Latin, language and burning rubber in bedroom

Peter Richardson was one of Australia's longest running columnists.
Peter Richardson was one of Australia's longest running columnists. Cade Mooneycm

THE debate on whether Latin should be brought back into the approved school curriculum has taken me back some  70 years to my one-year study of the  "dead language".

Latin is far from buried, used as it is in medicine, law, botany and many other fields in which precision of terminology and meaning is critical.

 As recorded in my memoir Aged in the Ink, Latin was a compulsory subject for academic students at Toowoomba Grammar School and was taught by the legendary headmaster, HE Roberts.

The initials were apt.

At TGS, he was God.

His entrance to the classroom for our first period was pure theatre.

Head held high, black gown swirling, books under one arm, he strode imperiously into the classroom and instantly had us under total control.

Like it or not, we would learn Latin, and Heaven help us if we did not meet his expectations. 

He made no effort to coax us into an appreciation of the "dead" language and an understanding of its relevance to the study of so much else.

He merely set the learning and translation tasks, punished us if we did not carry them out to his satisfaction, and maintained iron discipline.   

No, I did not enjoy that year of Latin. I found the endless repetition of declensions and conjugations soporific, and was in constant fear of HE's wrath, but elementary though my learning was, its clues to derivation and meaning have saved me countless references to the dictionary.

Those memories  remind me of a letter to the editor in my days at the Toowoomba  Chronicle.

It read something like this:"While digging in my vegetable garden, I came across a metal utensil of some kind bearing the inscription 'Iti sapis potanda tino ne'. I take this to be some kind of dog Latin, but would be pleased if any of your readers could provide an accurate translation."

The editor, however, was not taken in, and the letter went straight on to the spike. I am sure, dear reader, that you too will quickly twig what a rearrangement of the word spacing would yield.

If not, sleep on it and all will be revealed.

Burning rubber in the bedroom

MUCH to my mortification, I must admit to a heinous wordsmithing sin. In my last blog, a possessive impersonal pronoun appeared as it's instead of its .… and not just once, but twice.

   I am at a loss to know how those rogue apostrophes found their way into the piece, as I have often railed against the way they are now scattered mindlessly through so much text, but needless to say, I roundly apostrophised the gremlin

    This episode, however, was hardly the most embarrassing in my writing career. As a 16-year-old cadet journalist, I wrote in my report of a suburban house fire that "Mr and Mrs --were in bed when they smelt rubber burning."

     Needless to say, the newsroom erupted when the sub-editor read out my gaffe. I was mystified by the laughter - until he lectured me on the need to watch for double meanings.

That lesson, though, has served me well, reminding me that if I drop my guard, what I write may not be what I mean.

Finding media meaningless in age of social

CALL me a pedant well past my use-by date if you will, but don't put me down as an opponent of change.  Language is a living thing, and change is a part of life, but, when clarity of meaning is compromised, we have a problem.

    Through the ebb and flow of common usage, new words and ways of using them have always  entered the language as others have been are discarded.

    Some "progressives" hold that spelling, syntax and punctuation are unimportant so long as the meaning is clear, but surely that is the principal purpose of  the grammar we learned, or used to learn.

   A few years ago, I came across a Manual of English Grammar an Composition, used by the Montville State Primary School in 1912.

Four hundred pages of dense explanation, instruction and example, with lots of tests, many of which were completely beyond me.

     If I were to sit for an examination based on this textbook taught in primary school, I would fail miserably but those children had the rules of the linguistic road drilled into them well and truly, and I have no doubt that this stood at least
some of them in good stead later in life. Now, as those road rules are increasingly ignored, the vehicle of meaning could well crash.

     Thanks largely to the wonders of the internet, the "anything goes" attitude so evident  in the social media,  and the thoughtless copying of  unchecked spelling, ill- constructed sentences and acronymic jargon,  clarity of meaning is often lost, even in the writings of professional communicators.

      Because English is an ever-evolving language, however, its rules cannot be set in stone. They need updating and fine tuning to accommodate the dictates of common usage, and unless they continue to serve clarity, insistence on them becomes mere pedantry.

    Deliberate rule-breaking, of course, has always pushed out the frontiers of literary expression, but most of the great writers learned the rules before they broke them, much as a celebrated visual artist learns about perspective and then opts to distort or ignore it.

      Our governments have belatedly realised that nationwide levels of literacy need to be raised.

To what extent this will involve a return to some of the basics while also catering for the imperatives of the digital communication revolution remains to be seen, and the problem arises: Who will teach the teachers?
    I leave to others the debate on the ultimate question:  Does it matter?

Topics:  curriculum english language latin peter richardson social media

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