It’s the economy, stupid!

The best thing I read today came when I was preparing a lecture for a Latin course. It was from E.C. Kennedy and A.R. Davis’s Two Centuries of Roman Prose.

This, and not that we may read Latin texts, is the primary reason why Latin should be required as one of the two subjects* indispensible to the education of any native speaker of an Indo-European language (e.g., any but two of the ten most important languages in the world), and in particular, anyone, not just a native speaker, who wants to become fluent in the English language (the most important language in the world):

*: Math, of course. You needed to ask?

“What about your choice of words? Television interviews with ‘the man in the street’ often produce answers of traffic-light predictability. At the moment what is liked is ‘smashing’ or ‘fabulous’ or ‘fab’, what is disliked is ‘disgusting’ or ‘diabolical’, while ‘no comment’ is the smoke-screen of ignorance (much more impressive than an honest admission). By the time this is printed the reflex words will no doubt have changed with fashion; but the latest favourites will be just as mercilessly overworked.

“The Romans were more fastidious; the words chosen had both to be right and sound right. Their language was rich in synonyms and subtleties; but so is English. Shakespeare’s vocabulary is the largest in English literature and probably unsurpassed anywhere. Since his time we have multiplied our verbal coinage, but how much of it, archaisms apart, lies buried away in leather-bound retirement, never taken out for an airing? Skimming through a dictionary (even a pocket one) is a chastening experience: buried treasure that too few can be bothered to disinter.

“Restricted though many of us are in our range of vocabulary, we are nevertheless prone to extravagance with the little we have. Inflation afflicts language also, and too many words chase too few ideas.

“Latin, by contrast, is an economical language.

“Inflexions* eliminate many trivial, mostly monosyllabic, prepositions, verbs do not need subject pronouns; and their insertion, or a change of order, avoids the clumsy devices English is obliged to use for emphasis.”

*: These are endings of words, common in many languages, uncommon in English, which tell many things about the word, e.g. the grammatical function, number, tense, voice i.a. –Phil.

“Latin gives wonderful value for space in an epitaph or motto. Take, for instance, a sentence from Sallust…, who says of Cato:

esse quam videri bonus malebat”** 

**: Also the motto of the Great State of North Carolina. –Phil.

“One translation (Penguin Classics) has ‘he was more concerned to be a good man than to be thought one’; another (Loeb) ‘he preferred to be, rather than seem, virtuous’. The first has nearly three times as many words as the Latin (14 against 5), the second…nearly twice as many, and loses in naturalness (especially the word ‘virtuous’, which does not quite meet bonus here) what it saves in words [sc., compared to the first one, which is more accurate as a translation –Phil.].

“This is in no sense a criticism of either translation; both, in their different ways, could scarcely be bettered.

“But the point is this.

“If English expends words at about twice or three times the rate of Latin, can we really afford to waste them on saying nothing, or very little, or merely repeating ourselves?

“Given something to write, especially in an examination, we abhor the blank sheet as nature abhors a vacuum, and all too easily become word wasters. Then is the moment to remember word-thrifty Latin, and the timely warning of [Alexander] Pope [1688–1744]:

Words are like leaves; and where they most abound

Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.

(Essay on Criticism vv. 309–10, written 1709)”


Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline. I hope you read something today, slowly, which makes your heart beat faster.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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