Palimpsest

 

 

Our beloved Latin teacher gave us so much more than Latin lessons. His knowledge base was so great that art, music, cultural analysis, poetry and word-perfect quotes co-mingled with Latin grammar and vocabulary. But the words. Oh, the words. Inevitably, in dulcet tones, he prefaced his remarks, “Now here’s a word you will need to know.” And I, silly girl who thought she had, ahem, an advanced vocabulary, would hear him pronounce a word I had never read, heard, seen, smelt or tasted.  Never ever.

It’s a wonder my eyes don’t permanently face backward, with all the mental eye-rolling I performed.  Hah! How could it be such an important word? I’ve never even heard of it!  Ah, the arrogance, the pure high-octane arrogance. <blushes>

You know what would follow: that word would crop up here, there and everywhere within days and weeks of my learning it.  But now I owned that word. It was mine.

And to this day it is a sweet delight to read a word taught to me by my beloved Latin scholar.

Palimpsest is one of those words. It means ‘a manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next.’  Imagine a monk in a scriptorium with no skins to write on, but a vast library close by. He finds something he believes is obscure, scrapes the hide, and carries on with his copying.

Last night I found my old friend palimpsest in relation to a DOG (!) in Alexander McCall Smith’s novel Love Over Scotland.

…Cyril [Angus’s dog] was rapidly diverted from this agreeable fantasy to the real world of smells for a dog, and Drummond Place, though familiar territory, was rich in possibilities; each passer-by left a trail that spoke to where he had been and what he had been doing — a whole history might lie on the pavement, like song-lines across the Australian Outback, detectable only to those with the necessary nose. Other smells were like a palimpsest: odour laid upon odour, smells that could be peeled off to reveal the whiff below.

 

 

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Advice to Small Children

Advice to Small Children  by Edward Anthony (1895-1971)

Eat no green apples
   or you’ll droop,
Be careful not
   to get the croup,
Avoid the chicken-pox
   and such,
And don’t fall out
   of windows much.

I can’t help myself. 

This odd little poem reminds me of one of my favorite words.

Defenestration.

The act of throwing someone or something out the window.

From the Latin fenestra, window.

(I guess I’m not out of my Latin stage, after all.)

N.B.

 

Yesterday, I made a page for this blog at Facebook.

I wondered, again, why I chose such a difficult name for my blog. Magistra is Latin for (female) teacher; Mater means mother. I was telegraphing my bent toward classical home education. I was deep in my Latin Stage, in which I interrupted you whenever you used a word whose Latin root I had recently learned.

You: “My kids don’t pay attention when—“

Me: “Attention literally means to stretch toward.”

You: (questioning stare) (pause)

You:  “…well, I need to monitor their—“

Me: “Monitor literally means to warn.”

You: “…um, so I’ll just put in a video…”

Me:  “I see.”

If I were to start a blog today, Nana Babe would be a better moniker.  My grandsons call me Nana, my husband calls me Babe

I could shorten it to N.B. which is also short for Nota Bene which, ahem, is (I blush to say) Latin for pay attention.

[…and if you want to follow the blog through Facebook you can find me there at Magistra Mater…]

Fizzy Fact of the Year

Our friend Steve was describing a birding trip he recently enjoyed.  In real life he doctors most of our family, but he is a credentialed ornithologist and a hoot to be around.  My husband, a bird-watcher from way back, can appreciate the rarity of a grackle sighting in our valley, and show proper enthusiasm.  Me — I sit back on my perch and enjoy their chat even though most of it flies over my head.   

Then Steve rocked my nest by casually mentioning there are dialects in birdsongs, a fact proven by sonograms of the songs.  There are variations between different parts of the country, but there can even be a variation from one valley to the next.  Why does that fizz and sizzle in my bird brain?  Does anyone else find that Absolutely Fascinating? 

I jumped on Google to scratch around.  And promptly ordered The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong (which comes with a CD).  Reviews of the book here.  I gleaned some quotes from an NPR story about Don Kroodsma and this book.

“Birds have song dialects just like we humans have dialects.”

After some intense listening and study,
Kroodsma concluded that, just as with people,
where a bird learned a song
is just as important as a bird’s genealogy.
He noticed in his travels that birds of the same species
but in different states sang the same song,
but with their own unique “accents.”

And, because I’m a “word bird” here is a great group.

Grex, gregis – Latin for flock.  From it we get gregarious (seeking and enjoying the company of others); aggregate (gathered into a group); segregate (divided into separate groups); egregious (something remarkably awful) literally means outstanding, or to stand out from the flock (the e at the beginning is a shortened form of ex, out).  But my favorite grex derivative is congregate (to gather or flock together). 

A Natural History of Latin

This book is for everyone who wants to know more about Latin,
about the language and about its influence on the culture and history of Europe.
(opening sentence)

I have written in the past about my beloved Latin teacher, Magister Dilectus. Learning Latin from such a scholar was one of the great benefits from God which I do not want ever to forget. Naturally, when I share my story, I get wistful sighs and yearning looks.  Reading A Natural History of Latin is the best, albeit poor in comparison, substitute to having a Latin scholar for a teacher.  As I turned the pages of this book, I fondly remembered the narrative of our teacher on the same subject. 

If you are striving to learn more than vocabulary, declensions and conjugations, this is the book to round out your understanding of both ancient and medieval culture, a book that will put the Latin you are learning into context.  One thing I can assure you: you don’t need to know a speck of Latin to read this book.  Every single Latin word is translated for you.

For instance, take Latin pronunciation.  I loved when Mr. F. would recite some text of Latin from memory, the mellifluous tones beautiful sounds, even if there was no comprehension of the words. Many students have been taught that since no one knows how it was pronounced, just say a Latin word as if it were an English word. [Screeching nails on the chalkboard!! Can you imagine listening to a choir sing a Latin text as if it were English?] There are a few reliable clues that get us very close to original pronunciation.  Loanwords, words taken from Latin into another language, are helpful.  Caesar is easy to pronounce in Latin if you just think of the German word Kaiser.  When archeology digs uncovered graffiti on the walls of Pompei which had been covered by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the misspelled words offered clues to the phonetic pronunciation of those words.  

Our beloved teacher introduced us to medieval Latin poetry: the pounding trochaic lines in Dies Irae, the lugubrious Stabat Mater, and the playful Carmina Burana.  You can learn more about these if you read this book.  

If words and dialects fascinate you, if connections between languages are your “love language”, the first chapter is worth the price of the book. 

Interestingly, the modern pronunciation in many Scottish dialects is nearer to that of Latin because they did not undergo the same vowel changes as the dialects south of the border. 

One trick is to look for systematic patterns of sound correspondence.  One such is that an English f often corresponds to a Latin p, as in English father beside Latin pater, or English fish beside Latin piscis.

That one is fairly straightforward, but there are more surprising ones that can still be shown to be valid.  For example, Latin qu sometimes corresponds to English f, sometimes to v, so that English five can be proved to be connected with Latin quinque.  

All that fun from one page (p.11) of this book! Here’s more:

Many Latin words which began ca were changed in Old French so that they had the initial sound which we spell ch.  In many cases it is the French form which ends up in English, e.g. chapel, chart, chapter beside Latin capella ‘chapel’, charta ‘document’, capitulum ‘heading’,but sometimes we end up with both as in the case of channel and canal,  or enchant beside incantation, both, from in ‘in’ + cantare ‘sing’.  p. 165

Neuralgia, which means ‘nerve pain’, comes from the Greek words neuron ‘nerve’ and algia ‘pain’, and in Greek the prefix a-/an- marks a negative, as in amoral, so an analgesic is something that takes away pain. In fact, almost all our medical terms come from Latin or Greek. p. 149

I have to sit on my hands.  There are so many more wonderful passages about words. 

This book is criticized on Amazon for being written at a high school reading level.  I see that as a strength, not as a fault.  Many of us who desire to teach our children a language which we first need ourselves to learn are easily intimidated.  I do have a criticism of A Natural History of Latin.  The author’s viewpoint is decidedly secular, and to a point almost anti-Christian.  Here is an example: For someone who is not a Christian many of his [Augustine’s] ideas are strange or even repulsive.  This is especially true of the idea of original sin, the idea that man is born evil and has to be redeemed by the Saviour.  I could read around these occasional statements and enjoy the rest.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the long suffering patience of my friend Brenda at TanabuGirl. When she put her copy of this book in my hand and said, “take your time”, I don’t think she meant 15 months.  Brenda was one of the original 33 students who read Latin with our beloved teacher and one of the three remaining students six years later.  She now teaches at a Classical Christian School and has started a private blog Latin Pagina.  If you are interested in the notes of a Latin teacher, and ask really nicely [message her at TanabuGirl] I bet she’d let you be a guest and read what she is doing.  Thank you my friend.  This book will be on your desk Monday morning. Dominus vobiscum.

Random Thoughts

First things first: 

The winner of the book giveaway is ……. Janie!  She guessed $54 and I spent $53.63.  Is it the Cullum you’d like, my friend?  I’m headed to the post office this afternoon.  I’m delighted to have found something for which you’ve long been looking.  [Addendum: How fun!  The book she was excited about was Shake Hands with Shakespeare by Albert Cullum. Today is Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday. Have you ever thought about dying on your birthday? Yeah, I’m weird.]

When the price was 50¢/inch I usually spent $35 at the sale.  So it makes sense to me ($35 * 1.5 = $52.50) that  when the price rose to 75¢/inch I spent $53.  Happily, my husband just bought new arrows for his bow so we are both indulged.  For incredible bargains, check out what Carrie got at her library sale for a total of  $1.75!!  Woo hoo indeed!

☼     ☼     ☼     ☼     ☼

Here’s a sample quote from the book Conversation  by Theodore Zeldin.  I’m not impressed with the book, but I liked this quote (emphasis mine):

Shopping for food is a game of hide-and-seek, with packagers concealing their secrets in small print.  The time will come, I hope, when those who influence our ideas on food, the writers of newspaper articles about restaurants, and the makers of TV cooking shows, will begin to discuss the quality of the conversation which their delicious meals induce, and not concentrate only on the decor of restaurants, or the technicalities of recipes.

☼     ☼     ☼     ☼     ☼

If you like choral music, I’d recommend Morten Lauridsen’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium.  The Lauridsen is  number 5 on this CD. The first sentence would be a good lesson for a young Latin student (with help given on the hard words).  The music is perfectly paired to the text.  We heard this at a concert last night and the tears just rolled down my cheeks.  It was so beautiful that it hurt.

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum
natum jacentem in praesepio.

O great wonder, miraculous sacrament:
the beasts of the field have seen the Lord,
new-born and lying in a manger.

Magister Dilectus (Beloved Teacher)

Janie asked me to write a post about this Latin teacher whom I refer to so often. I solicited essays from two friends who also studied Latin.  Bonnie at Btolly and Brenda at Tanabu Girl are writing today about our beloved Mr. F. (We always called him Mister even though he was a Ph.D.) Together we have a trifecta tribute!

When we decided to learn Latin, we were desperate for help.  After a year of groping on our own towards one handhold of understanding I started praying and making phone calls.  I randomly asked people over 50 if they knew Latin.  “Well, not really; I took it in high school but don’t remember a thing,”  was the general response.  One phone call followed another as we tracked the scent of a Latin teacher. 

Eventually I was led to a professor at our local university and she was intrigued with the idea, but didn’t imagine where she would find time.  The next words out of her mouth changed our lives.  “You need to call Dr. F.  He is a retired classics professor who recently moved here with his wife.”  As luck would have it (heh heh) my husband had been contracted to do some work in their home.  My husband told me to wait in calling Dr. F. until he’d done a little background check of his own.  He came home one day and exclaimed, “Do you know how many languages this guy knows?  And he knows Biblical Greek!”  But more than anything, he was impressed with Mr. F’s attitude.  He was not pompous, arrogant, or weird – quite the opposite.

There are moments in your life that are indelibly imprinted on your brain.  I remember odd details about making the “cold call” to Dr. F.  For privacy and peace I was in our garage shivering and staring out the window of the garage door and contemplating the spider webs above the header.  After he answered the phone I explained who I was and that I represented a group of about 25, mostly kids and some parents, who would like to learn Latin; would he be willing to teach us?  His first response was, “Do you know what you are getting yourself into?  It’s not quite the same as learning Spanish.”  To which I rejoined that we would be willing to give it a try if he would be willing to take us on.

So began six years of the best teaching I have ever received.  We met one night a week for two hours so our progress was necessarily slow.  I think we went back to the beginning of Wheelock’s four or five times to shore up our faulty foundation.  Here was a man who had taught the best and brightest grad students, a shining star in the world of classics, drilling young teens on the rudiments of Latin patiently, carefully, without a hint of condescension.   I showed him my nephew’s Latin book; as he looked at the author’s name on the title page he exclaimed, “Oh my, yes! I had this fellow for a student.”

So we learned Latin.  We learned the idiom (at times he corrected the Wheelock answer to make it more idiomatically correct); we learned grammar; we declined nouns and conjugated verbs.  He told us that we were taught femina because it’s a first declension noun; however, mulier is the more common word in Latin for woman. Beyond that we learned the stories behind the sentences which we translated.  Ah, the stories! Mr. F has an encyclopedic memory and could connect words and sentences to stories from classical antiquity, medieval lore, literary episodes and current events. My boys soaked up the story of the battle of Marathon as told by the beloved Mr. F.  Wheelock’s Latin was just a springboard for teaching.  His examples to illustrate a concept came from the wide world of his reading and study.  I’ll never, no never, forget when he showed us the ethical dative and quoted Jane Austen using it. Who knew you could find the ethical dative in Jane Austen?

The Latin class became a culture class: we listened to Carmina Burana and other pieces of classical music.  He would bring a painting out and give us a lesson in art appreciation as he explained elements of the art.  He read us poems, excerpts from literature, a column from the Wall Street Journal.  We read through some Latin psalms, early church hymns, Latin poems.  A Homerian scholar, he quoted us Dido’s story in the Greek and explained it to us.  He showed us humor in unexpected places. Mr. F. was several times a guest lecturer in my co-op literature classes. 

The F’s love to name inanimate objects.  Their car was Abishag: a comfort in their old age.  They lived on a lovely piece of land and enjoyed cultivating and husbanding the property.  Mentally they divided it into the twelve tribes of Israel; Mr. F would tell his wife, “I’ll be working on Asher this morning.”  I can’t remember half of the great names they had but they were clever and fun.  Soon he will retire a second time and they will move back east.  The house they have purchased is grander than any they have previously lived in.  Their name for it? Pemberly!

At some point the class shifted from Mr. F’s house to our house.  Magister Dilectus and his wife joined us for dinner before class began.  Although we came from different perspectives theologically and perhaps philosophically, we enjoyed sweet times of communion around our table.  We now regard each other as life-long friends.  When I wish to give myself a special treat, a phone call visit with these dear friends is the thing.   

One of our first students went on to a well-respected liberal arts college (and is now a medical doctor).  When one of his professors asked Eric how he came to know Latin as a home schooler he mentioned Mr. F’s name.  His professor’s eyes bugged out and he said, “How did you get time with him?”  Eric replied that Mr. F. had retired and lived in his home town.  Thus began guest lectures at this college and eventually an invitation to return to teaching.  And our beloved Latin teacher and his equally beloved wife (a scholar in her own right) moved away to a new stage in their lives. 

By the end of our class we were down to three students; we had completed 36 of the 40 chapters of Wheelock’s.  But we learned a wealth of information, and had been infected with a desire to learn, to ask questions, to seek wisdom, to love truth, beauty and goodness. 

I may or may not pursue further formal studies when my stint as MagistraMater (teacher/mom) is completed. This one thing I know with knowledge deep in my bones: my Latin class with Mr. F. will be my Golden Age of learning.  Multiple times daily I look at a word and see the Latin behind it.  I feel like I’ve been given a secret code or a special set of glasses that makes the bright colors pop out.   My world has been expanded far beyond my expectations. 

How does one express her gratitude for such a gift?

                                                                                        

       

        Beloved Teacher,

        Nothing is better than a life of greatest diligence.