Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

Decline and rise again

Decline and rise again
Text settings

Verb says to noun, ‘Would you like to conjugate?’ Noun replies, ‘No, I decline.’ A nice witticism for Latin-lovers brought up on L.A. Wilding’s Latin Course for Schools; but do today’s prep-school Latin pupils have any idea what a conjugation or a declension is?

Some do and some don’t, is the answer, and it all depends on which textbook your teacher uses and how much he or she believes in the importance of grammar over the importance of enjoying a story. The story of Latin teaching in this country over the last 130 years has been one of reaction and counter-reaction; and there are signs of a counter-counter-reaction on the way.

First, there was Kennedy’s Latin Primer (1888). Benjamin Hall Kennedy, clergyman and headmaster of Shrewsbury, was the man who decided that noun cases should be in ‘nom, voc, acc, gen, dat, abl’ order. His Latin Primer (still in print in a revised edition — revised in 1930) is almost all lists and tables. It’s a terrifying book for anyone who loathes rules; and it brought into being the non-sequitur poem which I remember finding scribbled in the margin of my dog-eared textbook: ‘Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be. First it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.’ (The more I think about it, the more hopeless that poem is.) It also made clever schoolboys very, very good at Latin.

Then came L.A. Wilding, Latin master at the Dragon School in Oxford, who wrote his Latin Course for Schools in 1949. ‘In the beginning, God created “amo, amas, amat”’ is its basic message; ‘and on the second day He created “mensa, mensa, mensam”.’ The language is explained in flawlessly logical order. In his introduction, Wilding has a shot at explaining to reluctant schoolchildren why learning Latin is important. ‘The Romans both thought and expressed themselves with the utmost clearness. One of the chief objects of education is to learn how to express ourselves clearly, and there is no better way of reaching this goal than by studying Latin.’ No pretence at all that this was about learning How the Romans Lived.

In Wilding’s world you never use a Latin word without knowing exactly what case or tense it is in. Gradually Wilding builds you up from translating ‘The sailor walks,’ via ‘The sailors arrive on the island with roses’, to ‘The Romans fought well by land; they did not always show the same skill by sea.’ Among the thousands of boys’ efforts to translate sentences such as these from books of this ilk, two mistranslations from Latin are treasured: ‘Scipio ordered the women to display their booty in the forum’, and ‘Only the king may take the horse from the rear.’

Enough of these disconnected, grammar-obsessed sentences, said the Cambridge Latin Course (1970). With hippy-like daring, it landed pupils straight in the deep end with two sentences introducing its chief character: ‘Caecilius est in horto. Caecilius in horto sedet.’ What? An ablative in line one? And a second-conjugation verb? This is surely running before you can walk.

But who cares? said the Cambridge Latin Course, and many contemporary teachers agree. The point is that pupils should enjoy Latin from day one, and the way to make them do that is to tell them a story about a family in Pompeii: Caecilius, his wife Metella, the cook Grumio, the slave Clemens and the dog Cerberus. By Lesson 2 the family is tasting peacock in the dining room. The vocabulary just lists words like ‘tradit, capit, currit’, without fitting them into a conjugation system. The book is beautifully illustrated, and a huge commercial success — as is a similar book for younger children, called Minimus, by Barbara Bell. Minimus is ‘the mouse that made Latin fun’. It has sold 145,000 copies and is about to be translated into Slovenian and Portuguese. Barbara Bell is a huge fan of ‘fun’, history-based Latin learning. ‘I love the Cambridge Latin Course,’ she tells me. ‘I wouldn’t teach anything else at senior school. It’s a bit like the Suzuki method. You learn to play the violin and then, much later, you learn that the note you’re playing is called Middle C.’

And now we come to the latest counter-reaction. The way has been paved by the Independent Schools Examination Board’s ‘Practice Exercises’ books, which hark back to the grammar-based system to prepare pupils for Common Entrance. Now a brilliant young Latin master at Highfield School in Liphook, Hampshire, Edward Clarke, has written Variatio: A Scholarship Latin Course, which is being piloted at Highfield prior to wider publication. Clarke can’t bear the wishy-washy methods of the Cambridge Latin Course and feels that ‘Caecilius est in horto’ is a completely useless piece of information for anyone who needs to learn how Latin actually works. ‘It doesn’t give you the tools you require to translate anything.’ His book is illustration-free and he’s proud of it: ‘I can’t remember a textbook that was really made better by a picture of a pot.’ In four years, his book and his entertaining but rigorous teaching method will take pupils all the way from ‘amo, amas, amat’ to the near-GCSE level required for a scholarship to a top public school.

If Latin is learned in this way, Clarke believes, pupils will reach a level at which they can really understand and relish the syntax of Virgil, and then the fun can really start. ‘Then we can start reading Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis,’ and I’m working on some Doctor Who translations – mainly because “Tardis” and “Metebelis 3” decline. But you’ve got to get there first.’

The vital element that seems to have been lost from Latin teaching, Clarke feels, is ‘prose composition’, or translating from English into Latin. For some reason, teachers seem to believe that this is ‘too difficult’ for pupils; whereas, in Clarke’s experience, if pupils start translating from English into Latin from day one, it is one of the most enjoyable aspects, ‘like doing a good sudoku’. Even at scholarship level, prose composition is optional. But ‘If you want your son to get a scholarship to Eton,’ Clarke says, ‘my advice is, do the prose composition. Very few take that option, and you can excel.’