The philological component

The virtues and defects of the Cambridge Latin Course seem now to be generally known. It has been a major event in Classics teaching, beneficial on many fronts, and not least in that it was largely the spur for the successful introduction of the Classical Civilisation syllabus. Its defect is the lack of a philological component, and in my early teaching years, in a school that was involved in piloting the early versions of it, this was a source of division among the staff.

The proponents of the Cambridge course in its almost non-grammatical form tended to be those who had been taught Latin badly as children, and with our human proneness to equate the experience of others with our own, were unable to imagine what it was like to be taught the subject both traditionally and delightfully: indeed they flatly and vocally denied that it was possible.

But the reaction of students to the philological approach has been unmistakable.  One Sixth Form leaver, to give a single example, remembered a moment, five years before, when one day the teacher wrote on the whiteboard the words for night in the Romance languages: nox, notte, noche, noite, nuit, noapte; and then, to make a further point, he added the German nacht, Welsh nos, Russian noch, Danish nat and the Greek νύξ. That, he said, was the moment when he decided to study Classics: and he is now an admired professor at one of our best universities.

Something that same teacher also devised, for the young ones, and had them write out, was a rough template for classifying the derivation of English words: basic, but it got them discussing.

Why is this kind of thing useful in the teaching of Classics? Possibly because it habituates the children to notice words. Successful language teaching must make pupils aware of words: of their behaviour, their development and their origins: and to be a linguist is to make connections.