On how (not) to learn Latin via French

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And how (not) to learn Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese via Mandarin

A "Little Horatian Satire" by E. Bruce Brooks

A section of Classical Chinese Primer by E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks

The dominance of modern-Chinese based curricula may be inevitable in the present political climate, but it is objectively strange all the same. In practice, it prevents the classical language from being acquired by anyone who does not have a use for the usual prerequisite: two or three years of the modern language. The comparative philosophers and historians, the students of ancient technology, and those moved by mere intellectual and literary curiosity, are thus excluded at the outset. Is it healthy for the field, to have nobody to talk to in these neighboring disciplines? And what of the future Chinese classicists themselves, whose linguistic antennae are being tuned, by arduous toil, to a point 2,000 years later than the texts of primary interest to them?

What if the Mediterranean Classicists did as the Sinological Classicists do? An American college freshman with perfect SAT's and a burning desire to investigate the metrics of Horace walks into the Classics program advisor's office and announces her goal. She expects a welcome, and a fast-track Latin class. Instead, she gets the following:

Advisor [with his welcoming smile turned on]: Well, of course, that's a very natural impulse, a commendable impulse, but we have found over the years that a really firm command of Latin requires a solid grounding in the basic prerequisite, which is modern French. Not only is this linguistically a much better platform than English, from which to acquire a truly fluent grasp of Latin, but as a living and experienceable language, French can be mastered more fully than an extinct language like Latin ever can. We find that this living-language mastery carries over effectively into the pursuit of Latin over the whole course of an individual career. Besides, much of the best scholarship on Rome is written in French, many important conferences are held in France, and the tradition of classical studies is much more firmly rooted in French civilization than it is here in America, so that acquiring the French experience of these matters gives one's own classical studies what I may call a more secure psychological foundation. If one simply [deprecating little smile here] plunges on one's own into the study of Latin, one is liable to waste years chasing some perhaps original but ultimately unproductive notion, whereas by first acquainting oneself with the the living tradition, one finds out where the active work is going on, what the approaches are, what gets into print, and so on. This is of major importance in establishing a career.
Student: But I have these great SAT's! When can I start Latin?
Advisor [parental]: It's precisely your wonderful test results which promise a major career, and prompt us to be careful to establish your scholarly basis as soundly as possible. You will start with modern French, intensive, going to nonintensive in the second year. Normally a student would begin Latin in the third year of the program. .
Student: The . . . third . . . year??
Advisor: . . . but in your case [ingratiating smile], with those splendid SAT's, I would certainly recommend the deluxe program, which involves a junior year in Paris, with side trips to the famous Roman ruins, where you can get a firsthand sense of the power and the engineering skill of the Roman state, and also [confidential tone] take in some most delicious local cuisine. [Formal again] Now, usually our junior year abroad students come back to campus all fired up to take Latin in their fourth year . . .
Student [interrupting]: Fourth year? But I'm already fired up! I love Horace! I've been so impressed with reading his poems in English, and I simply can't wait to experience them in his own language, and . . .
Advisor [interrupting too]: Yes, yes, exactly, and it's that direct sensuous experience that is so essential in the study of any poetry. You see, Horace lives in the very fiber of every French poet of consequence, and for the senior thesis – of course, that occupies the entire senior year to the exclusion of regular coursework, and is an immersion in a topic of vital relevance to the long-term career plans of our most promising students – for the senior thesis topic, I should be inclined to recommend an in-depth study of Mallarmé . . .
Student: You mean I can't start Latin within the undergraduate curriculum??
Advisor [quickly]: No problem at all; I have not the slightest doubt but that for so outstanding a student, we can arrange a full graduate fellowship . . . teaching advanced French literature, for which [meaningful look] there is always a great demand. Of course, Latin is a wonderful language, a wonderful language, but at the same time [smiling at his own invincible logic], one must nourish the living language skills that one has with such effort acquired. And so, to be sure that our students maintain their momentum in French, we have adjusted our graduate instruction so that all courses, including Latin, are given in French . . .
Student: Do I understand you to say that after five years in this program I will be reading Horace in French?
Advisor [quickly]: Oh no, not at all; in Latin, of course. Pronounced in the best French national style, and discussed by the class in fluent French. Now let's see, ours is a rigorous and not a slapdash program, every stone in the tower being carefully laid on the one below, and so after a thorough beginning in Caesar, whose Gallic Wars are a wonderful counterpart to one's own experience of that same countryside, we reach Horace, let me see; yes, there is a series of his poems, or Chansons as we like to say, somewhere here in the third-year graduate syllabus . . .
Student: Four . . . plus three . . . is . . .
Advisor [a bit apologetic; coming to the crux]: Exactly, exactly, and so of course your doctoral dissertation cannot be precisely on Horace, as such, but you will find that a dissertation on, say, the influence of Horace on Mallarmé will have ever so much more value in the, ah, the job market, and . . .
Student: [walks down the hall and signs up for computer science].
Advisor: [works up his welcoming smile to face the next advisee].

Copyright © 2000- by E Bruce and A Taeko Brooks

This text may be accessed here and here.


Selected reading

[h.t. Terpomo]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 8:46 am

    Or Sanskrit via Hindi. Or Sogdian and Khotanese via Persian. Or Gothic via German. Or Old Church Slavonic via Russian. Or Tocharian via…. Or ….

  2. Dan Boucher said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 9:15 am

    This is basically correct I think. But the real reason students are sent to Mandarin ahead of wenyanwen is because wenyanwen teachers don’t want to bother introducing them to the Chinese script, something that doesn’t impede the novice in Latin. None of the primers of classical I know of really start from zero (I haven’t seen the Brooks primer if it’s now out). There needs to be a crash course intro to hanzi that could be done in the first 2-3 weeks of a literary course with new characters then learned along the way. I know in Buddhist studies many Indological students desperately need to read Chinese translations of Buddhist works but just can't take the time to do 2 years of Mandarin first. A primer that gets them from zero to reading faster would be a huge boon to them.

  3. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 9:22 am

    Academics (excuse me) who concentrate on the classical, historical forms or the literature of a language are sometimes the butt of jibes along the lines of …he may know everything about Old High German, but can't order a cup of tea in a café in Berlin…

  4. Scott P. said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 9:51 am

    he may know everything about Old High German, but can't order a cup of tea in a café in Berlin…

    Well of course not — the first European shipment of tea didn't arrive until the 17th century.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 12:43 pm

    From Miriam Robbins Dexter:

    I may not be able to identify with how Chinese is being taught, but I shudder to think of what my life would be like if I hadn't been allowed to take three years of Latin in high school (although all I could take in community college was French!) — and then so much more in upper division undergraduate in college.

  6. Margaret said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 2:44 pm

    That's what I was saying on the chinese forums site: if I try to work through Fuller, they don't give me enough pinyin for the example sentences. I know they give it for the texts and vocabulary, I understand Song, xiao guo ye, but after that there's too much looking up.

  7. Kinen Carvala said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 4:26 pm

    @Dan Boucher

    >[wenyanwen teachers don’t want to bother introducing them to the Chinese script…None of the primers of classical I know of really start from zero…](https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=54448#comment-1594793)

    [*A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings*](https://religiousstudies.stanford.edu/people/john-kieschnick/primer-chinese-buddhist-writings) by John Kieschnick and Simon Wiles has [a few introductory paragraphs on Chinese characters](http://www.primerbuddhism.org/volume1/vol1004.html) before [the student dives into vocabulary and reading Buddhist Classical Chinese sentences in Lesson 1](http://www.primerbuddhism.org/volume1/vol1006.html).

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 6:37 pm

    re: this analogy — 過猶不及 :/

    but the real issue is that there's simply no such thing as "reading early/classical Chinese in the original" analogous to reading Latin. You can only LOOK at in the original. How are you going to READ it?

  9. Phil H said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 7:27 pm

    It's a funny text…
    And I fully agree with properly separating classical Chinese from modern – or rather, separating several different classical Chineses from modern Chinese and from each other.
    But there is a real problem with pronunciation. Like it or not, no one speaks any kind of classical Chinese; the world has basically settled on using modern Mandarin to read classical. So if you ever want to speak to another person about the thing you're studying, you're going to need to learn modern Mandarin pronunciation. And in order to have any level of success in memorising characters, you're going to have to learn the elements of Chinese writing. But for many speakers of European languages, learning these two things represents a massive investment of time and energy.
    So if you get to the end of the arduous process of learning tonal phonetics and character radicals but don't pick up the basics of modern Chinese, and so are unable to order a Starbucks, then how can you replenish your energy ready to tackle the complexities of Han Feizi?

  10. DS Zhang said,

    April 24, 2022 @ 10:42 pm

    I remember my first-year Classical Chinese course at the University of Washington, taught by Prof. William Boltz. He did not use any textbooks but made his own primer. I don't think he has ever published it. What's impressive about his primer is that for each lesson, he only introduces a few new Chinese characters (about 10-15?) that is need for that very lesson. For example, in the "introducing nouns" chapter, he told the students to learn 王 "king",鬼 "ghost",羊 "sheep"; then in the "factors / verbs" chapter, he introduces a few verbs such as 见 "to see",得 "to obtain",食 "to eat" etc., so that the students could make endless number of creative sentences with a few verbs and nouns until they were fully acquainted with the grammatical structure. Then the vocabulary slowly adds and we accumulate more and more knowledge. He does not separate "learning words" from "writing characters".

    All the students in that class loved it and nobody felt any stress. I think the important thing is that Prof. Boltz conducted his pedagogy in a natural way. The students simply and naturally accept the fact that writing characters is innate to the learning of Classical Chinese. His primer is one that starts from zero and opens to all students with no prior knowledge to Chinese at all. In my class, at least half of the students never took Mandarin. And he made it explicit on the syllabus that Mandarin is not required.

    I remember that the best student in my class was an Irish girl who learnt Japanese for one year before joining Classical Chinese. She knew zero about Mandarin or China. She learnt a little bit of kanji from her Japanese class, but not enough to sustain her reading Classical Chinese. She prevailed in that class by getting all the grammatical points correctly, acquiring all vocabulary, and memorizing the characters that associated with each new word in every lesson. To her, Chinese character was a bit on the hard side, but never regarded as "burdensome" to her acquisition of wenyanwen. Every language has something that is unique, which would appear "harder" to some groups of learners than others. That's a very healthy attitude that prompted her active learning. And I think Prof. Boltz also properly and healthily conveyed this attitude towards students of diverse backgrounds. It was a class that associated many of us as friends. I still miss it.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 4:30 am

    "Academics […] who concentrate on the classical, historical forms or the literature of a language are sometimes the butt of jibes along the lines of …he may know everything about Old High German, but can't order a cup of tea in a café in Berlin…". Such jibes may not be entirely without foundation. A friend and I (amongst many others) attended a wedding in Athens some years ago; she was an outstanding post-graduate scholar in Classical Greek, yet confessed that she found everyday interactions on the street in Athens almost beyond her, and her attempts to communicate in Classical Greek met, for the most part, with almost blank incomprehension.

  12. Scott P. said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 7:07 am

    but the real issue is that there's simply no such thing as "reading early/classical Chinese in the original" analogous to reading Latin. You can only LOOK at in the original. How are you going to READ it?

    The same way one reads Sumerian or ancient Egyptian??

  13. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 8:01 am

    @ Scott P.

    I say "there's no such thing'; of course there could be such a thing. The unfortunate difference is that Chinese has survived :P This means that for early writing that should by all rights be treated like Sumerian or Egyptian, we

    1) perform a problematic conversion to modern or ersatz-modern characters that present as "readable" to the modern eye;

    2) read the resulting texts with your preferred modern pronunciations, generally Mandarin Chinese.

    The enormity of the psychological transformation that would be necessary for any alternative approach to develop is hard to overstate…

  14. Chris Button said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 10:01 am

    And in order to have any level of success in memorising characters, you're going to have to learn the elements of Chinese writing.

    I feel like a solid case could be made for schooling students of Classical Chinese in the elements of Chinese historical phonology. Or if that’s too much of a controversial and unwieldy minefield, how about just give everyone a copy of Pulleyblank’s “Lexicon of reconstructed pronunciation in early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and early Mandarin” and teach them how to use it. That would certainly help a lot more than Mandarin in making the necessary connections …

  15. Kenny Easwaran said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    I think this is the same thing that faced me on various occasions when I wanted to learn some quantum mechanics. Most graduate classes in a physics department on quantum mechanics assume that a student is already familiar with the Hamiltonian formulation of Newtonian mechanics. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of students that want to learn graduate quantum mechanics *are* familiar with the Hamiltonian formulation of Newtonian mechanics, and there are enough similarities that it enables a faster start. But conceptually, someone *should* be able to just jump into quantum mechanics without having to know Newtonian mechanics – there is no *real* pre-requisite here.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 12:30 pm

    Obviously the most sensible modern-Romance-language prerequisite to learning ancient Latin would be standard Italian. Modern standard French is weird and more deviant from Latin both phonologically and orthographically. So perhaps the point of the parable is that the speakers of French (i.e. Mandarin) are in a position of current political power dominating the speakers of Italian (Cantonese?) that is not justifiable on linguistic grounds?

  17. Terpomo said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 1:03 pm

    I just want to say I'm flattered that I could end up contributing as significantly as this, even if it's just linking an essay that gets reposted by one of the contributors, to such an eminent blog.

  18. Polyspaston said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 4:36 pm

    @Jonathan Smith:

    What you are describing is how most people read Latin and Greek at basically all levels, with the possible exception of papyrologists and medievalists. I'm not sure I see why this requires a psychological transformation.

  19. Vampyricon said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 5:56 pm

    @Phil H
    >Like it or not, no one speaks any kind of classical Chinese; the world has basically settled on using modern Mandarin to read classical.

    I think every time I've heard Classical Chinese read, it was in Cantonese.

    @Kenny Easwaran

    My experience with quantum mechanics is that graduate classes (rightly!) assume you've taken one or two years of undergrad QM already, and notation, remedial Hamiltonian mechanics, &c. are already covered in those classes. I don’t know whether I'm assuming the baseline as being higher than it actually is, but I thought my current graduate quantum course was surprisingly approachable.

  20. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 6:31 pm

    No, it would be like reading Latin as strings of real and made-up modern French words and word parts.
    Re "psychological transformation"… of course we can say it doesn't really matter and that there is much to gained from the standard approach to early Chinese (true), but it is interesting to imagine what might be gained by treating it like the ancient-language-in-logographic-script that it actually is.

  21. Philip Anderson said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 7:12 pm

    Classical Greek doesn’t help with Modern Greek, particularly not with the pronunciation, and I suspect that the modern language wouldn’t help much with its ancestor either (probably less than a comprehensive English vocabulary). OK, any mathematician will know the Greek alphabet already, but that’s less likely to be the case for Hebrew, yet I guess there’s little overlap between the learners of Biblical and modern Hebrew.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2022 @ 9:23 pm

    From Lucas Christopoulos:

    Modern Greek knowledge helps with ancient Greek. Most of its vocabulary is similar though grammar structure is different. In European universities, they tend to teach classical Greek with a "French" accent (arguing that it was closer to French pronounciation in antiquity), and this doesn’t help. South Italy Griko, Pontic Greek (Ποντιακό), Cypriot (κυπριακά) and Tsakonian (τσακώνικα) modern Greek "dialects" are even closer to ancient Greek language. It was very different already in Classical and Hellenistic times between Ionian, Dorian, Achean, Makedonian or Lakonian. For the Bible and Hebrew, I guess it may also be closer of farther to the "old ones" according to the diaspora, the place and its outside influences.

  23. Jongseong Park said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 12:42 am

    Most students of Classical Chinese or Hanmun in Korea do not speak any modern Chinese language, nor are they expected to. I don't think any undergraduate programmes offer modern Chinese classes as basic courses for their students. Many of them will primarily study or translate Classical Chinese texts written by Koreans in the past who did not speak any of their contemporary Chinese languages either.

    For centuries, Koreans have been learning Classical Chinese as a written language using Sino-Korean pronunciation of the characters when reading it out loud. Historically, Classical Chinese was often taught as part of the Korean language and literature departments, though nowadays they have been separated and taught in their own departments.

    Nowadays, because the vast majority of any text in Korean is written only in the Korean alphabet, it is probably somewhat easier to associate Chinese characters with China. But it was common until a generation or two ago to see mixed texts where Sino-Korean vocabulary was written in Chinese characters much like how Japanese is still written. So Koreans would not have seen Chinese characters as particularly foreign, nor Classical Chinese by extension. I wouldn't be surprised if many Koreans have never really thought about the fact that Hanmun as written by Koreans in the past was actually based on a language spoken long ago in China, much less one that was the distant ancestor of modern Mandarin.

  24. Scott P. said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 8:46 am

    Champollion learned Coptic prior to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics, but I don't believe modern Egyptologists are required to learn Coptic for years prior to their study.

  25. Terpomo said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 3:49 pm

    I believe Romance speakers did read Latin in their own reflexes until around some time in the 800s. Imagine if they still did today.

  26. pfb said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 4:08 pm

    At the risk of sounding like a troll, I have to assume that that most real scholarship _about_ classical Chinese language and literature is by Chinese scholars, writing in Chinese. I'm not sure what the point is in reading a classic in its original language if you are reading it through the same filters you would encounter with a translation.

  27. Anthony said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 5:49 pm

    I know of exactly one book that teaches the programming language C++ without assuming or imparting any knowledge of C. Upside: nothing one has to unlearn.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 5:55 pm

    From an anonymous colleague:

    I loved the satire and, without ever expecting to undertake to learn Classical Chinese or to return to my prep-school Latin (which I took instead of French), I very much appreciate the point. I think a related point that can be emphasized here concerns the way in which modern "critical thinking" (deconstruction, de-colonialism, whatever one might decide to term it, even if with an invented term) has replaced too often any training in formal textual analysis which is essential before you might apply modern concepts to said texts. Years ago, I was the outside faculty rep. on a Ph.D. defense in the English Dept. here, where the thesis being defended had something to do with a medieval text (let's say, for example, Beowulf). I had the temerity to ask something about whether the doctoral student had examined the history of the text, and it was as though I had farted in the room. Not a matter for concern to have to undertake such analysis, so it seemed.

  29. Chas Belov said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 6:59 pm

    I'll acknowledge that my Chinese knowledge is minimal. That said, re:

    @Phil H
    >Like it or not, no one speaks any kind of classical Chinese; the world has basically settled on using modern Mandarin to read classical.

    You might give a listen to 聖石傳說 (Legend of the Sacred Stone) which is supposedly in Classical Chinese. If I listen to the opening song 稀微的風中 https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=9cbp-jiUEzs&feature=share I hear final consonant stops at 1:04 and 1:36, which would certainly not be Mandarin.

  30. Thomas said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 1:36 am

    After sitting through a lesson of reading old poems at the Confucius Institute, I am convinced that most Chinese, even the educated, are in total denial that classical Chinese and modern Chinese are two different languages. Just because you know some characters or can look them up in a dictionary, that doesn't mean that you can actually grasp classical poems. I mean, we don't go translating the fables of Phaedrus after a two-year course of French, do we?

  31. Alexander Pruss said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 11:18 am

    @Kenny Easwaran:

    Brian Hall's _Quantum Theory for Mathematicians_ covers classical mechanics in about 33 pages. I also remember reading parts of Dirac's _Principles of Quantum Mechanics_ around my undergrad years, before I knew anything about Hamiltonian mechanics (I still know very little), and I found it pretty accessible (though I think I would now be annoyed by the lack of mathematical rigor). So while a course may be hard to find, books are available.

    Maybe classical mechanics is practically unavoidable for most students in that applying quantum mechanics to so many systems involves a classical limit?

  32. Terpomo said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 12:46 pm

    pfb, could you clarify what you mean by "the same filters you would encounter with a translation"?
    Chas Belov, I could be mistaken but it sounds a lot like Hokkien pronunciation. It's certainly not any reconstruction, which generally only exist as curiosities unlike for Wenyan's Western counterparts. When I look up the lyrics they don't appear to be in Classical, though, merely a rather literary register of Standard Written Chinese/書面語.
    Thomas, I suspect part of the difference is the sociolinguistic position of Classical Chinese; much like Arabic, there was never a break in tradition at which it stopped being considered the same language as the spoken vernacular; the latter just kept gradually drifting until Sinitic-speaking peoples had been frogboiled into speaking and writing in completely different languages. (Frogboiled, that's a useful word.)

  33. Vanya said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 7:20 am

    J.W. Brewer – So perhaps the point of the parable is that the speakers of French (i.e. Mandarin) are in a position of current political power dominating the speakers of Italian (Cantonese?) that is not justifiable on linguistic grounds?

    I read it that way. Very clever.

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