Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Sententiae

As I was out and about this morning, unwisely braving Columbus Day sales and other ravages of American civilization, something (never mind what; unimportant) caught my attention. Momentarily confused, I muttered to myself, “Quid est?” What is it?

It occurred to me in that moment that when I say phrase that out loud, it’s in my voice … but when I think it to myself, I do so in a different voice. I say it in Mrs. Lowe’s voice.

 

Shirley Lowe was my seventh- and eighth-grade Latin teacher. (I never called her, have never called her, and probably will never call her Shirley in person. In print, of course.) “Quid est?” would occasionally appear on some of our Latin homework papers, in red ink, if she didn’t think we’d quite gotten the translation right, or if we wrote an answer that didn’t quite grasp the point of the question. Or, on occasion, if she really genuinely wasn’t sure what we meant but was curious to know.

We liked Mrs. Lowe – after the first six weeks of school, during which time she was the “strictest teacher who ever lived!!” Our frail middle-school selves were hit head-on by what we took to be an almost unreasonably demanding, strict, unyielding teacher. Welcome to junior-high; it’s not quite as cozy and color-inside-the-lines as elementary school was, eh?

It wasn’t until mid-October that we started to glimpse the actual truth, which was: Mrs. Lowe wasn’t just making us work really really hard for her own amusement, but for a larger purpose, and we actually did come to appreciate that she wouldn’t let us get away with slacking off. And somewhere in the dead of that seventh-grade winter, we realized she had a wicked sense of humor. And she liked us (as long as we did our homework!). I’m not sure she was actively obeying the “don’t smile until after Christmas” teacher guideline, but by January, we knew she was one of our favorite teachers.

We learned Latin forms and grammar. We learned vocabulary. We translated textbooks’ ideas of common Latin phrases. I have no idea whether the ancient Romans spent as much time obsessing about agricolae (farmers) and ranae (frogs) as our textbook did, but you will note that the word agricola is perilously close to “agriculture”, and aha! Behold! Eheu! Latin words revealed themselves as the roots, the gateway words to Italian (of course) and Spanish and French (sort of) and German (well, maybe) and English definitely!, and if you know Latin, you can fake your way through reading several other languages, and THAT’S useful! Surely? Yes, dangit, and stop calling me Shirley!

Sorry.

I’m not sure whether anyone has ever described the transition from tadpole to frog as “ranafication”. Or described the transition from frog (smooch) to prince (smooch smooch) as “antiranafication”. But I’ve found that Latin can foster verbal creativity, and certainly, no ancient Romans are around to critique my inventions, so, bleah on them.

We declined nouns and conjugated verbs; we learned that Latin words had genders associated with them (what’s that about?! – rana, ranae, feminine. Did the Roman Empire have male frogs?). We even learned a joke from Mrs. Lowe, about weird advanced verb forms: the Latin word for “to pig out” was “pigo, pigere, squeali, gruntum”. (It’s not, but she got a chuckle out of us.) And when we’d finished our classwork, we were allowed to take the “Asterix and Obelix” graphic novels down from the bookshelves and pass them around. Prize!

More than a prize; a gateway to the other part of Latin class. We learned about ancient Rome, ancient Romans, ancient Roman culture, the Roman Empire, togas, the Roman military machine, catapults (cooool), aqueducts, et cetera. (See? Latin.) I still joke that I survived Latin class in junior high and high school thanks to the stabbings in the Senate and the chariot races and the Coliseum and the gods on Mount Olympus who were as snarky and misbehavior-ridden as they were immortal. But I say that only half-jokingly, I think. What was named on the class syllabus as “Cultural Background” was the portion of that syllabus where I threw myself into high gear. This part of class was what got my snarky little creative mind going, to the point that when I hit high school and discovered that the Latin Club (–there’s a Latin Club!!–) produced an annual classical-mythology-themed musical show that was usually written by students … I knew all that attention I’d paid to Cultural Background was going to finally pay off.

Still though, about those vocabulary words, and forms, and conjugations and declensions, and word order with the verbs at the end of sentences … (…and I was just thinking that it’s a good thing that “The Empire Strikes Back” was released just after I finished junior high, because I couldn’t have stopped myself from informing Mrs. Lowe that Latin word order is suspiciously similar to Yoda Grammar) … many times in my life I’ve heard the question, “what good is Latin as a language?” It’s a dead language. No one speaks it anymore, at least as a language of doing business with the world. Might as well be trying to communicate in Aramaic or Sumerian. If you’re a biologist, Latin is helpful if you want to name a new species, perhaps. Or if you need the aforementioned help with quick decoding of Latin’s descendant languages. But other than that?

Well. Aside from giving one the ability to laugh even harder at some of the jokes in “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” … a couple of things, perhaps.

 

One thing I remember vividly about my seventh- and eighth-grade Latin classes with Mrs. Lowe was her daily or close-to-daily routine: at the beginning of every class, we were to copy into our notes a famous Latin phrase, listed on the chalkboard at the back of the classroom. Sometimes we recognized the words as vocabulary items we were already familiar with; sometimes the vocab was new to us, but the phrases meant a bit more than just a string of Latin words. They were called “sententiae”.

The dictionary’s (partial) definition of sententiae is: “opinion, view, judgment; … meaning, sense; sentence; maxim.” Another assessment of sententiae that I found is this: “brief aphorisms from ancient sources, quoted without context; popular in the Middle Ages as a form of rhetoric.”

Sometimes they were fairly bland: “ab ovo usque ad mala” (from eggs to apples). Sometimes they were less mysterious and more useful: “ad nauseam” (to the point of sickness or disgust), or “cum grano salis” (with a grain of salt), or “caveat emptor” (buyer beware).

Sometimes they were meant to inspire: “ad astra per aspera” (to the stars through difficulties), or “carpe diem” (seize the day, said Horace), or “pax vobiscum!” (peace be with you), or “possunt quia posse videntur” (they can because they think they can). Sometimes they were Roman history: “veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered,” reported Caesar, speaking of his military conquest of Gaul with muscular understatedness; what’s Latin for “you and whose army?”?).

Sometimes they were philosophical: “ars longa, vita brevis” (art is long, life is short). Sometimes they could be taken with us to Social Studies class: “e pluribus unum” (one [country] out of many [states]), or “ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem” (“with the sword she seeks quiet peace under liberty,” the motto of Our Faire Commonwealth of Massachusetts).

Sometimes they were a comment: “non compos mentis” (not in possession of one’s senses). Sometimes they were a subtle (or not) hint: “labor omnia vincit” (work conquers all). Do your homework, kids.

 

Through these little snippets, Mrs. Lowe introduced us to ideas that went beyond vocab quizzes and scale models of Roman architecture. “Divide et impera” meant divide and conquer, and it had more than a little to do with useful techniques for imposing one’s governing will on a large group of less-than-aware people. Speaking of under-educated or ill-informed populations, “timendi causa est nescire” meant “ignorance is the cause of fear,” a quote from the Roman author Seneca that has a little more “war on terror”-ish resonance and relevance now than maybe it did when we were 13 years old.

And part of our Cultural Background studies included, in a sense, watching as the mighty Roman Empire decayed from within and eventually, unthinkably, impossibly, but inevitably, fell. The phrase “bread and circuses” sometimes comes to mind if I stumble onto reality TV. I’m not sure whether “people who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” is a Latin sententiae or not, but it could be, and it ought to be. Some of those people, ignorant of history, are (or wish to be) charged with shaping the immediate and distant future of OUR population, and I suspect they didn’t study Latin with Mrs. Lowe or anybody remotely like her.

Which is their loss. Let us work to make sure that it doesn’t turn, by extension, into ours as well. Labor omnia vincit.

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October 10, 2011 - Posted by | education, literature, Starred Thoughts, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. Rob! As a Latin minor and an English major, this really hit home. Just as you said, folks think that Latin is a dead language (“The only good language is a dead language” was a popular slogan over at the fifth floor of Herter Hall at UMass-Amherst when Prof. Ed Phinney was department chair at the Classics Department.) When we overlook the culture upon which our government was modeled by removing a seemingly useless language from our schools, we also remove the opportunity to learn from that culture’s mistakes. Very few schools in my area actually still offer Latin, even though its value goes far beyond its enrichment of vocabulary. It is a terrible loss and a great mistake to discount Latin’s value. As you said, Labor omnia vincit. I just loved that as it was the motto of my high school, but if you asked current students what it means, I think you might be hard pressed to find too many who actually know its translation. Hooray for Latin teachers and those who find value in the teaching of the Classics!

    Comment by Mary | October 10, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] Solution? Simple. Re-visit Latin class. […]

    Pingback by Practice What You Preach, Part III « Editorial License | August 24, 2013 | Reply

  3. Salve, Rob,

    On a whim today, I googled “Shirley Lowe” to see if I could find a way to get in touch with her – she was my Latin teacher in 7th and 8th grade too. While I didn’t find her on the internet (not too surprising I suppose!), I did really enjoy reading your post about her (especially as I am actually a Latin teacher now! and I teach my students new sententiae with every vocab list we do, in honor of Mrs. Lowe – although I am not obsessed with ranae – for me it is feles obesae…). Anyway, I loved reading about someone else who enjoyed her class as much as I did.

    Best,
    Rebecca
    (Wayand class of 2000)

    Comment by Rebecca Walters | September 10, 2013 | Reply


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