The Case for Classics

Dr James Lloyd, Classicist in Residence at WHS, looks at the relevance of Classics in a modern world.

Education, both at school and at university, is about inspiring inquisitive minds, preparing the next generation to challenge the last, and equipping students with the skills to question the world they live in and to ask how they can make it better. But how do you distill such qualities into something that can be graded and assessed, condensed into a factor measured for league tables? What I mean to say by this, is that the case for Classics can be a difficult one to make. That being said, there are four key areas that make Classics a particularly important subject in today’s modern world.

Educational values

For me, Classics is a subject where the core elements of modern education can be championed. It is a subject whose topics range from discussions of love and religion, to critiques of imperialism and the myriad emotions of Greek tragedy. You need to be inquisitive to understand the context of the Odyssey, because, despite the similarities, the world of 700 BCE is very different to our own.

What Classics offers us is the time and space in which to reflect, an environment where ideas can be challenged. The questions posed by writers such as Homer, Sappho, Ovid, and Cicero are just as relevant now as they were the 2,000 years and more ago when they were first composed. This is not to place such writers on a plinth, like all too many museums do with looted statues, but to question the legacy of such writers, and what their purpose is in a largely more just and socially kinder world. As Dan Addis, also of Wimbledon, has recently argued, empathy is a key component of education, and here, Classics ranks highly.[1]

Classics is not an island

Or if it is, it is an island among an archipelago. Classics is not just the learning of Latin and ancient Greek. It can range from ancient economics and classical archaeology, to heritage and museum studies. In my case, it involves the study of iconography, material objects, inscriptions, and even ancient musical instruments. I have curated my own exhibition, and collaborated on the materials analysis of ancient religious offerings using pXRF and Pb isotope analysis.

The case for Classics is not an exclusionary one. It is a subject that works in conversation with many others. For example, a recent study published in the journal Reading and Writing has shown how learning Latin can help with English language acquisition.[2] The benefits of Classics can be found in other subjects too. History, Anthropology, Literature, Modern Languages, Architecture, and Law are just some of the areas in deep conversation with Classics. For example, studying the Aeneid helps us to be critical of the influences between politics and the arts today, and exploring the emotions of Sappho and the context of Ovid’s Art of Love help us to better understand contemporary issues of gender and sexuality.

Contemporary Concerns

Like any subject with a centuries’ long heritage, Classics was built on foundations that need to be rebuilt. This is the third point in my case for Classics.

In a recent open article on gender bias in one of the leading academic Classics journals, the Journal of Roman Studies, the editorial board found no evidence of gender bias in the acceptance of articles, but admitted that there was still much to be done in addressing the reasons as to why fewer women submitted work to the journal than their male colleagues.[3]

Above: Representation of female authors by volume. From Kelly et al. 2019

 

George Eliot would have doubtless responded to such a report with mixed feelings, given Latin and Greek were known to her Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch as “those provinces of masculine knowledge…  a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly”.

That being said, the last two decades have seen a wave of feminist retellings of Classical stories, from Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad to Madeline Miller’s Circe. The success of these books lies not just in the skill of their authors, but also in the urgency of their messages, a challenge to traditionally male-dominated narratives. While Classics has been taught in Britain for centuries, the way that we teach authors such as Homer and Sappho to students at Wimbledon is certainly very different to the way such texts were taught even 50 years ago.

Indeed, one of the most refreshing aspects of teaching at Wimbledon High School so far has been the breadth of learning and creativity shown by the girls, whether that is in discussing the role of Medusa in Myth and Monsters Club, and how it subverts ideas of beauty and power, or in exploring what ancient views of divinity reveal about universal human concerns, to use just two examples.

Classics outside the Classroom

To use just two examples. One of the problems with making the case for Classics is that there are very few empirical studies on the benefits of studying it. One of the likely reasons for this is that it is a relatively specialised subject. In 2019, provisional data recorded 3,575 GCSE entries for Classical subjects; for A-Level entries, the provisional figure is 4,995.[4] This can make the case for Classics difficult.

In an ideal world, students should study Classics because they will enjoy it, but this is not an ideal world, it is a difficult world. Employers will want to know what transferable skills you can demonstrate; being able to quote Homer normally isn’t one of them. In a society asking for an increasingly digitally literate workforce, when a decision must be made between, for example, learning to code and learning past participles, it seems difficult to justify choosing the participles.

But Classics does not just teach students the patience and perseverance to learn complex grammars and vocabularies, it is a subject that encourages a healthy dose of skepticism. Not just of the traditional narratives that it asks us to engage with, but of how arguments and ideas are constructed more broadly. Not only that, but it teaches us an understanding of different cultures. These are the exact kind of soft skills that Google were surprised to find were most vital for its employees, when it conducted research into its employment processes.[5]

To return to the title of this piece, what is the case for Classics? For me, Classics has taught me a way of viewing the world with a healthy dose of skepticism and kindness. And in a world where things are more uncertain than they have been for some time, it is something of a comfort that Classics can help us to make some sense of it all.

[1] Addis, 2019.
[2]
 Crasson et al. 2018
[3] Kelly et al. 2019
[4] Ofqual, 2019.
[5] Harrel & Barbato, 2018


References:

Addis, D. (2019). WimTeach. http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/empathy-important-thing-can-teach-students/

Amy C. Crosson, Margaret G. McKeown, Debra W. Moore, Feifei Ye. Extending the bounds of morphology instruction: teaching Latin roots facilitates academic word learning for English Learner adolescents. Reading and Writing, 2018; DOI: 10.1007/s11145-018-9885-y

Harrell, M & Barbato, L. (2018). Google, Re:Work. https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/the-evolution-of-project-oxygen/

Kelly, C., Thonemann, P., Borg, B., Hillner, J., Lavan, M., Morley, N., … Whitton, C. (2019). Gender Bias and the Journal of Roman Studies: JRS EDITORIAL BOARD. Journal of Roman Studies, 109, 441–448. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0075435819000935

Ofqual. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/provisional-entries-for-gcse-as-and-a-level-summer-2019-exam-series

[1] Crasson et al. 2018.

[2] Kelly et al. 2019.

[3] Ofqual, 2019.

[4] Harrell & Barbato, 2018.

What are the links between romance languages and music?

Matilda, Year 13, investigates the links between romance languages and music to discover whether the learning of one can help in the understanding of the other.

Music and language

It is often said that music is the ‘universal language of mankind’, due to its great expressive powers which have the ability to convey sentiments and emotions.

But what are the connections between music and languages?

A romance language is a language derived from Latin and this group of languages has many similarities in both grammar and vocabulary. The 5 most widely spoken romance languages are Spanish (with 470 million speakers), Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.

There are 3 main connections between languages and music:

 

The first of these is the role of melody in recall:

There is a link between languages and music in remembering words. This is shown in a study where words were better recalled when learned as a song rather than a speech. This is because melody and rhythm give the memory cues to help recall information.[1]

Language, music, and emotion:

The British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who specialises in primate behaviour, Robin Dunbar, says that music and language help to knit people together in social groups. This is because musicians process music as a language in their heads. Studies have shown the planum temporal in the brain is active in all people whilst listening to music.

However, in non-musicians, the right-hand side was the most active, meanwhile, in musicians, the left side dominated, this is the side believed to control language processing. This shows that musicians understand music as a language in their brain.

In another study, scientists analysed the Broca’s area, which is crucial in language and music comprehension. It is also responsible for our ability to use syntax. Research has shown the in the Broca’s area of the brain, musicians have a greater volume of grey matter, suggesting that it is responsible for both speech and music comprehension.

The relationship between music and languages:

Brain and Languages Both music and languages share the same building blocks as they are compositional. By this, I mean that they are both made of small parts that are meaningless alone but when combined can create something larger and meaningful.

For example, the words ‘I’, ‘love’ and ‘you,’ do not mean much individually, however, when they are constructed in a sentence, carry a deep sentimental value. This goes the same for music notes, which when combined can create a beautiful, purposeful meaning.

Musical training has been shown to improve language skills.[2] In a study carried out in 2011, developmental psychologists in Germany conducted a study to examine the relationship between development of music and language skills. In the experiment, they separated children aged 4 into 2 groups, 1 of these groups receiving musical training, and one did not.

Later on, they measured their phonological ability (the ability to use and manipulate language) and they discovered the children who had received music lessons were better at this. Therefore, this shows that learning and understanding language can go hand in hand with musical learning and ability.

References: 

[1] See https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/mar/14/sound-how-listening-music-hinders-learning-lessons-research
[2] See https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-athletes-way/201806/how-does-musical-training-improve-language-skills

Speaking in tongues: why reconstruct a language we don’t even know existed? – 09/11/18

Anna (Year 13) looks back to our earliest beginnings as a civilisation in the Indo-European world, discovering that there is only one route to the reconstruction of Indo-European culture that offers any hope of reliability and that is language.

Swedish, Ukrainian, Punjabi, and Italian. To many of us, these languages are as different and distinct as they come. But it has been discovered that, in the same way that dogs, sheep and pandas have a common ancestor, languages can also be traced back to a common tongue. Thus, Dutch is not merely a bizarrely misspelled version of English and there is more to it than our languages simply being pervaded by the process of Latin words being imported into native dialects in the Middle Ages.

In the twelfth century, an Icelandic scholar concluded that Englishmen and Icelanders ‘are of one tongue, even though one of the two [tongues] has been changed greatly, or both somewhat.’ He went on to say that the two languages had ‘previously parted or branched off from one and the same tongue’. Thus, he noticed the common genetic inheritance of our languages, and coined the model of a tree of related languages which later came to dominate how we look at the evolution of the Indo-European languages. We call this ancestral language Proto-Indo-European, a language spoken by the ancestors of much of Europe and Asia between approximately 4,500 and 2,500 B.C.

The Indo European Family Tree

But what actually is it? Well, let me start simply. Consider the following words: pedis, ποδος (pronounced ‘podos’), pada, foot. They all mean the same thing (foot) In Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and English respectively. You will notice, I hope, the remarkable similarity between the first three words. English, on the other hand, sticks out slightly. Yet, it has exactly the same root as the other three. If I were to go back to one of the earliest forms of Germanic English, Gothic, you may perhaps notice a closer similarity: fotus. Over time, a pattern emerges: it is evident that the letter p correlates to an f and a letter d to a t. This is just one example of many: it is these sound laws that led Jacob Grimm to develop his law.

Grimm’s law is a set of statements named after Jacob Grimm which points out the prominent correlations between the Germanic and other Indo-European languages. Certainly, single words may be borrowed from a language (like the use of the words cliché, from the French, or magnum opus, from Latin), but it is extremely unlikely that an entire grammatical system would be. Therefore, the similarities between modern Indo-European languages can be explained as a result of a single ancestral language devolving into its various daughter languages. And although we can never know what it looked like, we can know what it sounded like. This is because, using Grimm’s Law, we can construct an entire language, not only individual words, but also sentences and even stories.

In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses”, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE, this sonic experiment continues, and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some 6,000 years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no single version can be considered definitive: Andrew Byrd, a University of Kentucky linguist, joked that the only way we could know for sure what it sounded like is if we had a time machine.

The earliest version read as follows:

(The audio of a later version, read by Andrew Byrd can be found at the following link: https://soundcloud.com/archaeologymag/sheep-and-horses)

Here is the fable in English translation:

Though seemingly nonsensical, it is definitely exciting, and when you take a metaphorical microscope to it, you can notice similarities in words and grammar, particularly that of Latin and Ancient Greek. What is the point, though, in reconstructing a language no longer spoken?

Firstly, the world wouldn’t be what it is today had it not been for the Indo-Europeans. If you’re reading this article, chances are that your first language is an Indo-European language, and it’s also very likely that all of the languages you speak are Indo-European languages. Given how powerfully language shapes the range of thoughts available for us to think, this fact exerts no small influence on our outlook on life and therefore, by extension, on our actions.

Secondly though, as a society, we are fascinated by our history, perhaps because examining our roots (to continue the tree metaphor) can help us understand where we may be headed. Although many archaeologists are hesitant to trust linguistic data, by gaining an insight into the language of the PIE world, we can make inferences about their culture and in turn learn more about our own. One such example of this is Hartwick College archaeologist David Anthony’s discovery of a mass of sacrificed dog and wolf bones in the Russian steppes. By consulting historical linguistics and ancient literary traditions to better understand the archaeological record, he and his team found that historical linguists and mythologists have long linked dog sacrifice to an important ancient Indo-European tradition, the roving youthful war band (known as a ‘koryos’ in reconstructed PIE). This tradition, which involved young men becoming warriors in a winter sacrificial ceremony, could help explain why Indo-European languages spread so successfully. Previous generations of scholars imagined hordes of Indo-Europeans on chariots spreading their languages across Europe and Asia by the point of the sword. But Anthony thinks Indo-European spread instead by way of widespread imitation of Indo-European customs, which included, for example, feasting to establish strong social networks. The koryos could have simply been one more feature of Indo-European life that other people admired and adopted, along with the languages themselves. We can learn about the customs of our prehistoric ancestors and so Indo-European studies is relevant because as powerfully as it has influenced our modern social structure and thought, there are also many ways in which the Indo-European worldview is strikingly different from our own. Studying it enables you to have that many more perspectives to draw from in creating your own worldview.

National Historical Museum Stockholm: A bronze Viking plate from the 6th century A.D. depicts a helmeted figure who may be the god Odin dancing with a warrior wearing a wolf mask.

‘He’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight…’ Achilles vs Odysseus: Who is the greatest hero?

By Anna Jeffries-Shaw, Year 12.

In the following post, Anna hopes to make you question the concept of heroism by exploring the characters of two of the most famous heroes from the Ancient World: Achilles and Odysseus.

Heroes are prevalent in everyone’s life. Whether your hero is a real person or a character from a movie, someone close to you or someone you have never met, everybody has some sort of hero or role model. The concept of a hero, however, has existed for millennia, dating back to Ancient Greece. Here, we discover some of the most famous heroes to have existed: Hercules, Hector, Aeneas, Perseus, Theseus, Jason, and Atalanta (curiously the only female who repeatedly makes lists about the top heroes in Greek mythology). And of course, arguably two of the most famous men and heroes of history: Achilles and Odysseus.

Before it is possible to begin to tackle the question of which of these men was the greatest hero, it is first necessary to explore the even greater question of what constitutes a hero. The OED defines a hero as ‘a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities’. In other words, a role model. In Greek tradition, however, a hero was a human, who was endowed with superhuman abilities by virtue of being descended from an immortal god. A hero in that era would not have any of the additional connotations we’ve come to expect of moral worth, valour and so on. In fact, the Greek word ‘ἥρως’ (pronounced ‘heros’), which is usually translated as hero, actually means just a ‘warrior’. And so this debate seems futile, in a sense, as expecting ‘heroism’ of either Achilles or Odysseus – to expect them to conform to any of our ideas of what a ‘hero’ is – is an anachronism.

Nevertheless, it is a topic worth exploring: which man was more heroic?

Achilles: the hero of the Iliad. Brutal, vain, pitiless… and thus a true hero. He does not fit modern conventions of morality. He is a killer, a rapist, a plunderer. He is temperamental, which has dire consequences right from the beginning, revealed by the opening lines of the Iliad:

“Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss.”

(Translated by Robert Fitzgerald)

He can be pitiless, and he can be murderously cruel. Yet there is still something fundamental about him to which we can all relate. He may be an original Byronic hero, fitting the description of the literary character named after Lord Byron, a poet who was part of the Romantic movement in literature, before the term was even coined. The Byronic hero is usually dark and moody, sexually intense, mysterious, emotional troubled and arrogant and Achilles is all these things. He is expected to perform numerous heroic deeds, yet he disagrees, complains, and is willing to go to any length just to prove he’s right. He’s not necessarily the kind of person one wants to be, but certainly the kind of person one can relate to.

Left: Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy (2004) Right: Sean Bean as Odysseus in Troy (2004)

Contrasting to the seemingly brutish Achilles is Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, which begins thus:

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.”

(Translated by Robert Fagels)

His key feature is his cunning. He is not primarily a rash or fierce hero, although his physical strength and other conventional aspects of Ancient Greek heroism are not to be overlooked. Odysseus is a multi-faceted hero. He is ‘πολυτροπος’ (pronounced ‘polutropos’). This is translated in a variety of different ways, with different implications. In the Fagels translation above, it is rendered as ‘man of twists and turns’, in others ‘the man of many ways’. Yet the underlying message about his character is evident: he can morph into a wide variety of different identities. And for what? In order to survive. It is his cunning, ultimately, that leads to the sacking of Troy as a result of the legendary Trojan Horse. It is ironic that Achilles, whose physical power was not able to destroy Troy, gets to be the number one hero of the Iliad, and not Odysseus, who succeeded where Achilles failed. Odysseus is seemingly incomparable; his fame cannot come from the fall of Troy.

Whilst it is seemingly impossible for either to fit our modern sensibilities of heroism, both hold elements. Many have questioned, of Achilles, whether kindness, altruism, generosity, and modesty were just seen as weaknesses to the fierce and brave exterior. In fact, Achilles spares Priam’s life in book 24 of the Iliad, returning Hector’s body and even calling him ‘dear old man’. Is this kindness? His genteel character may be seen in his relationship with Patroclus, which is explored in Madeline Miller’s ‘Song of Achilles’ and in which Achilles and Odysseus are shown to be the only two characters who can maintain loving relationships.

Instead, we must consider two key elements central to heroism in this era: ‘kleos’ and ‘nostos’. ‘Kleos’ literally translates as fame and glory, whereas ‘nostos’ is described as a ‘song of safe home coming.’ It is Achilles’ destiny to chose between the two in the famous prophecy: he must either die a glorious death at a young age, or live until old age unfruitfully. He choses the former; he chooses to have kleos. On the other hand, upon Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, in disguise, it will take him a long time before he can prove to everyone that he really is the King of Ithaca, to re-establish his identity and ultimately achieve nostos. However, he is seemingly one above Achilles in this way: he attains his kleos from his nostos.

Both of these heroes are undeniably human men with the capacity for goodness, love and bravery. And whilst I believe Odysseus to be the greater hero, it is a debate that can never be settled simply because no one can know definitively what a hero is.

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