Dictation, transcription and mimesis

People have marvelled how Captain Scott (see last post) was able to write such beautiful English in his polar camp, muffled up in his tent and warming his fingers over a candle so that he could use a pencil.

Part of the answer may be his education, which enabled him to write in the way many of his generation could. He attended Stubbington House, a prep school in Hampshire between Portsmouth and Southampton, which had a special reputation of supplying candidates—he was a successful one—for the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Latin, of course, was compulsory for entry.

The manner in which English was taught relied much on the power of mimesis. It was normal for young children, several times a week, to do exercises of Dictation and Transcription: carefully writing out a passage dictated by the teacher, or transcribing one from a book, the aim being perfect accuracy. The passages were selected from what was seen as the very best of English literature.

This kind of exercise began in the earliest years, and it sometimes went beyond prep school, as Winston Churchill discovered when he went to Harrow: he was considered too thick to make much progress with Latin, but instead had extra English lessons, and in the course of those he was often made to transcribe, painstakingly in their clauses, selected passages from people like Macaulay.  This, he records, left a deep impression on him and lastingly contributed to his powers of English expression.

If one visits the war bunker under Whitehall,* which has been made into a museum—inside it are Churchill’s desk, phone, equipment and the bed he slept in, as if they were abandoned yesterday—near the entrance in glass cases are typescripts of some of his speeches: and sure enough, they are typed out not in sentences but in clauses and phrases, so that the structure of each sentence is clear. (See in Texts menu above, Livy XXVI.42-formatted.)

Lucian in his Πρὸς τὸν ἀπαίδευτον καὶ πολλὰ βιβλία ὠνούμενον (Chap. 4) claims that Demosthenes copied out Thucydides’ Histories eight times.

The idea seems that if one does this, the words, the sounds, the rhythms—and the thoughts—become one’s own. In view of this, I should not feel resentful at having been made to write out, among other things, Miles Coverdale’s version of the 119th Psalm.


*   https://www.iwm.org.uk/events/cabinet-war-rooms