Joseph Manning kindly called my attention to this post by Kathleen Coleman on the blog of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS): "Nondum Arabes Seresque rogant: Classics Looks East" (2/2/16). The Latin quotation is from a poem written by Statius to mark the inauguration of Domitian’s seventeenth consulship in AD 95. It means "nor yet do the Arabs and Chinese file petitions", something that the Romans hoped they would one day submit.
Before proceeding, I would like to point out that the Society for Classical Studies (currently based at the University of Pennsylvania) was founded in 1869 as the American Philological Association, and that the name was changed to its present one in 2013. I believe that the shift from "philology" to "Classical Studies" reflects a profound difference in approach, outlook, and goals between those who are currently engaged in research on our Greco-Roman heritage and the methods and aims of the Society a century and a half ago. This transformation was highlighted in a conference on "The Language of the Past and the Future of Ancient Studies" that was held at Penn on October 16 and 17, 2015.
Mark Liberman and I both participated in the conference, and I can say for myself that I detected no little anxiety about the state of the field among the participants on the whole, which is not to say that it wasn't an excellent meeting of minds. Indeed, the papers and the discussions were of high quality and stimulating in nature. Still, those in attendance were wondering where Classical Studies would be ten or twenty years from now (or even whether it would be). That is to say, they were concerned about the health of what used to be called "philology" but, for one reason or another, is now called "Classical Studies".
For some personal reflections on this vital issue, see "Philology and Sinology" (4/20/14).
This same sense of uneasiness about the future of philology / Classical Studies is clearly reflected in Coleman's post, which was originally delivered as part of "The Future of Classical Education: A Dialogue", a panel at the 147th annual meeting of the SCS in San Francisco (1/8/16).
The essay is divided into four main sections:
Contact and Comparison
Rome and China
The Study of the Greco-Roman Classics in Asia
The Problem of Languages
Naturally, I am intensely interested in the last section, from which I shall quote the first two paragraphs:
I would now like to return to the issue that recurred in so many of my conversations with the scholars I met in Beijing—the difficulty of mastering the ancient languages—and set it beside the difficulty for western scholars trying to learn the oriental languages. To do so, I asked one of our graduate students, James Zainaldin, who started Chinese this past summer and is now in the intermediate course, to describe his experience. His goal in learning Chinese is twofold, mapping directly on to the two halves of my enquiry in this paper. One goal is the comparative purpose, working directly with Chinese texts to test which features of the discourse and development of Greco-Roman knowledge traditions are uniquely related to the political, social, and intellectual conditions of the Mediterranean world, and which are, rather, universal and, thus, of wider “anthropological” significance. The other goal is that James wants to be able to establish contacts and communicate with scholars of the western classics who work in China, and to be able to contribute to the development of that international community.
In a nutshell, James pointed out to me that Chinese is easier than the classical languages in that there are no verb conjugations; no noun declensions; no singular and plural forms of nouns; no noun genders; no inflection of adjectives; in sum, no requirements for inflected agreement between nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Sentence order is typically very strict. But Chinese is much harder in respect of the difficult tonal system in speaking; a variety of difficult consonants and vowels; challenging and sometimes idiomatic use of grammatical particles in lieu of inflected forms; a character-based writing system with a large number of intricate characters, many of which are different in simplified and traditional forms. In James’s estimation, the most challenging aspect of learning Chinese is the fact that its unique difficulties—the tones and characters—do not admit of methodical solutions. While students learn ways of mitigating the inflectional and grammatical complexity of Greek and Latin through analyzing the form and grammatical function of individual words, clauses, and sentences, when it comes to learning Chinese characters, on the other hand, there is no comparable “method” except constant revision and rewriting. Visually, the characters often seem very similar, and there are few clues to the precise meaning or pronunciation of a character simply from its appearance, although familiarity with “radicals,” the strokes that are the building blocks of characters, affords some small help. Similar difficulties apply to the tones. And, as if that weren’t enough, the language of pre-modern and archaic Chinese texts behaves differently from modern Chinese and comes with its own difficulties, entailing the necessity for students to pursue a dedicated reading course (offered at some elite institutions) alongside a traditional Chinese language course. The investment of time becomes simply overwhelming.
It is evident from the description of the language that James is learning and his goal in learning it that he is studying modern Chinese, most likely Mandarin. If James were my student (in Greco-Roman Classical Studies), I would have him study Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS / CC), not Mandarin. Nevertheless, what he says about the easy and difficult aspects of "Chinese" (i.e., Mandarin) are right on the mark. Now, if James were studying LS / CC, the difficulties would be vastly compounded, because it has all of the difficulties of modern Chinese languages (primarily the extremely refractory characters) plus a terseness, allusiveness, and opacity that can be quite staggering, if not maddening.
At Harvard, where Coleman teaches, Steve Owen tells me that, in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, there is no strict Mandarin requirement for LS / CC:
Some years ago–for both intellectual and institutional reasons–we made Classical an "East Asian Language" rather than purely Chinese. Japanese students can read it out as kambun; Korean, Vietnamese–and for that matter Cantonese–students can read it out in the local way…. One has to have a certain number of characters, but we require no Mandarin. Usually students from the Chinese track have a couple of years.
Similarly, Shengli Feng, who was formerly in charge of the Chinese Language Program at Harvard, related:
As far as I remember, there were no requirements for taking beginning Classical Chinese because it was taught in English and the beginners would learn the characters and the words together without knowing Mandarin. So, there was no Mandarin prerequisite for students who wanted to learn beginning Classical Chinese.
At Penn, we do not have a Mandarin prerequisite, so students can, if they wish, dive right into LS / CC (I've even had students from Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin take my Introduction to LS / CC, and it is routine for students to come in directly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea not knowing Mandarin; I once had a student whose main languages were English, German, and Sogdian!). Our first-year LS / CC at Penn runs for two semesters (a whole year), so the students are pretty far along now.
On Thursday we had our Spring mid-term examination. I always test the students on a seen portion and an unseen passage. Because we go over the text in class together so very carefully, they usually do well on the seen passage, but often the unseen passage — for which I try to pick a text that is at about the same level of difficulty as the stage we're at in class at the time — completely throws the students for a loop. This time it happened that the students (2 from China, 2 with a Japanese background, 2 from the United States, 1 from Hong Kong, 1 from Vietnam, and 1 from Ghana) were stymied by the unseen passage that I gave them. They could understand all of the characters singly, and I even gave them additional vocabulary notes and explanations. But they just couldn't make sense of the passage as a whole nor even of its constituent sentences. Among the 9 students, only 2 could roughly figure out what was happening in the unseen passage. Of course, this is terribly frustrating for the students, but it is also good practice to push them to their limits to see what they can do unaided (like letting a child try to ride a bike without training wheels after a period of using them). In cases like what happened on Thursday, I tell the students that I will be lenient, so I'll add on 20 or 30 points to their grade because I fully realize how hard the test is. If they can get any part of it, I'm proud of them.
The unseen passage for Thursday was about language learning, so I'll give it here:
Téng Wén gōng xià 滕文公下 (Duke Wen of Teng, B), 11:
Mèngzǐ wèi Dài Bùshèng yuē:`Zi yù zǐ zhī wáng zhī shàn yǔ? Wǒ míng gào zi. Yǒu Chǔ dàfū yú cǐ, yù qí zǐ zhī Qí yǔ yě, zé shǐ Qí rén fù zhū? Shǐ Chǔ rén fù zhū?'
Mencius said to Dai Bu Sheng, 'I see that you are desiring your king to be virtuous, and will plainly tell you how he may be made so. Suppose that there is a great officer of Chu here, who wishes his son to learn the speech of Qi. Will he in that case employ a man of Qi as his tutor, or a man of Chu?'
Yuē:`Shǐ Qí rén fù zhī.'
'He will employ a man of Qi to teach him,' said Bu Sheng.
Yuē:`Yī Qí rén fù zhī, zhòng Chǔ rén xiū zhī, suī rì tà ér qiú qí Qí yě, bùkě dé yǐ; yǐn ér zhì zhī Zhuāng Yuè zhī jiān shù nián, suī rì tà ér qiú qí Chǔ, yì bùkě dé yǐ. Zi wèi Xuē Jūzhōu, shàn shì yě. Shǐ zhī jū yú wáng suǒ. Zài yú wáng suǒ zhě, zhǎngyòu bēizūn, jiē Xuē Jūzhōu yě, wáng shuí yǔ wéi bùshàn? Zài wáng suǒ zhě, zhǎngyòu bēizūn, jiē fēi Xuē Jūzhōu yě, wáng shuí yǔ wéi shàn? Yī Xuē Jūzhōu, dú rú Sòng wáng hé?'
Mencius went on, 'If but one man of Qi be teaching him, and there be a multitude of men of Chu continually shouting out about him, although his father beat him every day, wishing him to learn the speech of Qi, it will be impossible for him to do so. But in the same way, if he were to be taken and placed for several years in Zhuangyue*, though his father should beat him, wishing him to speak the language of Chu, it would be impossible for him to do so. You supposed that Xue Juzhou was a scholar of virtue, and you have got him placed in attendance on the king. Suppose that all in attendance on the king, old and young, high and low, were Xue Juzhous, whom would the king have to do evil with? And suppose that all in attendance on the king, old and young, high and low, are not Xue Juzhous, whom will the king gave to do good with? What can one Xue Juzhou do alone for the king of Song?'
*Name of a district in the heart of the capital of Qi.
The text I gave to my students had far less punctuation than this one, which comes from the Chinese Text Project. So it would be more demanding than the text as it is given here, which has full punctuation.
Which is harder, Greek and Latin or LS / CC? Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. For my money, LS / CC is a lot harder than Greek or Latin (or Sanskrit, for that matter), because the mastery of the former leaves so much up to informed intuition, which can only be gained by having read vast amounts of literature written in it — not to mention having to wrestle with the taxing characters day after day after day.
Purely by chance, I came across this quotation just before I was about to make this post:
Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow–it is a goldsmith's art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it enchant and entice us most, in the midst of an age of 'work,' that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once, including every old or new book:–this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers . . .
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Preface (to the Second Edition, 1887)
My sentiments exactly.
[Thanks to Xiaofei Tian, Wai-yee Li, Peter K. Bol, and Thomas Bartlett]