo>moveor – in each of these cases the active verb is causative and prototypically involves a change of state on the accusative complement. The morphologically middle form involves the same change of state or movement through space, but it may be either middle (self-movement) or a true passive (with external agency).

So broadening our conception of ‘deponency’ in Latin to put aside the idea that these verbs are ‘oddities’, and instead understand them within a scheme where semantic middleness occurs with morphological passive forms, does a better job of situating these verbs in their linguistic system. I think.

 

Questions welcome.

Coining new Koine vocabulary

So how do you go about finding/using words for new-er things in ancient Greek? It’s a conundrum, and it’s more a conundrum in Greek than Latin, but here are a few of my working principles:

  1. I look at English>Greek dictionaries. Woodhouse, Yonge, Fradersdorff. These usually require trying to think of a 19th century way of expressing something.
  2. I look at how Latin, especially contemporary Latin, expresses things, using the English>Latin at Latinitium (Smith and Hall, primarily), as well as the Neo-Latin Lexicon. I then consider what Greek words might correspond to the Latin well, including using a Latin>Greek lexicon.
  3. I look at how Modern Greek expresses the idea or term. If it’s a derivation from an ancient word, I reverse engineer the etymology where appropriate.
  4. Ask other contemporary speakers of ancient Greek what they are using. I have a few go-to friends who are good for this.
  5. In all these steps, I’m trying to figure out
    1. Is there an ancient attested word that could reasonably be extended to represent the new thing?
    2. Is there an obvious neologism that would be transparent to an ancient speaker, and generally conforms to ancient usage?
    3. Does modern Greek and/or contemporary Latin use a loan word or calque, and would the same strategy work for a ‘new’ ancient word?

In all this, my principle is basically “be as linguistically conservative as possible”, because I’m still trying to speak an ancient Greek in a modern context.

Apologies too, I couldn’t resist the title.

Setting aside the ego in language learning

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I don’t have all the answers, but nonetheless I have some thoughts.

So often when we’re in a language context, a context where we are learners, we feel the need to perform. Whether it’s with a teacher, or with other learners, or even with students. We feel this need to show, to prove that we know stuff, and we can do stuff, and importantly, we know and speak better than you.

Which is pointless and stupid. But we do it anyway, don’t we? Did you ever correct someone because you wanted to demonstrate that you knew Greek better? Did you ever stay up late polishing your preparations for a translate-and-autopsy reading class, to show how good a philologist you really are? Did you rephrase a simple sentence into an epic Ciceronian period with a sprinkling of obscure vocabulary you prepped earlier just for this very purpose?

Wherever you are in your language learning journey, that’s where you are. It doesn’t matter where I am. It doesn’t matter where the learner in your class next to you (1.5 metres away, perhaps, or a digital ocean) ‘is’. And if your one of my students, you don’t need to prove or show off to me. And if you’re a teacher, your job isn’t to demonstrate your mastery to your students. What matters is? Is one more step:

The next word, the next sentence, the question and answer. Are they in the language? Are they understandable? Are the communicating? Keep doing that. And you’ll keep progressing. And they will keep progressing. And that way we all win, because we all move along the path.

Language acquisition is a mountain-climbing in a team. And throwing people off the mountain doesn’t help. Supporting and helping each other helps us all.

A cheat sheet for Greek Grammar Terms

I’ve scoured my notes from several sources and put together this cheat sheet for Greek Grammatical terms which I use, and which may be of use for others. I’ve culled it from Christophe Rico’s Polis book, Randall Buth’s BLC materials, the Alexandros volume from Cultura Clasica, and judicious plundering of ancient grammarians.

Additions, queries, corrections always welcome.

Greek Grammar Terms Cheat Sheet

Roleplaying Games in Latin – A retrospect

Last week I brought to a close a 10-week experiment in a Latin-learning-experience, “Latin via RPG”. I offered this as a kind of ‘course’, but as one participant pointed out it might better be called a ‘learning-experience’, since it was not so much a sequence of taught materials, as an opportunity for unbounded use, and acquisition, of Latin (which, is what I am about anyway!).

I’ll briefly describe a bit about the set-up and participants, and then let them ‘speak’, before offering my own reflections on the experience.

I’ve been playing table-top roleplaying games for close to thirty years now. They are one of my favourite past-times, and a source of a lot of fun. The previous two years I also had the joy of playing Dungeons and Dragons in Latin at the two Rusticationes Australianae. I have often mused about how an RPG would be an effective learning environment because it creates a setting that is not the ‘classroom’, but the gameroom, and it calls for learner-investment in personas, and the story, in a way that classroom ‘scenario’ roleplaying does not. It also allows the participants to explore alternate settings, persons, plots, themes, etc.. This year, I felt sufficiently comfortable in my own Latin to offer this as a paid course to learners. I did some preparations, chose a game system (kind of, see below), and each week we played. We had four participants, ranging from someone with 2 semesters of college Latin, through to some more experienced learners (who would still describe themselves as learners).

Okay, what did they think?

#1

I thoroughly enjoyed this class, and It really forced me to become more comfortable in my understanding of Latin grammar and vocabulary. You were a great professor and game master. I hope if you decide to run it again and I can take part. Your use of classical, medieval, and new Latin helped me a lot to enhance my vocabulary and learn more about Latin as a developing language.

#2

The Latin RPG was fun and good practice. Since it was more student-directed, this led to a very different kind of environment and required a different kind of speaking, and I think that’s good. … Regardless, I enjoyed it.

#3
A thief, a strongman, a necromancer priest of Jove, and a terrible hunter walk into the woods in search of a mysterious temple.  Which turns out to have been taken over by crocodile monsters.  And that’s only the beginning.  What’s not to love?
Latin RPG was completely fantastic!  Everyone was supportive and creative, and there were lots of funny moments.  You made everything so clear and so interesting.  If you run it again I’d enroll in a heartbeat.
#4

My only regret is that it didn’t last longer!

I had a tremendous amount of fun playing an RPG in Latin. I came in as a second year student and gained so much confidence in Latin, hearing and learning how conversational Latin works and sounds.  It was such a great experience that I’m glad i was able to be a part of, and I will definitely be continuing it in my future schooling. It was difficult, and new, and such a cool learning experience that I would recommend to someone looking for a different way to interact with Latin. Confidence is my main takeaway from this, not vocab or grammar, but experience and confidence.
I always felt comfortable saying I didn’t know a word or didn’t understand, and I went from understanding about 30% to 50% of all the words to about 90%+ through the term.
Thank you for hosting this, thank you for keeping me in, and thank all the other participants, I had an unprecedented experience and will do it again.
Back to me…

I had originally thought to run a game built upon the Fate system, because it seemed very rules-light, and I wanted this to be as accessible as possible. We spent the first session talking about game concepts, developing characters, and just getting acquainted. From there each session was mostly a free-form kind of role-playing – I come from a very story-driven, free-form kind of ‘school’ of roleplaying anyway, and this seemed to work well. Certainly as we went on, our participants became more adept at communicating in Latin, and even moreso at understanding. RPGing requires a fairly large cognitive load on the storyteller/GM, and that’s increased in Latin, so if you felt less confident in doing that, then a more scripted adventure/style might work better.

I altered two things as we went that I think were invaluable. Firstly, I went from doing Fate as a behind the scenes system, to an even more ‘loose’ version of it. Essentially I would roll dice for anything that seemed to require dice, and make adjustments based on the characters’ stats. This reduced all game mechanics to a single dice roll + GM fiat. I think in a different setting, I’d be very happy with a more rules-on version, but this worked fine for us.

Secondly, I asked participants to write up a short description, in Latin, of each episode. This achieved 3 purposes – firstly, it let me know what they understood to have happened. It was invaluable in seeing what people had heard, and what they had missed, or misconstrued. Secondly, it gave them a non-timed chance to output, in a non-pressured way. I encouraged them to use English wherever they needed to. Thirdly, it gave me a chance to reshape and supply back Latin outside the sessions. I could provide vocabulary, structures, idioms, etc., in a less direct feedback manner. I think this was an invaluable addition.

I think I will run something like this again, though probably not in the immediate short-term. I think it was a valuable learning experience in active Latin usage among us all, and it was also a tremendous amount of fun.

New Online Courses, starting July 19th

I’m very excited to tell you about the upcoming courses I’ll be offering, starting in July. All my courses are taught primarily in the target language and aim at a communicative approach. Here are some details and descriptions for each:

Greek

(students with a particular interest in Biblical Greek will be supported to develop Koine specific vocabulary and structures)

Greek 102 will be a continuing course, picking up with Athenaze (English or Italian) chapter 6, working through to chapter 10, with additional content along the way. USD$210, Mondays 9pm US Eastern.

Greek 104 will be a continuing course, picking up with Athenaze (English or Italian) chapter 17, working through to chapter 21, with additional content along the way. USD$210, Sundays 7pm US Eastern.

Greek 111: Intensive Greek A, is a 2hrs a week x 15 week course, starting August 2nd, Sunday and Tuesday nights at 9pm US Eastern. It will cover all of Athenaze volume 1, as well as a considerable amount of additional material, and represent a full college-semester’s worth of Greek, taught in a communicative mode. If you’re starting Greek from scratch and want to learn it well, and spoken, this is it. USD $725.

Greek 213: Greek Patristics 3. An intermediate course in which we’ll read and discuss (in Greek), some 3rd and 4th century Greek Patristic literature. USD $210, Mondays 7pm US Eastern.

Greek 271: Intro to Conversational Greek for post-beginners. This course is designed for those with a year of college Greek or equivalent, but aimed at developing a beginning proficiency in spoken ancient Greek. Ideal for those who have done Greek but never spoken it before. USD $210, Thursday 9pm US Eastern.

Latin 

Latin 103 will be a continuing course, picking up with Lingua Latina, Familia Romana chapter 23. USD$210, Mondays 8pm US Eastern.

Latin 213: Theological Latin through the Ages 3 (1000-1400). An intermediate course in which we’ll read and discuss (in Latin) some Christian and particularly theological authors from the later medieval ages.

Other possibilities

If you have an interest in any of the following possibilities, I’d love to hear from you, because I could offer a few more things if there were people willing and interested:

  • Latin 101 (beginning Latin from the start, with LLPSI)
  • Latin 111: An intensive, semester-long Latin course
  • Greek 2xx : An intermediate reading class in a Biblical book (LXX or NT)
  • Latin 201: An intermediate reading class in Latin starting with Roma Aeterna and supplements
  • Anything else you think would be fun and you can think of at least a 2nd person to come along.

Feel free to leave me a message about any of these courses.

A Spartan Tale – Idea and Execution

Recently I have been writing and semi-publishing a series of texts with the title ‘A Spartan Tale’. You can see the first two here and here, via my patreon. I will, at a future point, provide a more stable means of accessing the text.

In this post I talk simply about what I am doing, why, and where it’s going.

A Spartan Tale is designed as a series of interconnected narrative texts that provides a story that parallels and complements the narrative found in the popular Athenaze textbook series. Especially in the early stages, the text follows the grammar and vocabulary in that textbook closely, with some variation and expansion. It can be used as a supplement to anyone using that textbook, or as a standalone source of reading.

How does it differ?

A Spartan Tale tells a very different story of ancient Greece. Instead of the tale of Philippos, an Athenian boy who hears of the great exploits of Athens, is inculcated in the values of Athenian democracy, and faces the challenges of the oncoming Peloponnesian War, we follow instead the story of Elena, a Spartan helot and female enslaved person. I don’t want to give away too many details of her story, but it provides both a different perspective on the events of the era, as well as the shared past of Athens and Sparta. Elena’s story is unAthenian, female, and centered on a non-citizen in ancient Hellas.

It also differs in using Doric Greek as its primary dialect. This is challenging on multiple levels. We don’t have that much Doric. Doric was limited in its literary production, and then transitioned into being a literary dialect used by other Greek writers for specific literary purposes. Doric itself was still spoken, and seems to have survived to become modern Tsakonian, a critically endangered Greek language spoken today.

So, writing in Doric is a considerable challenge. It’s also a challenge to read! Most students get inculcated into either a high-register Attic, or else a broad-register Koine. Adjusting to Doric is possible, but not straightforward. However it is worth it. It provides a linguistic alternative to the literary hegemony of Athens.

Where is it going?

I have planned out roughly 25 ‘chapters’ which will follow the sequence and scope of Athenaze, but tell an entirely fresh and new tale. There will be points of parallelism in content and grammar, as well as vocabulary, which make it an ideal reader for those who have used Athenaze previously. At the same time, it’s a completely new story that introduces you to a different Greece. A mostly historical one. And it expands your enjoyment and your knowledge of ancient Greece and greek language.

Imagining an alternative (1) teaching a degree in Latin and/or Ancient Greek

Recently the Australian government released a statement signalling its intentions to drastically alter the way it costs, funds, and charges for studies in Australian universities. Now, many of you readers are not Australian, so let me explain a little briefly. Undergraduate (Bachelor) students (and others) are here able to defer their fees under a government loan scheme (HECS) to pay off when they begin earning money, through the taxation system. That debt is linked to CPI, not to interest. It has, for a number of years, distinguishes ‘bands’ of subjects, and Arts/Humanities subjects have been the cheapest. Under a carrot/stick approach, the government intends to decrease the costs for some ‘job critical’ areas, and increase the costs for others, including a 113% on the current cost of (most) Humanities subjects, raising the cost of a 3-year Arts degree to $45,000. A price that I suspect few are willing to take on.

Apart from the politics and economics of this, it started me thinking again about the courses that I teach, and what it would take to become some kind of accredited provider. And this started me thinking again about,

What would it look like to teach an academic series of subjects treating Latin and Ancient Greek as living languages?

The rest of this post is a proposed draft curriculum, so that you can start dreaming with me.

The first year

So, what if you took a different starting point, and started with the premise that the aim of a foundational series of courses was to bring students up to a proficient ability to talk/listen/read/write in the languages. And so, consequently, you were going to base your courses not on covering grammar and teaching translation, but on developing a range of communicative competencies. With goal of seeing students at the end of 2 subjects with a CEFR A2 ability, and at the end of 4 subjects in a language, with a low-to-mid B1.

  • Latin 1001 + 1002 – Introductory Latin. CEFR Goal: A2
  • Greek 1001 + Greek 1002 – Introductory Greek. CEFR Goal: A2

You could teach them as double courses in a full-time program, so that would be semester 1 for a full-time student. To give an idea, Latin 1001+2 would cover all of Familia Romana plus additional exercises in reading, writing, listening, etc..

A second semester or  block would cover intermediate courses:

  • Latin 1003 + 1004 – Intermediate Latin. CEFR Goal: Low B1
  • Greek 1003 + 1004 – Intermediate Greek. CEFR Goal: Low B1

Again, to give an idea, 1003/4 Latin would cover all of Roma Aeterna plus other authors, alongside a communicative-driven curriculum. Greek would do similar. So you have a great deal of reading to do, and yet the focus of the rest of the teaching is squarely on conversation. You assess across speak/listen as well as read/write skills. All subjects would have a minimum of 4 contact hours.

In a full-time mode, that would be a year. In part-time, however long it takes. You could do a single language, but you’d have to take the first year part-time.

The second year

This is where it would get fun. 4 subjects per language, in which the content was language/literature/history. You would deliberately de-centralise the ‘classical cannon’, to give students a diachronic perspective on the interaction of language, literatures, and history. The classes and primary readings would be entirely in target language. You’d set some secondary reading in English, etc., but ask students to write summaries and do presentations in the respective languages, as part of a project to develop an in-language wikipedia that supported these very subjects.

  • Latin 2001           Post-Augustan and Late Antique (up to 550)
  • Latin 2002           Medieval (550-1250)
  • Latin 2003           Late Medieval and Renaissance (1250-1600)
  • Latin 2004           Neo-Latin and Contemporary (1600-2020)
  • Greek 2001         Hellenistic and Roman writers (330BCE – 330CE)
  • Greek 2002         Late Antiquity (330CE – 900)
  • Greek 2003         Medieval (900 – 1500)
  • Greek 2004         Homer and his reception

The CEFR benchmarks you’d aim for would be High B1 > Low B2 > High B2 > Low C1. So by the end of a second full-year sequence you’re aiming to have students functioning *around* a high B2, low C1 level. Assessments, such as it is, or summative learning tasks, would involve long form writing in the language, as well as oral presentations (monologue, dialogue, etc).

The third year

If you added a third year to create a Bachelor’s degree, you’d open it up to a range of electives that focused on topics, or genres, with a broad historical perspective, or else in-depth studies of particular times. Here’s my conjecturing possible electives:

Latin 3001           Rhetoric: from Rome to Now

Latin 3002           Philosophy through the Ages

Latin 3003           The Latin Church Fathers

Latin 3004           The Western Church in its Latin tradition

Latin 3005           The Latin Play throughout the ages

Latin 3006           The Latin novel throughout the ages

Latin 3007           Latin Epics

Latin 3008           Latin Lyrics

Latin 3009           Latin Historical writing

Latin 3010 Latin, speakers, identity, and reception

Greek 3001         Homer, in depth

Greek 3002         The Attic Orators

Greek 3003         The Second Sophistic

Greek 3004         The Attic comedies

Greek 3005         The Attic tragedies

Greek 3006         Greek Historians throughout the ages

Greek 3007         Greek Rhetoric throughout the ages

Greek 3008         The Greek Bible

Greek 3009         The Greek Church Fathers 1

Greek 3010         The Greek Church Fathers 2

Greek 3011         Greek Epic, beyond Homer

Cross Language Courses

Utriusque 3001  Comparative Epic

Utriusque 3002  Greek and Latin Sci-Fi

Utriusque 3003 Epigraphy utraque lingua

Utriusque 3004 ‘in the wrong language’ – Greek texts in Latin and Latin in Greek.

 

The lists could go on. You’d expect significant amounts of time reading original texts at this level, doing written and oral discussion in language, and long form writing.

The Honours Year

An Honours year I’d compose out of three elements: electives, academic writing, creative work. You could elect to take a combination, where you write an honours thesis worth 2 or 4 units (and appropriately long), in the target language, a creative work of similar length and weight (prose, poetry, film, etc.), and then the possibility of taking 3000 level units but with more significant demands in terms of research and outputs.

 

Final Thoughts

There is, of course, no humanly possible way that I could teach all that myself. Firstly, I know that I do not have the language proficiency currently to freely teach those imagined upper level courses. Nor do I have the time to teach full academic courses across multiple levels with significant contact and preparation hours. But this is the dream, and I am working to make it all one-step-closer, by building those first level courses, and early cut-down versions of level 2 courses. And hopefully the vision will grow, and others might join the journey.

The Borg Cube analogy for language learning, complete with spiders

I often find myself coming up with analogies and illustrations that help students understand not only how a particular piece of language works, but how languages, and language learning, works as a whole. Here’s one that I think is good, but a little bit odd.

Think of your language ‘knowledge’ as a kind of cubic tower. And you’re trying to build it. And there are three factors in this analogy that you can work on. Firstly, you can build up. The tower gets taller. This is adding grammatical understanding of syntax, and morphology. You pick up your textbook, read about feature X in the language, find out how comparisons work, or indirect statements, etc., and the tower gets taller.

Now, a lot of textbooks in the grammar mold, they’re prime aim is to get you through ‘all the grammar’. That is, to get your tower up to a minimum specified height, as quickly as possible. Yes, you need a bit of vocab along the way, but that’s mostly secondary to them. And this is the premise of all titles that talk about ‘teaching you all of X language’, they mean ‘all the grammar’. But tall towers are very flimsy.

Secondly, then, you can acquire vocabulary. And in this analogy, that’s extending the breadth and depth of your tower. It’s thickening the diameter, extending the sides. Maybe your cube is actually a triangle. Maybe it’s a cylinder. Whatever. maybe it’s an odd shape because you have extensive breadth in only a few specific domains of language use. Who knows. The point is, vocabulary doesn’t scale up, it scales out. Think of every piece of vocabulary as an individual piece of the cube, but they are posts, bars, planks, etc.. So, build a broad tower that’s not so high, it’s still pretty useful. You can talk about lots of stuff, in simple language. Build a broad, high cube, now we’re talking.

But there’s a third feature to the cubes we build. And that’s the spiders. Imagine the spiders are semi-autonomous robot spiders, and what they do is they shoot across your whole tower with spiderweb, linking individual ‘chunks’, morphological chunks, syntactical chunks, and vocabulary chunks. They jump from low to high, from near to far, up, down, sideways, and everytime they do they are making a connection, and those connections are thickening the cohesion of your language inside your mind. It’s this that creates the structural integrity that let’s the cube-tower rise higher and higher, and get broader and deeper, without all falling apart.

And this is why I’m never in a rush to add too much height or too much breadth to learner’s language-systems, too quickly. Slowly, slowly, we can add more words, more morphosyntactic structures, but the real question for me is how much time are we spending exposing your brain to messages in the language. That’s what is going to keep making those connections, and binding in the new elements, the new vocabulary and new structures, into the Cube.

Odi et Gaol: Catullus 85 between Latin and Gaelic

I was incredibly intrigued lately to learn that Iain MacGilleathain, lesser known brother to Somhairle MacGill-Eain, had produced a translation of the Odyssey into Gàidhlig. There being a veritable dearth of information on John, I ordered Iasad Rann, which is a collection of his verse (and a few prose pieces) in Gaelic, Latin, and English, either written by himself, or translated from Gaelic, Latin, English, or ancient Greek. Today I share with you some thoughts on Catullus 85:

Catullus 85 is one of Catullus’ best known poems. Here it is:

ōdī et amō. quārē id faciam fortasse requīris.
nesciō, sed fierī sentiō et excrucior.

The short elegaic couple opens with a powerful juxtaposition of two emotions, I love and I hate, delivered with short verb forms, and placed on an equal footing. It is this opposing, yet simultaneous, experience that sets the poem on fire. The lack of any transitive objects intensifies our focus on the emotional states in view. The poem then softens,  ‘why do I do this, perhaps you ask‘, moving us to the question of the poem – why? The poet externalises this question, invites the auditor into a dialogue, while fortasse (perhaps), lessens the intensity. The second line of the couplet continues in a softer or weaker vein, I don’t know, which resolves in an entirely unsatisfactory manner the question just introduced. And yet therein lies the knot of the poem’s experience. The play of vowel sounds in the second line, almost entirely e-i-o, produces a cohesive assonance. The final thought, but I feel it [to be so], and am tormented. The poem ends as strongly, and painfully, as it begins, with the visceral impact of excrucior.

Here is MacGilleathain’s Gaelic rendering:

Tha gaol is gràin
am chàil-sa ‘n-nochd;

cha tuig mi ‘m fàth,
‘s tha ‘n cràdh gam lot.

Iain’s version maintains the juxtaposition of the Catullan original, with gaol (love) and gràin (hatred) placed side by side with a simple and succinct conjunction is. Since Gaelic typically uses these nouns to express the verbal ideas of love and hate, the transformation from verb to noun forms is entirely appropriate. What’s lacking from MacGillleathain’s is the sense of the interlocutor, the question of “perhaps you ask why I do this”. We have instead am chàil-sa ‘n-nochd, indicating the kind of voracious vigour and appetite of this/these desires (assuming my own understand of the Gaelic is correct!). But what our second line does achieve is raising the intensity of the emotions in line one.

Line three, though, combines the Latin 1b and 2a into a single thought, “I don’t understand the reason”. fàth here being the cause or reason. The inexplicability of the tormented experience of love and hatred remains the same. The final line, as with Catullus, returns us to intense feeling, expressed as pain, with cràdh. This time gam lot. The word lot most likely recalls ‘lot’ in the English sense, allotment, share, portion, though it can also mean an injury or wound. This homonymy plays well here, the translator-poet evoking our sense of agony (cràdh), both in the woundedness that is love, and the woundedness that bestirs hate, as well as one’s ‘lot’ (echoing Catullus’ unspoken idea that certainly we don’t choose to feel this way!).

The Gaelic rendering has a fairly simple iambic dimetre, as I hear it, and you can hear it too, in the translator-poet’s own reading. The assonance of a/o sounds, and some consonance throughout the lines, as well as the rhyme of gràin/fàth, and nochd/lot, round out the poetic treatment here.

longe absit a me, to make any poetic judgment on MacGilleathain’s rendering, but it’s a fine rendering in my view, and preserves the powerful sentiment of the original, in a new linguistic vessel.

 

Aubrey on the Middle Voice (3)

Part 3 of our read-through of of Rachel Aubrey’s thesis on the Greek middle. Part 1., and Part 2. Numbers in brackets are page references.

Chapter 2 of Aubrey’s thesis looks at the Greek middle in the context of other languages and their voice systems. How does the Greek middle, and the Greek voice system, ‘fit’ in comparison to other languages and their voices systems (23) rather than the traditional approach which begins from an active-passive contrast and goes from there.

Aubrey begins by distinguishing derived and basic voice systems. English is a derived system, because it is traced from a source, Greek is a basic system because it is not. To put it more simply, the passive in English takes the active structure and “remaps the participants” (25). Greek middles do not work like that – they do not presume the priority of the active and then go about remapping the participants in the event. Other languages are similarly basic or derived, and not all exhibit the same sets of systems (cf. anti-passives, inverse systems, etc. (24)).

Let me give an example (different to Aubrey’s) of that remapping

  • Michael wrote (b) the tweets.
  • The tweets were written (a) by Michael.

Here the agent (a) is remapped (demoted) to an optional oblique phrase, while the patient (b) is promoted to the subject of the verb. A consequence of having a derived system like this, Aubrey says, is that they can be no passive-only verbs – passives only arise by being derived from actives (26). Secondly, only transitive clauses (i.e. with direct objects) can be passivized. Intransitives cannot.

Thirdly, Aubrey points out that voice alternations in derived systems are “expected to be semantically neutral” (26) that is, switching patient from object to subject does not normally change the meaning of the verb, only the alignment of the participants.

Well, what about a basic middle system? Aubrey’s work here appears to draw primarily on Klaiman and Shibatani. So, in contrast, middles are not derived from their active counterparts – there is no ‘mesofication’ process that turns an active into a middle clause. The agent is still the subject, the patient remains the object. The alternation between active and middle rests in a semantic alternation (27).

Because (θ)η type middles are not ‘passive’, they overlap with -μαι type middles, and they are not derived from active prototypes. Because -μαι and (θ)η type middles are basic and not derived, one doesn’t need to explain middle-only and passive-only verbs. There is no ‘deponency’ problem.

Related to this, because the active-middle contrast is not about syntactic transitivity (e.g. rearranging agent/patient subject/object positions), it means that the middle voice is not restricted t a single set of transitivity. Hence, you find middles with one, and two, arguments. This is an important difference from the derived system, where going from active to passive involves losing an argument:

Michael (1) wrote the tweets (2)

The tweets (1) were written.

In the derived system, one cannot require a second argument. But middle systems can appear as transitive or intransitive, with 1 or 2 arguments [28].

Thirdly, in contrast to the derived system were a voice alternation is semantically neutral, in a basic system, they are not – shifting between active and middle is a semantic shift, not merely a syntactical rearrangement (30).

Aubrey concludes this subsection, “the descriptive problems in the Greek middle are due more to a misguided use of a derived passive system than to Greek voice operating differently than typologically expected in a basic middle system.” (31) Or, in simple terms, your problem all along was that you kept trying to fit Greek middles into an active<>passive mould, but when you look at Greek middles in light of other active<>middle voice languages, it’s not weird at all.