Vocabulary and the Cambridge Latin Course

The 1970s: heady times, when Sunday newspapers predicted the roofing in of the whole of London, the closure of all prisons, the end of all wars, the death of intolerance, the coming-of-age of man… and in this atmosphere the Cambridge Latin Course was getting off the ground. If you were teaching in a school that was piloting it, you were told of pupils absorbing the language with no memorising of vocabularies, no learning of grammatical mechanisms (they would formulate their own ‘personal grammar’); and all manner of thing would be well, and Noam Chomsky leaned out from the gold bar of heaven.

Alas for those days and those dreams! But… nil sine labore, etcetera. Vocabulary must be memorised. How can you know a language without knowing the words? Yet in those sunny, far-off days, a question like that branded you as a dinosaur, or Mr Dryasdust, for here was the ultimate template for teaching Latin in the hypnagogic mode.

They rode the universe, they gloried and drank deep. The CLC is a spectacular achievement and a huge contribution to the survival of classics, not least because from that same busy hive arose on its nuptial flight the teaching of Classical Civilisation.

Let us never belittle it, or them. But Mnemosyne keeps her throne, and her daughters need her nourishment. Words must be learnt, loved, collected and connected. The classicist is, above all, a wordsmith.

There was a reminder of this not long ago at an examiners’ meeting, when a woman rose, scarlet with anger, to ask why there was not going to be an A2 wordlist. Why? was the answer: because a classicist by that stage should be a specialist in connecting words and making deductions about them.

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