Advice in old age…

Inspired by Diana McPherson’s blog post about badly attributed quotes, I searched for Cicero quotes and found this first, on “brainyquote.com“:

Advice in old age is foolish; for what can be more absurd than to increase our provisions for the road the nearer we approach to our journey’s end.

Quite apart from the lack of correct punctuation at the end, it struck me as a clever quote, but a bit odd. It’s not very like Cicero to speak against advice – effectively against intellectual discourse. I wondered where it was from. Was he quoting someone else? Did he even say it?

So I searched. It wasn’t easy, as brainyquote.com don’t let you copy and paste their quotes. And they use a translation that nobody else seems to use. But eventually I found this on the University of Chicago website:

As for avariciousness in the old, what purpose it can serve I do not understand, for can anything be more absurd in the traveller than to increase his luggage as he nears his journey’s end?

Which is quite different. For some reason the internet has seen fit to change the quotation so that it advises against advice, rather than greediness (which makes more sense in the context).

It is also from a text called Cato Maior de Senectute, so purportedly Cicero writing what Cato the Elder might have said. But I understand that it is generally accepted that this text can be taken to represent Cicero’s real views, and Cato was used largely to add authority in the model of Plato’s dialogues.

The moral? Don’t trust these cod wisdom quotes websites. And avarice in old age is foolish!

Did the Romans really speak Latin sir?

Usually about this time in Year 9 Latin, when they are meeting the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives, somebody asks me if the Romans REALLY spoke this frankly rather labyrinthine language. It reminds me of this sketch by Eddie Izzard (contains swearing. In English, not in Latin).

It is a question that makes sense, but demonstrates a lack of understanding. I think it comes from an implicit assumption that all people throughout history have had the same linguistic way of thinking, and given that their thinking doesn’t work in the same way as the Romans’ did, that the Romans must have tried to speak Latin using brains wired towards the English language.

I tend to explain to the students that the Romans may not have been able to work out what the words in a sentence were doing based on word order, but the feel of the ending of the word instantly affected how they thought about that word’s import to the actions being described.

It is similar with gender in most languages other than English – many of my students (and I have to confess to struggling with this myself) cannot see how an apple ‘looks’ or ‘feels’ feminine, as my French exchange once told me, to explain his incredulity with me getting the gender of a noun wrong.

I also explain that there is a difference between learning a language intuitively as a child, and learning a language later in life. There are all sorts of rather complex linguistic structures and exceptions to rules that people use all the time without knowing it. Take English plurals as an example. Tgis is how my lesson for year 7 goes on these…

Latin plurals are complicated, of course. There are different plurals depending on the declension. puellae, but servi and mercatores. English is much easier. What do you add to make something plural in English? “An s.” Yes, of course, so if we have a simple word like man, we just add an s. Mans. Oh no hang on. Well, that is just a bad word to use. With that word you change the a to an e. But most words, like child… Oh no. Er… Sheep? Ah. Cactus?

You get the idea. Their homework that lesson is to make a list of as many different ways of making English plurals as they can. Most of them get more than 25.

I sometimes go on to make an analogy. There are so many things we use intuitively without really knowing how they work. The iPad I am currently using for example. I don’t really know exactly how I can communicate with the world using a small slab no bigger than a book. It baffles me. But I can do it. If someone were to explain how it works, would I be confused about the fact that people are able to use it, given its complexity?

So anyway, to cut a long story short, yes, the Romans definitely used Latin. Of course, they certainly wouldn’t all have written or spoken it perfectly every time they put stilus to cera, or opened their mouths, but their intuitive grasp of language (I’m aware of my reading of Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct at this stage) surely would have meant that they got it right most of the time.