Archive for latin

From Labour to Labor

Posted in Crosswords, History, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2022 by telescoper

I don’t know very much about Australian politics but I was delighted yesterday to hear news of Rupert Murdoch’s defeat in the Federal elections. The losing leader of the illiberal party, and previous PM, Scott Morrison, has now resigned. I’ve got nothing against Mr Morrison’s family, but I’m glad he’s going to be spending more time with them.

One thing that confused me is that the victorious Australian Labor Party is the spelling of the word “Labor”. I think Australians use the English spelling “labour” for the noun or verb so why the political party uses a different spelling for the political party is unclear to me. It is however just a name, and we all know that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Some people refer to “labor” as the American spelling but it’s not as simple as that. The English word “labour” is derived from the 3rd declension Latin noun labor/laboris from which in turn is derived the verb laborare. The same sort of Latin origin is the case for many other familiar words: honor, color, valor, humor, vapor, rigor, and so on. All these were original Latin nouns that came into English via Norman French in the course of which they acquired the “u”.

The person responsible for the spelling of these words in American English (ie “labor” etc) was Noah Webster who thought English spelling was unnecessarily complicated and reverted to the Latin in these cases. It was also he who turned “centre” into “center”, for example. This spelling was introduced in his famous dictionary, first published in 1828, and subsequently acquired by the G&C Merriam Co and still in circulation nowadays after many revisions as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Anyway, my point is that the English often look down on such spellings as “labour” and “colour” as vulgar Americanism but these are the “original” (unfrenchified) spellings.

It’s interesting that Norman French words sometimes displaced Old English words entirely but sometimes the Old English form survives as synonym. For example, the Old English word for “colour” is “hew” which survives as the English “hue”. The Old English word for “labour” is “swink” which has completely disappeared from common usage (though it is listed in the One True Chambers Dictionary with the description archaic).

All of which nonsense gives me an excuse to mention that I managed to get an HC (“Highly Commended”) for my clue in Azed Competition No. 2603 which I thought was a very tough puzzle to complete, which is no doubt why there were only 117 entries!

Pointless Postscript

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on August 5, 2021 by telescoper

Since my recent post about Latin I’ve been wracking my brain trying the remember the textbook we used at school to learn Latin grammar. Now, with the aid of an old school friend, I know the answer:

Part 2 took us up to O-level, but I think we used Part 1 in earlier years alongside the Cambridge Latin Course featuring the famous character Caecilius:

Caecilius was a resident of Pompeii and he snuffed it during the eruption of Vesuvius at the end of the first set of (orange) books, but the course continued with different characters in different coloured books including one set based in Britain.

The books by Wilding are very traditional grammar school texts. They weren’t easy going for us kids, and were quite formal and with some difficult exercises. They’re probably too old-fashioned to be in use now, but I’m tempted to acquire copies to see how much I remember!

The Joy of Latin

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , on July 31, 2021 by telescoper

This morning I noticed a story in the Guardian that Latin is to be taught in 40 UK state secondary schools had provoked some rather extreme reactions on social media. I hesitated to comment on this lest it appear that I have any respect or confidence in Gavin Williamson (who is undoubtedly one of the stupidest politicians in living memory) or that I don’t think there may be better things on which to spend £4m, but I have to say that I don’t think this is as stupid an idea as many people seem to think.

For what it’s worth I think that learning Latin (which I did from age 11 to O-level at aged 16, where which it was my best subject. If you’re interested here is the examination paper I took way back in 1979:

I not only enjoyed it enormously but also found it useful for learning other languages as well as helping to understand English grammar. There are many aspects of the English language that I only understood when I learned about them in Latin, and that also helped me with French and German where things like the subjunctive are much more obvious than they are in English and also much more precise, which makes them easier to identify and understand.

Latin has important elements in common with a great many Indo-European languages besides the obvious Italian, Spanish and French, including the Germanic languages (which include English). I did French to O-level too, by the way, but only did one year of German because I wasn’t allowed to do three languages to O-level alongside the full complement of science and mathematics. I have managed to get by during my frequent visits to Italy pretty well without having formally studied any Italian, though I find it easier to read and listen to Italian than to speak it. I have to say, though, that Latin hasn’t helped me much at all in my struggles to learn Irish…

Above all, though, learning Latin taught me that as well as being a tool for communication, language is fascinating in itself. There are strong connections between linguistics and genetics, for example – ideas in genetics on how you can work backwards from common elements in current diverse populations to the “last common ancestor” came from historical linguistics.. Languages evolve through mutation and intermingling in much the same way that populations do.

The relationships between different languages are deep and mysterious but studying their common structures helps bring them to light. That’s how the physical sciences work too…

It has long been an intention of mine to try to re-learn Latin when I retire and have a go at translating some old texts into English. It’s much easier to learn new languages when you are young but hopefully having done it when I was young it might come back reasonably easy. I remember quite a lot actually, but need more practice. Perhaps I’ll get the time before too long.

P. S. I’ve heard it said that, instead of teaching the Latin language in schools, students would be better off learning Latin dance, e.g the tango. My response to that is that “tango” is the first person singular in the present indicative of the Latin verb “tangere” (to touch)…

Laocoön and his Sons

Posted in Art, Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , , on March 15, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday I was remind of the above very famous statue which is on display in the Vatican. It dates from antiquity but was unearthed almost intact during an excavation in Rome in the 16th Century. It’s an extraordinary work that depicts a legendary episode in the Trojan wars of priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents. Evidently it was very cold that day…

This scene is described in Book II of Virgil‘s Aeneid which happens to be the text I studied for Latin O-level back in the day. Virgil’s verse takes the form of a strict (dactylic) hexameter which provides a rhythmic pulse perfectly designed for action sequences such as this. Before this part, Laocoön (whose name has to be spoken as four syllables – Lah-o-co-ohn – in order to scan correctly) warns the Trojans about their gift of a wooden horse using the most famous phrase in the entire Aeneid:

Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva 40
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul: ‘O miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
Creditis avectos hostis? Aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? Sic notus Ulixes?
Aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi, 45
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis

Then, while about to sacrifice a bull to the god Neptune, he and his sons meet their grisly end:

Laocoon, ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos,
sollemnis taurum ingentem mactabat ad aras.
ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta
(horresco referens) immensis orbibus angues
incumbunt pelago pariterque ad litora tendunt;
pectora quorum inter fluctus arrecta iubaeque
sanguineae superant undas, pars cetera pontum
pone legit sinuatque immensa volumine terga.
fit sonitus spumante salo; iamque arva tenebant
ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine et igni
sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora.
diffugimus visu exsangues. illi agmine certo
Laocoonta petunt; et primum parva duorum
corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
implicat et miseros morsu depascitur artus;
post ipsum auxilio subeuntem ac tela ferentem
corripiunt spirisque ligant ingentibus; et iam
bis medium amplexi, bis collo squamea circum
terga dati superant capite et cervicibus altis.
ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodos
perfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno,
clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.

(You can find a translation into English here.)

The colour and energy of this verse, propelled by the remorseless rhythm, brings the horrific episode to life in truly compelling and typically gore-filled way. You don’t really have to be fluent in Latin to appreciate its quality. The line sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora is particularly brilliant. It’s no surprise that Virgil is regarded as such a literary superstar.

My Latin teacher at school pointed out that epic poetry like this would probably have been performed in the Roman era by an actor as a dramatic recitation, probably with a drum pounding out the rhythm and with various sound and lighting effects to boot.

Anyway, today is the Ides of March so I thought I’d keep up classical theme by posting this  priceless bit of British cultural history relevant to such a fateful day.

This is from the First Folio Edition of Carry On Cleo, and stars the sublime Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar delivering one of the funniest lines in the whole Carry On series. The joke may be nearly as old as me, but it’s still a cracker…

 

 

Newton’s Laws in Words

Posted in History, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 13, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve been teaching my first-year Mathematical Physics students about Newton’s Laws of Motion so decided to record this little video as an aside discussing the history terminology and use of language.

Unfortunately the only microphone I have is the one built into my laptop and it tends to suffer sometimes from a crackle caused (I think) by the fan inside the machine interfering with the mike. I guess the noise appears when the CPU is working hard causing the machine to heat up so the fan works harder. The sound on video recordings I make this low budget way do break up from time to time, which is rather irritating. Obviously I need to buy an external microphone and when I do I might record this again but in the meantime you’ll just have to put up with it breaking up a couple of times!

O-Level Latin Examinations, Vintage 1979

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , on August 20, 2020 by telescoper

Since I’ve just finished marking all my repeat examinations, and examinations are in the news for other reasons, I thought I’d fish out one of the GCE O-level examinations that I took way back in 1979 when I was 16. I have from time to time posted examinations in Mathematics and Science subjects at both O-level and A-level, but I thought it would be fun to share something quite different. In fact my best mark at O-level was in Latin. Latin was a compulsory subject at my (old-fashioned) Grammar School, by the way.

The first of the two Latin exams was basically about the language, and involved unseen translation and comprehension tests. The second involved parts of two set books. We did Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid, a verse epic in strict hexameter, and Book V of Caesar’s Gallic Wars De Bello Gallico. These formed Sections A and B of the same examination although they appear as separate papers. The bit of the Aeneid we did included the Trojan Horse (actually Greek Horse, obviously) and the famous line `Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’…

The GCE O-levels were replaced by GCSEs a few years after I did mine and I’m not sure how many people do Latin at GCSE these days (or indeed at Leaving Certificate) but I’d be interested in any comments on how these exams compare with modern ones!

On the Plural of Referendum

Posted in Pedantry, Politics with tags , , , , on September 5, 2018 by telescoper

Quite a few people are suggesting that one way out of the current Brexit fiasco is to have another referendum when the terms of the withdrawal agreement (if any) are known. Bafflingly, Theresa May has argued that a second plebiscite would be `a betrayal of democracy’ and has categorically ruled out that possibility. Given her U-turn about last year’s General Election one might reasonably infer that a second referendum is now a racing certainty, but she called the election because she was confident she would win. All the signs are now that if given a chance to vote again the UK would vote to remain in the European Union, so the PM will need a very hard push to allow a second referendum.  A smart politician would have used the evidence of electoral misconduct by the Leave campaigns as a way out, but we’re not dealing with smart politicians on either side of the House nowadays.

Whether or not there is a second referendum an important question arises from the possibility, i.e. what is the proper plural of “referendum”?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m never pedantic about such matters. Well, maybe a little bit, sometimes. Latin was my best subject at O-level, though, so I can’t resist making a comment.

Any dictionary will tell you that “referendum” is obtained from the Latin verb referre which is itself formed as re- (prefix meaning “back”) + ferre (to carry), thus its literal meaning is “carry back” or, more relevantly to the current discussion, “to refer”. Ferre is actually an irregular verb, which complicates the discussion a bit, so I’ll use simpler examples of regular verbs below

Latin grammar includes two related concepts derived from a verb, the gerund and the gerundive.

The gerund is a verbal noun; such things exist in English in forms that mean `the act of something’, e.g. running, eating, loving.The word formed from a verb with the ending `ing’ can also function as a present participle in English, but we wont be going there. It may easy to muddle up gerunds with participles in English, but not in Latin as they are formed in distinctly different ways.

IAs an example, in the case of `loving’ the  relevant Latin verb is the first conjugation amare (amo amas amat and all that) and the appropriate gerund is amandus. You can this sort of Latin construction surviving in such English words as “graduand”. Note, however, that a gerund has no plural form because that would make no sense in Latin. There are plural forms in English such as `doings’ and `comings and goings’ but I don’t think these are relevant here as I interpret them as jocular, and pedantry is a very serious business. Moreover

Related to the gerund is the gerundive which, as its name suggests, is an adjectival form related to the gerund, specifically expressing necessity. In Latin, an adjective takes an ending that depends on the gender of the noun it describes; the gerundive also follows this pattern.

In the loving example above, the gerundive form is amandus in a masculine case or, if referring to a female entity, amanda, hence the name Amanda, which means “deserving or requiring love”, or amandum for a neuter noun. In cases where the noun is plural the forms would be amandi, amandae, and amanda. Endings for other gerundives formed from other verbs are constructed in a similar fashion depending on their conjugation.

From this discussion you can see that in Latin amandum could mean either “loving” (gerund) or “a thing to be loved” (gerundive). Latin grammar is sufficiently precise, however, that the actual meaning will be obvious from the context.

As an aside, based on my own experiences in mathematics and physics, the abbreviation `QED’ which is often placed at the end of a proof is short for `Quod Erat Demonstrandum’, meaning `which was required to be shown’ rather than `Quite Easily Done’.  I’m surprised how many people use QED without knowing what it means!

Now, back to referendum. It seems clear to me that this is a gerundive and thus means “a thing to be referred” (the thing concerned being of no gender, as is normal in such cases in Latin). So what should be the word for more than one referendum?

Think about it and you’ll realise that referenda would imply “more than one thing to be referred”. The familiar word agenda is formed precisely this way and it means “(a list of things) to be done”. But this is not the desired meaning we want, ie “more than one example of a thing being referred”.

I would therefore argue that referenda is clearly wrong, in that it means something quite different from that needed to describe more than one of what a single referendum is.

So what should we use? This is a situation where there isn’t a precise correspondence between Latin and English grammatical forms so it seems to me that we should just treat referendum as an English noun and give it the corresponding English plural. So “referendums” it is.

Any questions?

P.S. In a forthcoming post I shall give the full conjugation of the verb brexire, as brexit must be formed from that verb  in the same way that exit is formed from exire (i.e. third person singular in the active voice; exire is an irregular verb but basically similar to fourth conjugation). On this basis the gerund of brexire would be brexeundum and the gerundive brexeundus

No referenda, please..

Posted in Pedantry, Politics with tags , , , on September 20, 2014 by telescoper

One of the most interesting topics under discussion after the announcement of the results of Thursdays Referendum on Scottish independence is whether there will be another one which, in turn, leads to the question what is the proper plural of “referendum”?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m never pedantic about such matters. Well, maybe a little bit, sometimes. Latin was my best subject at O-level, though, so I can’t resist making a comment.

Any dictionary will tell you that “referendum” is obtained from the Latin verb referre which is itself formed as re- (prefix meaning “back”) + ferre (to carry), thus its literal meaning is “carry back” or, more relevantly, “to refer”. Ferre is actually an irregular verb, so I’ll use simpler examples of regular verbs below

Latin grammar includes two related concepts derived from a verb, the gerund and the gerundive. The gerund is a verbal noun; such things exist in English in forms that mean the act of something, eg running, eating, loving. In the last case the relevant Latin verb is the first conjugation amare and the gerund is amandus. You can find a similar construction surviving in such English words as “graduand”. Note however that a gerund has no plural form because that would make no sense.

Related to the gerund is the gerundive which, as its name suggests, is an adjectival form related to the gerund, specifically expressing necessity.

In Latin, an adjective takes an ending that depends on the gender of the noun it describes; the gerundive also follows this pattern. In the example given above, the gerundive form is amandus in a masculine case or, if referring to a female entity, amanda, hence the name, which means “deserving or requiring love”, or amandum for a neuter noun. In cases where the noun is plural the forms would be amandi, amandae, and amanda. Endings for other verbs are formed in a similar fashion depending on their conjugation.

From this example you can see that in Latin amandum could mean either “loving” (gerund) or “a thing to be loved” (gerundive). Latin grammar is sufficiently clear, however, that the actual meaning will be clear from the context.

Now, to referendum. It seems clear to me that this is a gerundive and thus means “a thing to be referred” (the thing concerned being of no gender, as is normal in such cases in Latin). So what should be the word for more than one referendum?

Think about it and you’ll realise that referenda would imply “more than one thing to be referred”. The familiar word agenda is formed precisely this way and it means “(a list of things) to be done”. But this is not the desired meaning we want, ie “more than one example of a thing being referred”.

I would therefore argue that referenda is clearly wrong, in that it means something quite different from that needed to describe more than one of what a referendum is.

So what should we use? This is a situation where there isn’t a precise correspondence between Latin and English grammatical forms so it seems to me that we should just treat referendum as an English noun and give it the corresponding English plural. So “referendums” it is.

Any questions?