Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Gwynne's at it again

The odious Neville Gwynne is at it again, publishing books. This time, he's written a Latin book. He's so pompous, my immediate instinct is to disagree with anything he says, so when I saw an advert for it in the paper that said learning Latin would improve your English, I refuted it loudly and firmly to anyone who would listen.

I love Latin, and I think everyone should learn it. A friend who was subjected to the refutation pointed out to me several ways in which learning Latin can improve a person, and he actually mentioned things that most people never think of, such as scientific analysis (I think he said this, anyway - he said biology, so I suppose he may have meant that you'd understand binomial classifications better, which is true, but it would also help you with doing anything that requires careful, logical, rigorous analysis). This friend also agreed with Gwynne that Latin would improve your English, however, and until today I thought that I heartily disagreed with this point of view.

Latin grammar is sometimes held up to be 'better' than English, or alternatively the basis of English grammar. Although Latin grammar is a beautiful thing, it is not better and nor is it the root of our language. Gwynne says that Latin is the source of 'well over half' of English. This is sheer nonsense. I think he must be counting words, because I can accept that half of English vocabulary comes from Latin - we did borrow a lot when we were conquered by the Romans and then the French (I say 'we' - I've no idea whether I'm one of the conquerors or the conquered, or even if there's any way to tell at this distance). But even then, if you count tokens rather than types, it's nowhere near half. What that means is, rather than count the number of Latin-based words in the dictionary, you count a word each time it appears in use rather than only once. More common words tend to be Germanic rather than Latin, so the number of Latin-based words in any text is not likely to be half. Take my first paragraph: based on my instincts regarding the words' origins, only 10 of the 61 words are Latin-based. Hardly half. And then, words are so far from being the whole of language it's simply preposterous to say such a thing when our grammar is basically not Latin in any way whatsoever. So this is why I disagreed with the notion that knowing Latin improves one's English: a) There aren't really any similarities and b) it assumes that some people speak 'bad' English, and as a linguist I have to be a little bit forceful about making sure people know that there is no such thing (only inappropriate styles).

So, anyway, today I went on good old Amazon's 'look inside' thingy. And whaddaya know, I agreed with a lot of it (except that part about the influence of Latin on English). Let's look at what he says are the benefits of learning Latin:

  1. 'To know the source of any word is to understand it better'. Well, in some ways this is not true. Take a word like 'foliage'. Does it help you to know that it comes from the French for 'leaf'? I'm not sure it adds much. What about a word that's changed a lot over time, like 'nice'? It doesn't really help you use it any more accurately if you know that it comes from the Latin word for 'ignorant, unaware', although is is interesting and telling people this kind of this in detail has the nice side effect of getting rid of unwanted company at parties. And what about 'enormity', which is so misused, if you believe the pedants? Well, it has the meaning of a terrible crime, but is supposedly used wrongly by people who don't know any better to mean 'hugeness'. Do you know where it comes from? The Latin word for 'hugeness'. Clearly, we cannot base modern usage on etymology. But on the other hand, it might make your vocabulary more nuanced if you know the origin of some words. Gwynne gives the example 'radically', which comes from the Latin radix, 'root'. 'Radically' therefore means 'from the roots', which doesn't help me use it any better but might help me to think of it when I need a work that means that. 
  2. Translation from English to Latin requires you to reorganise the sentence, for which you need to understand how the sentence was put together. This is absolutely true and I have no quibble with it - it is good to understand how the mechanics of grammar works, and it does help you to write better sentences. 
  3. You must revise your translations thoroughly so they read well. Also true. This might make your writing more elegant, as you will be practising writing elegant translations and editing prose. However, the Latin is merely a means of doing this, and is not essential to the process. You might just as well translate any language, or even simply rewrite English passages. 
  4. The meaning of the Latin words and phrases we use in English will be 'very much clearer than if you were to rely solely on what a dictionary says as to their meaning'. Possibly. We don't use them all literally, so it won't always help, but I imagine it helps to remember what they mean if you recognise them, rather than simply having to memorise them. For instance, there's a mnemonic to get 'eg' and 'ie' the right way round, but I can never remember the mnemonic. I do know, however, that 'eg' stands for exempli gratia 'for example' and 'ie' stands for id est 'that is', so I get them right. (Side note: never follow 'eg' examples with 'etc' if you're writing an essay for me.) 
One benefit I'd add which Gwynne doesn't mention is spelling. I think if you know the root, you are more likely to spell certain words right. For instance, 'separate' is commonly misspelt 'seperate', but it comes from the Latin parare. Since I learnt that, I've never spelt it wrong.

So, unexpectedly, I'm broadly in agreement with Gwynne for once. Everyone should learn Latin right away.

We can't finish on such a positive note though. People will think I'm going soft. Here, have some criticism: Gwynne makes a number of mistakes regarding linguistic facts. Even without looking for them, I spotted two glaring inaccuracies, both, I think, a result of paraphrasing Wikipedia without understanding it properly and therefore introducing error. Here's the first:
Latin is the direct ancestor of, between them, the five so-called Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian) of the largest European language group, and of both of the official South American languages (Spanish and Portuguese).
Even ignoring the fact that it's odd to list Spanish and Portuguese twice (we could give him the benefit of the doubt as there are many differences between the European and South American varieties), this is a strange sentence. Those five are the Romance languages with the most speakers, but he implies that they comprise an exhaustive list of the Romance languages, which is not true. There are lots more. He also implies a contrast between 'the largest European language group' and the South American languages, but the language group he refers to is presumably Indo-European, and this is a classification based on relatedness, not geography, so Spanish and Portuguese are part of it regardless of where they are spoken. And perhaps the biggest inaccuracy of all here is his use of the phrase 'both of the official South American languages', which can only mean that there are two official South American languages, and those two are Spanish and Portuguese. This is wildly wrong: English, Dutch and French are all official languages in South American countries, and oh yes, there are lots and lots of indigenous languages, which Gwynne, in the grand tradition of the superior white man, overlooks. A brief glance at Wikipedia lists Quechua, Aymara and Tupi Guarani in Bolivia, Guarani in Paraguay, more than 60 indigenous languages with official status in Colombia, and so on. None of this is relevant to Gwynne's point, but getting the facts so wrong doesn't fill the reader with confidence about his linguistic expertise.

Here's the second, in a footnote:
The language that Latin replaced [in Britain] was the Celtic language.
No. It wasn't. There is no such thing, and there wasn't when Latin was around either. There are several Celtic languages, and although they all derive from a common ancestor, that was a heck of a long time before Roman Britain. I mean, really, the fact that I'm only giving Wikipedia references here tells you how easy it would have been to check a few of these claims.

[Update: I noticed that later in the book, he says that 'no modern language comes close to approaching Latin in difficulty'. I can't even be bothered to explain why this is idiotic, so I'll just invite readers to share their contenders for 'a language more difficult than Latin' (for an English speaker, presumably, as difficulty of learning varies depending on your native language).]


  1. 'a language more difficult than Latin' for an English speaker: Inuktitut? No positive transfer of any sort, unlike with Latin.

  2. Dear Laura,
    A friend just brought to my attention your 2014 article on Martin Gwynne regarding his Latin grammar. The article may be old but I thought I'd give some feed-back. I have known Mr Gwynne for over 18 years, although we are no longer in friendly terms. The first thing to say is that he is not 'odious;' and the second thing to say is that he is an incredibly learned man. Having said this, Mr Gwynne is vastly self-taught in Latin and this only at an elementary level (I think I'm right in thinking he has had a basic education in Latin at Eaton) and he is most certainly NOT an expert,a thing that I have put to him over and over again, and upon which we have crossed swards many times. I have not read his Latin or his English grammar because I refuse to read them, so I cannot in all honesty pronounce on either. My principle is that it takes infinitely more practice and experience to be able to proclaim oneself an expert at anything, and, in Latin at any rate, Mr Gwynne quite simply has neither. The second observation is that one rarely gets to self-proclaiming to be an expert at anything, but, generally, this recognition comes from OTHERS, and it is based on the amount and quality of the work one has done, and in the case of Mr Gwynne and of Latin, this amount to nothing. You are absolutely right on his "Wikipedia" copy/paste techniques. I have repeatedly pointed out the dangers of what I call "Google-knowledge," that is to say, a superficial information gathering to impress people, with little or no grasp of the subject matter. To same extent, the same applies, to Mr Gwynne's English, which he oftentimes misuses badly. It is important to understand that Mr Gwynne is NOT a an impersonator. He does have, though, a largely benevolent tendency to exaggerate. Incidentally, I happen to agree with him on the importance of learning Latin. I also agree with many of your counter-arguments. Finally, just to be clear on this, I do not claim to know Latin better than Mr Gwynne. My Latin comes from basic secondary education and it is best classed as one notch above zero.
    Best wishes
    David A. Castelnovo, Brighton, UK