It’s all Greek to me

Sometimes when I get frustrated with Greek and Latin, I forget how hard it is to read my own language.  It’s one thing to read a newspaper, it’s another thing to read difficult texts like Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine which I am reading right now.  I am also studying to renew my Cisco certification, and I have to deal with gems like this one:

Have a look at the diagram below. It demonstrates the CIST topology calculated from the physical topology we outlined above. First, SW1-1 is elected as the CIST Root as it has the lowest Bridge ID among all bridges in all regions. This automatically makes region 1 a virtual bridge with all boundary ports unblocked. Next, SW2-1 and SW3-1 are elected as the CIST Regional Roots in their respective regions. Notice that SW3-1 and SW2-3 have equal External Costs to reach the CIST Root but SW3-1 wins the CIST Regional Root role due to lower priority. Keep in mind that in the topology with multiple MSTP regions, every region that does not contain the CIST Root has to change the IST Root election process and make IST Root equal to CIST Regional Root.

My eyes glaze over at this just like they do sometimes when tackling Plato.  Yes, classical languages present some new challenges, but many of the challenges they present are the same as those we encounter in our own language.  For example, I am having a hard time with the vocabulary in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.  I am also, however, reading an English translation of Anne Catherine Emmerich, and I have to keep a dictionary with me at all times!  And a passage like I quoted above is full of its own vocabulary.  If anything, studying classics has made me more aware of the difficulty and ambiguity of language in general, and it often makes me wonder whether we ever really succeed in communicating anything to one another!

Of bisons and riddles

A book I own contains the following fully grammatical sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

 My friend Susan was the only one who immediately asked, “Where’s the verb?”  One of my students reacted the way I did when I first saw the sentence: “Why do you have 8 buffaloes in a row?” 

Think equivocation and focus on the verb(s).  The sentence follows the following pattern:

Dogs dogs bite bite dogs.

What’s the translation?  How did you reach it?  Did you get mad?  Why or why not?

Subjunctivitis: Interlude (Subjunctive of Nagging)

“You were to finish this write-up last night – in fact, you should have finished it!”  An expression of frustrated will, nagging in Latin is a borderline case between will and wish.  In his New Latin Syntax, E. C. Woodcock discusses the use of imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive in a jussive sense (sections 110-111, 116), painstakingly distinguishing them from expressions of unfulfillable/unfulfilled wish.  He doesn’t use the term ‘nagging,’ of course – but I think it is the psychology of nagging that opens the spaces for grammatical ambivalence.  Here are two of Woodcock’s examples.

A nagging scene in Plautus (Rud. 841):

Quin occidisti extemplo? — Gladius non erat. — Caperes aut fustem aut lapidem. (Why didn’t you slaughter him on the spot??  — There was no sword… — You were to grab a club or a stone!

Cicero nags at Verres (Verr. 3.195):

Quid facere debuisti?  Pecuniam rettulisses, frumentum ne emisses.  (What ought you to have done?  You should have returned the money, you should not have bought the corn!”

Nagging is generally a waste of time – one can’t reverse what has or has not been done.  But it’s an effective roiling tool and a venting device.  Here is a modern article on nagging:

Nagging is a term used almost exclusively by men to describe women. […] Men are not naggers. They’re assertive, they’re leaders, and invariably they’re passing on their wisdom – and gently reminding [others]of the path to take if they happen to forget along the way. Sure, they criticize, find fault, moan and complain, but it’s always for the [other person’s] benefit. The repetition of their advice, like “Read the map before you set off! How many times must I tell you?” and “Can’t you make more of an effort with how you look when my friends come round?” shows admirable persistence and, above all, shows that they care.

Subjunctivitis: Diagnosis and Treatment (Subjunctive of Will)

(I posted this one on the Novice Corner page but it takes too long to scroll down and find it.) 

So – the Latin subjunctive. Verbs tell you a lot, so get used to examining them asap. Let’s first review the moods we’ve covered so far.

Indicative mood

If you want to present the action or state as actually happening, you’ll use the indicative mood. Remember that the indicative is not always a guarantee of truthfulness: if I say “I ate my lunch today,” I’d be lying, although I am using the indicative form of the English verb. Things get even iffier when I use the future tense of the indicative: “I will eat my lunch later today.” I can’t be stating a fact about my eating – just that I do have the intent to do it soon. But again – I may be blowing smoke.

Imperative mood

That’s the one I use when I command you directly: “Look at your verbs first!” and “Always examine the structure of the whole before focusing on the details!” You comply, or else.

Of course, I can instead urge you to do what I want you to do: “You should be focusing on your verbs first,” or “You might want to focus on your verbs first.” I leave it to you tell me which works better (I know people who go ballistic when you tell them what they might want to do). These alternative phrasings in English give you some idea of what the Latin subjunctive is all about – softness and tact, in most cases.

Subjunctive mood: Independent Subjunctives

There are three main types of subjunctive, depending on the way the speaker presents the action as non-fact: will, wish and opinion as to possibility. Today I am focusing on the first type.

A. Subjunctive of will. The speaker presents the action as something that s/he wills to happen. S/he also has the authority to bring it about – in a smart way. The negation is always ne (but see A4 for possible substitutions). The tense of this subjunctive is present, except in prohibitions (cf. A4 below).

A1. Hortatory subjunctive: “Let ‘s do the laundry.”

This type routinely comes in the first person plural. The name comes from a verb you should know – hortor, hortatus sum, hortari 1. Using the hortatory subjunctive is a nifty way to make people do what you want them to do – rather than directly commanding people, you present the action as an attractive possibility that you and your pals can perform as a group.

Here are some Latin examples (I leave these particular translations to you):

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus. (Catullus V.1)
Ne difficilia optemus. (Cicero, Verr. 4.15)

A2. Jussive subjunctive 1: “Let him stew” and “The Raiders should fire John Fassel.”

Note that in this case, you are not talking directly to the person you want to do this or that activity/state (this can be a rather imperious way of ordering, but sometimes is just laying down the rules). The verb is in the third person.

Vilicus ne sit ambulator, sobrius sit semper. (Cato, in his Res Rustica 5.1: “A bailiff should not be a parader, he should always be sober.”)

A3. Jussive subjunctive 2: “You must be careful, my dear Tiro.”

Instead of using the imperative, which demands immediate compliance from your interlocutor, you use this very gentle 2d-person form of jussive subjunctive. You can also use it with ne as a negative alternative of command.

Cautus sis, mi Tiro. (Cicero, Ad Familiares 16.9.4; for translation, see above)
Ames parentem si aequus est; si aliter, feras. (Publilius Syrus – cf. Short Reading 9 on p. 137 in Learn To Read Latin)
…ne me incuses… (Vergil, Aeneid 12.146 – cf. Short Reading 13 on p. 138 of your textbook)

A4. If you want to issue a negative command – aka prohibition – use the 2d person of the perfect subjunctive: ne hoc feceris, ne cogitaveris.  It’s the equivalent of “don’t even think about it.”  Instead of ne, some people substitute negative words, like nihil and nemo. Here is an example of a negative command from Cicero:

Nihil ignoveris…nihil gratiae concesseris… (Pro Murena 65: “Forgive nothing…concede nothing to favor…”)

And one from Livy:

Nullam aciem, nullum proelium timueris. (Ab Urbe Condita 2.12.11: “Fear no battle-line, fear no proelium.”).

One more independent subjunctive comes under this heading. We are going to see it Chapter 12. Here is a preview. Imagine I say to myself: “I should finish this write-up tonight…or should I?” The stern exhortation yields to doubt, and I begin to deliberate mecum. That’s in a nutshell the so-called deliberative subjunctive – a perversion of will and determination.

To be cont’d.

Quod putavi et praemonui fit – bewilderment is a mighty force

Teaching is a great way to discover gaps in your understanding.  Here is the sentence I read without a hitch but have difficulty explaining because of the nomenclature.  Pompey is writing to Ahenobarbus about Caesar’s wicked vise:

Quod putavi et praemonui fit ut nec in praesentia committere proelium tecum velit et omnibus copiis conductis penitus te implicet…

The translation is straightforward: “What I thought and forewarned about is happening – that he doesn’t want to join battle with you at present, and at the same time, with all his his troops concentrated, enfolds you through and through…”

The hickup comes when students ask you: “Isn’t that a result clause?”  Huh?  Why should that be a result clause?  You check Bennett and see that at section 297, he does indeed classify ut clauses after fio as noun clauses of result.  Allen & Geenough do the same at 569.2.  Ditto about Woodcock at section 168.  Keller & Russell call them “substantive ut clauses, mentioning in a footnote that “[t]hese noun clauses are sometimes known as Substantive Clauses of result” (at section 133, p. 424).  My Latin grammar from Bulgaria calls the ut after verbs like fio  ut explicativum – because (I translate) “the ut sentence the specific content of the action or state in the main clause.”  However, it too classifies these ut explicativum clauses as result for reasons that utterly espaced me at the time, and continue to escape me in praesentia.  Which is why I haven’t registered it.

Let me understand: what Pompey thought and predicted is happening, and what’s happening results in the wicked vise in which Caesar holds Ahenobarbus.  Doesn’t make sense – Pompey is a pretty straightforward dude who writes letters in the bullet-point form and leaves nothing unclear.  As a matter of fact, he repeats himself ad nauseam (which makes his letters a piece of cake to read – ask Scott), and he’s been predicting the events in the ut clause for ages.

It is obvious from my translation that I don’t treat the above ut clause as a result clause.  To me, it is rather an apposition, or explication if you want (the ut explicativum  registered somewhat): X (what Pompey thought and foresaw) is happening – namely Y (that Caesar doesn’t want to join battle with Ahenobarbus at present, and at the same time, with all his his troops concentrated, enfolds the latter through and through).

Result clause?  Give me a break.  “It’s happening that I am bewildered by all those nonsensical classifications.”  What on earth is happening, as a result of which I am bewildered??  My mind’s minding?

A frustrating language

I’d like to introduce you to a frustrating language by showing you some of its phrases.

This morning, as I lay in bed, I decided I had to get up.  The up part is clear, but why do I “get” up?  Why not just stand up?  What exactly do I get when I get up?

I knew it was time to take a shower.  But where was I taking the shower?  How can I even take it?  To take the shower anywhere, I would have to remove it, and my plumbing skills are rudimentary.  When I was in college, my roommate was British and laughed at this idea of taking a shower.  He would say, “I’m going to have a shower.”  I suppose having a shower is easier than taking it, in that you don’t need to remove it to have it.  But the dormitory shower wasn’t his, so how could he say he had it?

Look at the last paragraph.  I said I would “have to remove it.”  Again, having something, but what?  How can I have this infinitive?  And how does having it indicate what I really meant, which was that I “would need to remove it.”  Then I said that having a shower is easier than taking it, “in that” you don’t have to remove it.  In that?  In what?!

After my shower I heated up some hot water for tea.  Why I heated it “up” I can’t tell you.  I heated it in a kettle, but even though it was boiling, by and large, it didn’t go up, but stayed right there in the kettle.  I suppose the steam went up, but I didn’t heat up steam, I heated up water.

Why did I just say “by and large”?  By what exactly?  By expresses a relation:  A is by B.  The rock is by the house.  So what two things am I talking about, and which one of these two is large?

What a frustrating language.  I don’t know how anyone ever learns it.

A Difficult Sentence

Most of the different theories of language instruction floating around teach a second language in the same way: with reference to one’s first language. The first language is acquired without reference to any other language at all; the second is acquired in reference to the first. As much trouble as I’ve had learning Greek, it would be far harder for me to learn Greek with a Bulgarian Greek textbook, like Rali would have used. It’s interesting, therefore, to look at how we process our first language and deal with complex sentences.
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“Nothing in excess”

I’ve been writing a post forever on burnout – a rather serious condition, and one that I wanted to warn my students about – but I am by now burnt out even thinking about it.  Too much of a good thing does you no good.  Μηδὲν ἄγαν, as someone saidSuperflua nocent.  The other night I decided to give myself some extra calcium by way of yogurt, a cup of which contains 40% of your daily calcium dose.  I had three cups thereof and ended up cramping all night.  Turns out too much calcium does something to your magnesium levels, as a result of which your legs cramp.  

Now, it’s not as if I force-fed myself the yogurt.  I actually felt like eating it at the time, and the quantity seemed absolutely right.  It’s only afterwards that I came to doubt my decision.  Funny, those decisions always seem right at the moment you make them… 

According to some psychologists cited on the Wikipedia burnout entry, there are twelve steps on the road to peril, and it’s not necessary to take them in the order below:

  • A compulsion to prove oneself
  • Working harder
  • Neglecting one’s own needs
  • Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)
  • Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed)
  • Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent)
  • Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur)
  • Behavioral changes become obvious to others
  • Inner emptiness
  • Depression
  • Burnout syndrome

Have you been down this road?  I have.  It all starts with the desire to prove yourself worthy – as if you are not already.  But the harder you try, the more elusive the goal.  Things become especially painful when you aspire to be like someone else, because you’re your own person and can’t be anyone else.  I am not saying that we should not be inspired by other people, just that trying to reproduce exactly what they did to become great may not work for you.  And you neglect your own needs, as a result. 

An example – once upon a time, I thought something was seriously screwed up with me, because I couldn’t sit down and study for 10 hours straight.  I’d force myself to do it, though, because this is what I thought was the essence of being a student and a scholar.  You read all those article about people being disciplined and devoting a predetermined portion of their day to study.  Well – I can do it, provided that I take frequent breaks and 15-minute naps (the naps work wonders for me but may not work for someone else).  It’s essential, in my case, that the breaks be spontaneously taken; if I set a time for the break, I keep thinking about it and everything goes downhill.  The break may be in the form of quick stretching (which I just did) or of boot review, but I have to have it.

Can you overdo the breaks?  Not if they are spontaneous; yes, if you are bored.  To me, boredom is a wall, and I have to find a way around it by reading seemingly unrelated stuff and talking to people (say, on the SBP blog).  Amazing breakthroughs may come as a result of random discussions. 

So for me, the right balance between seriousness and levity works best because I am inclined to both.  Disturb this balance, and intellectual cramps ensue.  I think this is the case with everyone, although the exact proportions vary with each person.  What say ye?

P.S.  In addition to the Burnout Syndrome, there is something called Boreout – here’s a link or two.  Three’s a charm.  Plus you can test yourselves and see if you are bored out.