Mnemosyne and the wiring of the brain

To look at—for example—the Arden edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to be reminded that Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses. Shakespeare does not merely remember the material that he has read in Plutarch’s Theseus, Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, Golding’s translation of The Metamorphoses, and other works including some of Erasmus; he has remembered and retained the words that they use, and has taken and woven them into a confection that readers and hearers marvel at. Shakespeare is a lover of words with a fervent memory.

There has been research at the University of Seattle into how children’s brains operate in the early years. It seems to confirm the theory that the human brain, after the manner of a computer, possesses an application which one might call My Brain: this is preprogrammed to wire the brain around the age of three, according to what data and stimuli it has received up to that point, and how it has been operating. So the brain of an Inuit child will be wired differently from that of a child in the Amazonian rainforest, or a child living in London.

This has actuated the Seattle researchers’ recommendation that children should not watch television before the age of three.

A further theory is that the brain is programmed to do this again—to rewire itself—at some time during adolescence. This is borne out by what I have observed, startlingly in the case of some pupils, and it confirms what I was told as a young teacher: that the habit of memorizing things and acquiring vocabulary is vital to a person’s further development. For if memorizing is an habitual activity of the brain, it will be incorporated in that teenage rewiring, and the power of memory will develop further.

Next post: The schwa.

Vocabulary: practicalities

Perhaps we are lucky. Even our slowest Latinists in the junior forms—those who will prefer Classical Civilisation to Latin for GCSE—seem to be enthused by the challenge of learning a vocabulary.

Before starting to memorize, it helps if they are secure with the parts of speech. Attached (see Grammar in the menu) is a ‘Parts of Speech’ template, which of course can be adapted or improved upon. It does not deal with words that can be used in different functions, especially prepositions that can be used as adverbs and vice versa. More on this later.

But as for nouns: an American journalist remarked that any noun can be verbed, and an observant child will soon notice that.

It was for Indo-European languages that our ancestors devised the attached classification. It may not be valid for other languages, and some colleagues may query the system anyway, given some modern theories of linguistics. The reply seems to be that until a better system is devised, this must suffice.

Children like order, and to know how things work; and under this system the basic grammatical functions are reassuringly finite.

We have found it useful to arrange vocabulary lists by the parts of speech. Even at AS stage, or perhaps especially so, it seems to make sense of the learning and render it less of a chore. It also makes patterns of formation more visible.

Please see the AS  and GCSE Latin wordlists arranged in this way on the Wordlists page.

Next post: more on vocabulary.