Sunday, January 6, 2008

tiberius at capri

Just read this today:

The keynote of modern pedagogy is a protest against tradition, whether in subject-matter or in methods of presentation. No subject of instruction has, when compared with other studies of the curriculum, so long a tradition behind it as has Latin. Inasmuch as every study in our modern system of education must, as is fitting, prove its ability to secure a definite result of actual worth, we shall first attempt to ascertain what credentials it needs to present to prove its right of admission as a subject of instruction.


Of this fact the writer can recall two instances, the one connected with arithmetic, the other with English grammar. His teacher in arithmetic insisted that in a case of division of fractions he must not invert the divisor and multiply, but work instead by the method of finding a greatest common divisor. The case in grammar was that complex system of “diagramming” a sentence by countless lines and sub-lines until the thing looked like a railroad map; wherein the grammatical interest of the sentence had long since yielded to its possibilities as a model in drawing. Studies and the methods employed in their elucidation must produce a definite and practical result; if their aim is mental gymnastic alone, they have no place in secondary schools. They may yield a return in dollars and cents; or they may explain the laws of nature and their relations to our bodies; or they may present the evolution of the races; or mould character, inculcate ideals, and develop a feeling for the beautiful; and the like. But some definite and practical result, bearing directly on life, each study must effect before we can admit it. The study of Latin will yield no particular financial return.

[Eugene A. Hecker. 1909. The Teaching of Latin in Secondary Schools, pp.1f.]

How refreshing to see sentence diagramming slammed in favor of studying Latin. The best way to learn grammar is to learn another language than one’s own.


Friday, January 4, 2008

comes nomen

I hang out at several words-related forums online: Wordcraft, Wordsmith, Word Origins, and Wordwizard. Most of the people are united by logophilia, but they tend to clump together into two distinct and oftentimes mutually antagonistic groups: the linguists and the old-school word mavens. The latter are openly hostile to any grammatical terminology or concepts developed later than the late-18th to mid-19th centuries. You know the drill: dictionaries are lax, school children need to have grammar beaten into them (and by grammar they usually mean usage), words must have a single meaning, no neologisms, diagramming sentences should be taught in schools again, etc. I’ve been mulling this over, because recently on one of the forums, a non-native speaker of English asked a question about count nouns. The general consensus seemed to be that the term (and concept) was less than useless. The discussion degenerated further. Of course, sentence diagramming tells us absolutely nothing about why a sentence is ungrammatical.