Archive for the ‘foreign language pedagogy’ Tag

Reading challenge, April 2015   2 comments

The study of spoken and (ancient) written languages intersect perhaps less than might be desirable, but sic semper erat, sic semper erit. Nevertheless, I would like to take a cue from Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese ( and suggest an intentional, focused reading effort for ancient language students.

For the month of April 2015, let’s take an opportunity to push reading limits, or at least to re-kindle reading habits in this or that language. It is no secret that wide exposure to multitudes of lines is a boon to philological understanding and enjoyment. By “exposure” I mean reading with understanding. And there’s the rub. This is what makes it possible for an advanced student to do 100 pages of text (or more) in a month, and a novice to do much less: the novice requires far more frequent recourse to the lexicon, grammatical tables, perhaps a translation, etc. than the more experienced user. But the payoff is experience itself. Here is some counsel from the great sinologist George A. Kennedy:

The value of a reference work is its capacity to furnish facts quickly, and a good reference work must be a well-ordered affair. But the quickness with which these facts are appropriated depends in large part on the skill of the user. And this skill results only from diligent practice. It is not enough to know about a book of reference; one must handle it, thumb the pages, know where the index is, know what sort of information it gives. You are not qualified for research unless you can locate the facts that are available quickly.



from his Introduction to Sinology: Being a Guide to the Tz’u Hai (Ci hai), (New Haven, 1981), 1 (emphasis in original)

He has the 辭海 cí hăi in mind, here as a reference work for students of Chinese history, but his advice is equally applicable to textual experience in a language, or philological experience.

Here, then, is the challenge for the month: not a contest, but an individual exhortation to purposefully spend a given amount of time and effort moving — or more picturesquely, plowing, sailing, crunching, &c. — through a text or texts, with understanding. You pick the language, the genre, the text(s), the length. The unique thing is to read carefully more than you might normally do for this month. It might be an opportunity to work especially hard on a language you’re now closely involved with, or it might be an opportunity to return to a language you’ve not read in a while. Simply to be not too vague, here are some language suggestions in no particular order (I assume that if you know the language well enough to do this, you know some texts to read, but in any case, the Bible is usually a good place to start due to the accessibility of texts and the ease of comparison with other versions):

  • Armenian
  • Christian Palestinian Aramaic
  • Syriac
  • Arabic
  • Jewish Babylonian Aramaic
  • Greek
  • Sogdian
  • Persian
  • Georgian
  • Turkish
  • Coptic
  • Gǝʿǝz
  • Uyghur

Do more than one language, if you like. How about reading the same text in more than one language? Read from printed editions, read from manuscripts, read from chrestomathies, whatever suits you. Quant à moi, my reading goals for the month include the following texts:

  1. Persian. 10 pages in the so-called Persian Diatessaron
  2. Turkish. Ali Bey’s Bible: Jonah 1-2; Mt 4:1-11; 11:17-19; 15:21-28
  3. Coptic. “Marina” (pp. 27-33) and “Siebenschläfer” (pp. 21–24) in W. Till, Koptische Heiligen- Und Martyrerlegenden: Texte, Übersetzungen Und Indices, vol. 1, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 102 (Rome: Pont. Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1935); volumes available here. Further on this story in Coptic, see here from my hagiography bibliography.
  4. Georgian. The five texts on David & Constantine in I. Abuladze and E. Gabidzashvili, ძველი ქართული აგიოგრაფიული ლიტერატურის ძეგლები, წიგნი IV სვინაქსარული რედაქციები (XI-XVIII სს.) (Monuments of Old Georgian Hagiographic Literature, Vol. 4, Synaxarion Redactions, [11th-18th Centuries]) (Tbilisi, 1968), 359-366; and the Parable of the Man & Elephant in the two versions of Barlaam and Ioasaph.
  5. Old Turkic/Uyghur. The text on p. 53 of  W. Bang, “Türkische Bruchstücke einer Nestorianischen Georgspassion,” Le Muséon 39 (1926): 41–75 (cf. Gabain, Gr., p. 264); and the text in P. Zieme, “Ein uigurisches Sündenbekenntnis,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 32 (1969): 107-121.
  6. Arabic/Garšūnī. Epistle of Ps.-Dionysius to Timothy, SMMJ 263

If you like, share what you plan to read in the comments below. And any thoughts on this enterprise generally are welcome, too. Happy studying!

Old Georgian phrases and sentences 20   Leave a comment

Jonah 1:5-6 (ed. Blake and Brière, PO 29, text findable online at TITUS here [biblical books listed in the frame on the right])

5 καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν οἱ ναυτικοὶ καὶ ἀνεβόων ἕκαστος πρὸς τὸν θεὸν αὐτῶν καὶ ἐκβολὴν ἐποιήσαντο τῶν σκευῶν τῶν ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν τοῦ κουφισθῆναι ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν· Ιωνας δὲ κατέβη εἰς τὴν κοίλην τοῦ πλοίου καὶ ἐκάθευδεν καὶ ἔρρεγχεν.

5   და შეეშინა მენავეთა მათ,

და ღაღადებდა კაცად-კაცადი ღმრთისა მიმართ თჳსისა,

და გარდაღურიდეს ჭურჭელსა ნავით ზღუად, რაჲთა აღუმცირონ მათ <გან>,

ხოლო იონა შთავიდა უბესა მის ნავისასა, და ეძინა, და ხურინვიდა.


  • შეშინება to be afraid (indirect verb)
  • მენავეჲ sailor
  • ღაღადება to cry out
  • კაცად-კაცადი each one
  • გარდაღურა to throw out, away
  • ჭურჭელი vessel, possession, thing, ware
  • ნავი boat, ship
  • ზღუაჲ sea
  • აღმცირება to lighten
  • შთასლვა to go down
  • უბეჲ inside part (cf. Aramaic ʕubbā [and Arabic ʕubb?])
  • ს-ძინავს (aor. ეძინა, as here; n.act. is ძილი!) to sleep (indirect verb)
  • ხურინვა to snore

6 καὶ προσῆλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ πρωρεὺς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Τί σὺ ῥέγχεις; ἀνάστα καὶ ἐπικαλοῦ τὸν θεόν σου, ὅπως διασώσῃ ὁ θεὸς ἡμᾶς καὶ μὴ ἀπολώμεθα.

6 <და> მოუჴდა <მას> ნავის-მხერვალი იგი

და ჰრქუა მას; რაჲსა ხურინავ შენ,

აღდეგ და ხადოდე ღმერთსა შენსა,

გჳჴსნნეს ხოლო თუ ღმერთმან, და არა წარვწყმდეთ.


  • მოჴდომა to come to (not to be confused with მოჴდა to take away, &c.)
  • ნავის-მხერვალი helmsman
  • აღდგომა to get up
  • ხადა to call
  • ჴსნა to save (გჳ-ჴსნ-ნეს aor. conj. 3s with 1p d.o.)
  • ხოლო თუ = ὅπως (and note the placement)
  • წარწყმედა to perish

On readers/chrestomathies: what’s the best kind of arrangement?   10 comments

I have spoken here before of my love of chrestomathies, with which especially earlier decades and centuries were perhaps fuller than more recent times. (I don’t know how old the word “chrestomathia” and its forms in different languages is, but the earliest use in English that the OED gives is only from 1832. We may note that, at least in English, the word has been extended to refer not only to books useful for learning another language, but simply to a collection of passages by a specific author, as in A Mencken Chrestomathy.) Chrestomathies may — and I really do not know — strike hardcore adherents to the latest and greatest advice of foreign language pedagogy as quaint and sorely outdated, my own view is that readers along these lines — text selections, vocabulary, more or less notes on points of grammar — can be of palpable value to students of less commonly taught languages, especially for those studying without regular recourse to a teacher. Since I’m talking about reading texts, I have in mind mainly written language and the preparation of students for reading, but that does not, of course, exclude speaking and hearing: those activities are just not the focus.

I have gone through seventy-one chrestomathies from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries in several languages (Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Old Persian, Middle Persian, Old English, Middle English, Middle High German, Latin, Greek, Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic, Aramaic dialects, &c.). The data (not absolutely complete) is available in this file: chrestomathy_data. By far the commonest arrangement is to have all the texts of the chrestomathy together, with or without grammatical or historical annotations, and then the glossary separately, and in alphabetical order, at the end of the book (or in another volume). Notable exceptions to this rule are some volumes in Brill’s old Semitic Study Series, Clyde Pharr’s Aeneid reader, and the JACT’s Greek Anthology, which contain a more or less comprehensive running vocabulary either on the page (the last two) or separately from the text (the Brill series). Some chrestomathies have no notes or vocabulary. These can be useful for languages that have hard-to-access texts editions or when the editor wants to include hitherto unpublished texts, but the addition of lexical and grammatical helps would even in those cases add definite value to the work for students.

In addition to these printed chrestomathies, there are some similar electronic publications, such as those at Early Indo-European Online from The University of Texas at Austin, which give a few reading texts for a number of IE languages: the texts are broken down into lines, each word is immediately glossed, and an ET is supplied, with a full separate glossary for each language.

From a Greek reader I have been putting together off and on.

From a Greek reader I have been putting together off and on.

Over the years, I have made chrestomathy texts in various languages, either for myself or for other students, and more are in the works. (Most are unpublished, but here is one for an Arabic text from a few years ago.) I have used different formats for text, notes, and vocabulary, and I’m still not decided on what the best arrangement is.

This little post is not a full disquisition on the subject of chrestomathies. I just want to pose a question about the vocabulary items supplied to a given text in a chrestomathy: should defined words be in the form of a running vocabulary, perhaps on the page facing the text or directly below the text, or should all of the vocabulary be gathered together at the end like a conventional glossary or lexicon? What do you think, dear and learned readers?

Old Georgian phrases and sentences   6 comments

I have for some time now been collecting from various translated and original Georgian sources phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that interested me for one reason or another. This corpus makes for reading-material that is both philologically instructive and diverting. While hardly making a commitment to daily offerings, I’m hoping to share regularly some of these selections with a translation and sometimes with a few philological remarks. So it is not a promise of “daily Old Georgian sentences” or the like, but even with less than daily frequency, perhaps for those that are interested — in practicing Old Georgian, in reading interesting sentences out of context, in finding unexpected words that lead to more things un-looked-for, etc. — the regularity and selection will prove to furnish a welcome pastime. I plan to share them as individual posts and to archive them all on this page.

So, to begin:

აღდეგ და ვიდოდე ვინაჲცა გნებავს სახლსა ჩემსა

Surge et vade quocumque vis e domo mea.

Get up and go wherever you wish out of my house!

Source: G. Garitte, Vies géorgiennes de S. Syméon Stylite l’Ancien et de S. Ephrem, CSCO 171-172 (Louvain, 1957), Life of Ephrem, § 2. Incidentally, Garitte’s very close Latin translations of Georgian (and Armenian, etc.) can serve as trusty guides to the original text that has been translated.

Comments and observations are welcome. Might this be worthwhile and fun for anyone (besides me)? Any recommendations on the endeavor?

Moving from printed to handwritten texts   2 comments

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was no printing, and students learned to read and to write in almost the same breath(s): the results of their hands matched the patterns of their eyes. Nowadays, of course, students in almost every case learn to read new languages with printed books open in front of them and nothing handwritten to be found. It easily goes unrecognized or unremembered that handwriting is part of a language taken in full, and that really both learner-readers and learner-writers of it do well to pay close attention to accepted written forms of the language, that is, handwriting. I quote T.F. Mitchell, who penned a manual for Arabic handwriting:

It is a curious fact that students of Arabic have in the past strangely neglected those elements of grammar without which there would be no grammar, viz. the letters. … we may go further and say that the number of those who write Arabic in an acceptable manner is remarkably small. We may note, too, in passing that handwriting shortcomings are not confined to students of languages having exotic scripts; a letter written in French by an English scholar of French rarely, if ever looks French, and if the language had been, say, a Scandinavian one, the foreign origin of the writer would have been even more immediately revealed. There exists, then, it would seem, a definite hiatus at the beginning of all language instruction which a systematic study of written forms would do much to remove. This hiatus is at its widest when the habitué of a given alphabet is confronted with another, when, for example, the user of a native roman scripts is called upon to write Arabic. (Writing Arabic, pp. 2-3)

He is pointing to two possible problems: one, in the case that the new language uses a script closely related to that of the student’s own language, of assuming that genetic relatedness of script equals identity of script, and two, in the case that the new language uses a script unrelated to that of the student’s language, of simply writing on paper (when that is even still done) in a script exemplified by printed type in that language’s script. I cannot forget the opposition I have encountered when teaching Hebrew from some students reticent to separate their Hebrew writing from the printed Hebrew in front of them, but with Hebrew, as with Arabic and other languages, there really is a distinction, in this case between modern cursive script and what is commonly printed in books (then there is also Rashi script). Of course, with Hebrew and with other languages, typefaces were first cut and their style later developed at least partly in recognition and remembrance of handwriting, but even if one wants to use a more monumental style of writing closer to that often found in type, it is more genuine to find some such hand to mimic, rather than a type based on that kind of hand. In our own mother-tongues (assuming that’s the language we get schooled in) we learn handwriting and printed letters as having different shapes, especially in the case of cursive writing, and, while there may be some conscious notice of this discrepancy when we first learn the two kinds of letters, for most of us that cognizance soon vanishes.

Other than giving attention to handwriting to be a more complete student of a language (foreign languages and our own), are there other reasons? Quintilian thought it a necessary concern for orators (Inst. orat. 1.1.28; Latin available here, English translation here, somewhat altered below):

Non est aliena res, quae fere ab honestis neglegi solet, cura bene ac velociter scribendi. Nam cum sit in studiis praecipuum, quoque solo verus ille profectus et altis radicibus nixus paretur, scribere ipsum, tardior stilus cogitationem moratur, rudis et confusus intellectu caret: unde sequitur alter dictandi quae transferenda sunt labor.

The art of writing well and quickly is not unimportant for our purpose, though it is generally disregarded by distinguished people. Writing is of the utmost importance in the study which we have under consideration and by its means alone can true and deeply rooted proficiency be obtained. But a sluggish pen delays our thoughts, while an unformed and illiterate lacks understanding, a circumstance which necessitates another task, namely the dictation of what is to be copied.

He’s talking about orators, but it’s not a big leap from the specific task of oration to other activities attendant to life as a well-educated human being. It is true, of course, that a great many people now write very little in longhand, chained as so many of us woefully are to the beguiling convenience of computers, tablets, and phones. While this is not the place to fully trace it out, there is some kind of analogy between printed books (and even electronic books) and digital text entry on the one hand and reading manuscripts and longhand writing on the other. We must remember, too, that at different points in time for different languages and parts of the world writing itself was a new technology.

Particular orthography in use at a given time or in a given region (note, for example the que in the Latin sentence quoted below) can, it is true, be gotten by printed editions — assuming, at least, that the texts’ editors aren’t overly normalizing — but graphic ductus, of course, is only the privilege of manuscripts (or inscriptions). (Yes, there is a ductus to printed letters, too, but they’re not our concern here, as they’re a given in language instruction these days anyway.) Printed type is a leveler of sorts: while there can be variation in type, there are multiple copies of the same type; with handwriting, it’s all at least a little different, even when written by the same person. The gap between handwriting and printed type varies from language to language, and from script to script within one language. Armenian erkat’agir for uncial and bolorgir for miniscule are not at all unlike their printed cousins, but nōtrgir and especially šłagir show less resemblance to printed type. If we turn to Greek and Latin, many documents on papyri, for example, are written in scripts that require much practice and patience to read (note the items in the bibliography below) when compared with the fonts of printed texts.

The pithy saying qui scribit, bis legit will be known to some readers (see this post elsewhere for a little discussion of it). The monk Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516) in his De laude scriptorum (ch. 6; pp. 60-61 in the ed. listed below), has the same idea in more words:

Fortius enim, que scribimus, menti imprimimus, quia scribentes et legentes ea cum morula tractamus.

Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading.

In my previous post, I hinted at the manuscript work of our intellectual forebears. A perusal of William Wright’s recently published letters (ed. Bernhard Maier, see below) will illustrate how often he copied manuscripts for his colleagues in other parts of the world, as will for other scholars manuscript catalogs of European collections, which sometimes have copies of manuscripts from elsewhere in the hand of scholars whose names we know well. It’s hard to doubt that there be some utility in copying by hand manuscripts, even in part, even though this is hardly a necessity any more as it was before the days of relatively easy and inexpensive photography. Close copying of a script hitherto at least somewhat unfamiliar can be very instructive. Thorough exposure to one particular scribe, too, or at least one particular style seems most advisable. (A similar view led Janet Johnson, in her Demotic Egyptian grammar, to use the work of just one scribe in scans as examples for each chapter.) Perhaps before that, reading manuscripts of known texts, especially with a printed edition at hand for comparison might be especially helpful at earlier stages when students don’t know the language as well as they later will.

Where do we find samples of manuscripts in different scripts for perusal, study, and copying? There are, of course, myriads of freely available inscriptions and manuscripts in a great variety of languages available online: αἰτεῖτε καὶ δοθήσεται ὑμῖν, ζητεῖτε καὶ εὑρήσετε, κρούετε καὶ ἀνοιγήσεται ὑμῖν. Also in the previous post I mentioned some manuscript facsimiles published by former generations of scholars. Fortunately, these are not only represented by the past. An extremely fine — not to mention extremely heavy (but moderately priced for its great quality and worth) — recent example is the Album of Armenian Paleography (ed. M. Stone et al.), which is notable for going into the 19th and (in the section “archival documents”) 20th centuries; a letter written in Armenian by the famous French linguist Antoine Meillet is even included. Specifically for more modern kinds of handwriting, I already mentioned Mitchell’s book on writing Arabic. I have beside me a reprint of Witter’s Deutsch-Englische Schreib- und Lese-Fibel und Neues Erstes Lesebuch für Amerikanische Freischulen (St. Louis, 1881), which teaches handwriting exactly alongside of Frakturschrift to American students studying German. Students learning Russian, too, find themselves in special need of instruction for the language as handwritten when compared to printed or electronic texts, and at least one modern textbook I know of points this fact out. Finally, two posts back I gave several examples of Greek typography and especially noted the ligatures based on Greek handwriting in Byzantine manuscripts; there is some video and explanations showing the basics of this kind of writing here.

As a simple example in closing, here are some images from an Arabic manuscript I recently cataloged, CFMM 274, an early twentieth century manuscript of hagiographic texts. Anyone who has lived in an Arabophone culture and grown accustomed to handwritten notes, letters, etc. will have little difficulty reading this scribe’s handwriting, but students who have spent most of their time with printed Arabic materials will find themselves facing more difficulty. Printed Arabic type is based on clear letter shapes that have a ductus with obvious beginning, middle, and end. This is the case, too, with some manuscript hands, Naskh, for example, but in the hand in these images, it is at least in some cases easier to think in terms of words being written than distinct letter shapes strung together. The teeth of some letters (e.g. sīn and šīn) so noticeable in Arabic type (and Naskh and other scripts), is here almost completely absent; single dots are the same, but double dots are a line and a triad of dots is a (sometimes) curvier line. There is, I think, no real shortcut to getting familiar with harder-to-read hands: one must slog along, preferably with a text not too difficult in terms of vocabulary and content, often stopping to compare this word with that elsewhere on the page; our knowns inform our unknowns, then becoming knowns for further elucidation of other unknowns (I’m sure Seneca, Boileau or the like has said this more finely, but no place comes immediately to mind).

CFMM 274, p. 1

The title and first sentence read قصة القديس الكامل مار اهرون بقلم تلميذه بولس. في كل جيل وفي كل حين يتلألأ الصديقون محبّو الله.

CFMM 274, p. 96

Here is the title of another text in the manuscript: قصة القديس مار اولوغ احد رفاق القديس مار اوجين.

CFMM 274, p. 177

Finally, these are a few lines from the life of Būṯāmīna (or Būtāmīna) — I’ve not yet identified this female saint, but in addition to this text, we have a Garšūnī copy (MGMT 157, pp. 42-44), also late, in which she is called Būṭāmīnā; I’ll be grateful for any other information on her. The text reads: في رؤيا بعد موتها بثلاثة ايام وبيدها اكليل وضعته على رأسي وهي تقول لي « ستكون معي بعد قليل » وفي اليوم الثاني قطع رأسه بعد ما اعترق بيسوع المسيح اعتراقًا جيدًا.

The easy access to quality images in great quantity of manuscripts brought about by digital photography, the internet, etc. means that students and teachers have right at their disposal a slew of manuscripts with which to practice both their reading and their writing, not to mention their literary and linguistic acumen. We are no longer pressed to feed ourselves on printed editions merely, and we would do well to make ourselves quite at home with manuscripts as often as possible, and that means tolerance and familiarity with a broad range of handwriting in the languages we work with.


Klaus Arnold, ed., and Roland Behrendt, tr., Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes (De laude scriptorum) (Lawrence, Kansas, 1974).

Malachi Beit-Arié et al., Specimens of Mediaeval Hebrew Scripts, 3 vols. [the last still forthcoming, I think] (Jerusalem, 1987-).

Janet H. Johnson, Thus Wrote ʿOnchsheshonqy: An Introductory Grammar of Demotic, 3d ed. (Chicago, 2ooo). Downloadable here.

Bernhard Maier, ed., Semitic Studies in Victorian Britain: A Portrait of William Wright and His World Through His Letters, Arbeitsmaterialien zum Orient 26 (Würzburg, 2011).

T.F. Mitchell, Writing Arabic: A Practical Introduction to Ruqʿah Script (London, 1953, with reprints).

C.H. Roberts, Greek Literary Hands, 350 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Oxford, 1956).

Richard Seider, Paläographie der griechischen Papyri, 2 vols. (Stuttgart, 1967).

________, Paläographie der lateinischen Papyri, 3 vols. (Stuttgart, 1972).

Michael E. Stone, Dickran Kouymjian, and Henning Lehmann, Album of Armenian Paleography (Copenhagen, 2002).

Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography (Oxford, 1912).

R.G. Turner, Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (Princeton, 1971).

Siegbert Uhlig, Äthiopische Paläographie (1988); ET, Introduction to Ethiopian Palaeography (1990).

Ada Yardeni, The Book of Hebrew Script (London, 2002).

A plea for the inclusion of manuscripts in language teaching   3 comments

(Reposted here for easy access and future convenience from the HMML Chronicle, Aug 4, 2011; see here.)

I hope the title is not too grandiose for the little petition here offered: my intent can be made clear in few words, but the practical working out of its actual implementation will naturally require more time and purposeful planning.

Manuscript study has been and will continue to be the focus of codicological learning and the preparation of text editions (however one might envision this latter task), but does it not, too, have a broader setting in the study of the languages and literatures of this or that community? From the title of this post, it is obvious that my answer to that question is in the affirmative. But is there any justification for this answer among our past masters? To state the question differently, is there plausible evidence that the expertise of our philological forebears owes anything to their thorough experience with handling manuscripts? At the very least in answer to this question we can point to the fact that some scholars widely acknowledged as masters were deeply acquainted with manuscripts. Now this does not prove that their skill and acumen is due strictly to their manuscript work, but it would be foolhardy to imagine that this activity did not at least in some way augment whatever philological ability they possessed beforehand. I need only underline the names of, to mention a few, William Cureton, William Wright, August Dillmann,[[1]] Theodor Nöldeke,[[2]] Anton Baumstark, Henri Hyvernat, and, more recently than these others, Michel Van Esbroeck. The last named scholar, it is said, learned to write Arabic by tracing the projected words from Sinai manuscripts in a microfilm reader, and thus provides a very practical example of using manuscripts at an early stage of linguistic education.[[3]] .

A typical situation for students of ancient languages, I think, is for them to get what they know especially through “book learning” first of all, with more or less guidance by an instructor or professor; that is, they learn grammatical rudiments and then start in reading some texts. (I don’t enter into here the worthwhile discussion of the relative merits of a more inductive versus a more deductive method of instruction.) The rest of their formal philological education generally continues just this way: reading text after text after text, some of these meriting and getting more attention than others, depending on the student’s interests. The venue in which a student studies and the professors with whom he or she reads will largely determine how much exposure to manuscripts that student gains. While access to manuscripts—for everyone, but especially for students—formerly required more effort than is now the case, none of us really have any excuse any longer for not fully utilizing manuscripts more than was our past wont. While some manuscripts still remain very difficult or impossible to get copies of, especially in certain middle eastern collections, we can do what we can. If one is studying a particular text, it may not be feasible to look at every manuscript or even the most important ones, but especially for students, it is immensely helpful to work with manuscripts as much as possible and as early in their philological career as possible. This is the case both for unedited texts and those with editions; in fact, in the latter scenario, students may, especially with a more experienced scholar’s guidance, learn important things about textual study, with things learned both negatively from poorly done editions and positively for those more expertly executed.

In earlier days of modern scholarship, the chrestomathy was a regular tool for students making their early forays into the study of this or that language and literature. Perhaps today’s students and those of tomorrow, too, might find profit in some sort of chrestomathia manuscripta to use at the same stage of their scholarly career, but very preferably earlier rather than later. Such chrestomathiae are not an entirely new idea: witness Hyvernat’s Album de paléographie copte pour server à l’introduction paléographique des Actes des martyrs de l’Égypte (Paris, 1888), Tisserant’s Specimina Codicum Orientalium (Bonn, 1914; it is telling that this volume appeared in the series called Tabulae in usum scholarum!), and pp. 401-410 of Cheikho’s Chrestomathia Arabica (Beirut, 1897). Jan Just Witkam’s excellent paleography site, with many Arabic and Persian manuscript specimens, and one in Malay, is a recent example of something students might add to their arsenal of study; Witkam provides a few folios from each manuscript together with a complete transcription of the selection, similar to what Cheikho had done in his Chrestomathia. I hope this little plea might serve as a call for more such tools to be put together and, more importantly, to be utilized in the classroom and the study!

[[1]] See Ernst Hammerschmidt, Äthiopistik an deutschen Universitäten (Wiesbaden, 1968), pp. 17-20.
[[2]] C. Snouck Hurgronje, “Theodor Nöldeke, 2. März 1836 − 25. Dezember 1930,” ZDMG 85 (1931): 239-281, pp. 247-248, 254-255. (Available online here; this Nekrolog includes a fine picture of Nöldeke.)
[[3]] Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, “Michel van Esbroeck, SJ (1934-2003), le collègue et l’ami,” Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 2 (2005): 409-440, p. 410. (Available online here.)

Translating into and composing in ancient languages   8 comments

When I studied Hebrew in graduate school, part of my work included translations from English into Hebrew, and after shorter sentences, I moved on and did parts from Weingreen’s Classical Hebrew Composition, a book rare at the time but which may have been reprinted since then. (See mention of this book, and some remarks related to the theme of this post, particularly in terms of Hebrew, here.) Composition into a language one is learning, even an ancient one, used to be very much the norm, so much so that you would be hard-pressed to find a 19th-century learning grammar (as opposed to a reference grammar) that does not include some composition exercises. I confess that I am not well-read on research (the latest or otherwise) for second-language acquisition and its pedagogical concerns, but speaking merely from personal experience, assuming there are adequate resources for it and a way to check it (preferably by another human being who knows the language better), second language composition is an excellent learning practice, not to mention possibly fun, depending on the material to be translated. Optimally, there should be a “known language” to “language being learned” glossary, with idioms, and a key, and the sentences to be translated ought to be based closely on passages that have been read. Good stand-alone dictionaries will of course also have idioms included.

Exercises for compositions and translations into Greek and Latin abound in classical textbooks, especially older ones. For work like this, a kind of practical vocabulary, one that is often not derivable from dull vocabulary lists at the end of language lessons in grammars, is necessary. Ancient, late antique, and medieval commentaries—there are immediate examples for Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, etc.—can be very helpful here, as can even later texts when they are written in an ancient language, as the compilers of the Delphin editions, a number of which, but far fewer than the entirety, are available online, recognized. A similar method was put to good use more recently in Waldo Sweet’s reader of Vergil’s Aeneid, Books I and II, which has the text, a facing Latin prose paraphrase, and commentary on certain passages from Servius and other commentators. Eleanor Dickey has made some material like this in Greek more approachable in her Ancient Greek Scholarship (Oxford, 2007).

Some classicists will also know of the method pushed by W.H.D. Rouse (see especially his Scenes from Sixth Form Life and A Greek Boy at Home, as well as The Teaching of Greek at the Perse School) and latterly the similar work of Hans Ørberg for Latin and the Italian adaptation of Athenaze by L. Miraglia for Greek. These all stress real direct use of the language and reading and composing without translation as an intermediary crutch. For one of the volumes (Sermones Romani ad usum discipulorum) in the Lingua Latina per se illustrata series, Ørberg used to good effect the Latin part of some colloquia (the original also has Greek) published with the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana (ed. G. Goetz, Leipzig, 1892).

A plethora of English to Greek or Latin exercises exist in (especially older) grammars, and there are many slim volumes for both languages specifically dedicated to composition. Taking a cue from Cicero’s De oratore, Roger Ascham in the 16th century was a strong advocate of double translation in learning Greek and Latin: the student would learn a Greek or Latin passage, translate it into English and then, after a period of time, put away the copy in the original language and translate from his or her English translation back into the original language and finally compare it with the original text. (I can’t at present locate my copy of The Scholemaster, where he discusses this method, or I would cite some lines from it. Those interested may find the work online here and probably elsewhere.) The Gaisford Prize, long a venue for Greek composition at Oxford, is also worth mentioning. Some of these are new compositions (mostly prose), others translations from English literature into Greek (mostly verse). Unfortunately, only a few of these interesting specimens have been published. In prose, the most notable piece is on a trip to the zoo in Herodotus’ Ionic Greek style. As an example of verse, some lines from Henry IV, Part 2 (Act 1, sc. ii, ll. 173-181) were rendered into Greek by George Nutt in 1866. Shakespeare’s words read (Lord Chief Justice to Falstaff):

Do you set your name in the scroll of youth, that are written down old with all the characters of age? Have you not a moist eye? a dry hand? a yellow cheek? a white beard? a decreasing leg? an increasing belly? Is not your voice broken? your wind short? your chin double? your wit single? and every part about you blasted with antiquity? and will you yet call yourself young? Fie, fie, fie, Sir John!

The Hellenic version is:

ἆρ᾽ ἐγγράφεις σὺ τοὔνομ᾽ εἰς νεανίας,

ὅστις γέγραψαι πάντ᾽ ἔχων τεκμηρία

γήρως γέρων ὢν ἐμφανῶς; ἆρ᾽ οὐχί σοι

λημῶσιν ὀφθαλμοὶ μὲν αὔη δ᾽ ἐστὶ χείρ;

ὠχρὸς παρειὰν καὶ πολιὸς γενειάδ᾽ εἶ·

γαστὴρ μὲν οἰδεῖ, τὰ σκέλη δ᾽ ἰσχναίνεται·

φωνὴ παρέρρωγέν θ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἄσθματός τ᾽ ἀεὶ

πονεῖς· διπλοῦν γένειον ἀλλ᾽ ἁπλοῦς ὁ νοῦς.

οὐκ εἶ σὺ γὴρᾳ πᾶς παρεξηυλημένος;

κἄπειτα ληρεῖς σαυτὸν ὀνομάζων νέον;


A recent example of Greek composition is the brief paragraphs on current events in classical Greek at a site I have from time to time in leisure moments enjoyed for some years.

While Greek and Latin are the languages for which (for speakers of European languages, at least) the most tools in this regard  are available, they are not the only languages that have been and can be learned this way. For example, for Sanskrit, E.D. Perry’s Sanskrit Primer (4t ed., New York, 1936) contains exercises, and an English-Sanskrit glossary (but no key). Huehnergard’s Grammar of Akkadian has (generally short) sentences to be made into Akkadian from English; there is an English-Akkadian glossary, and a key is available as a separate volume. I was very surprised to read recently in Budge’s autobiographical remarks in his By Nile and Tigris (London, 1920; vol. 1, p. 60) that at Cambridge, where he read Syriac texts with William Wright and Robert Bensly, with the latter he translated part of The Pilgrim’s Progress into Syriac! In his words, “During the years I read with him, I turned, with his help, the greater part of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ into Syriac, as an exercise in composition.” It is possible that this translation is somewhere among Budge’s papers, but I don’t know where these are located. This was apparently not the only English-Syriac composition Budge did at Cambridge, but this is the only specific project named under this head. When he sat down with Wright at the beginning of his studies with him, Wright

at once sketched out a plan of work, and terrified me with the list of books which he expected me to read. Certain set books in Syriac and Arabic he would read with me himself; Syriac works which were translated from Greek were to be read with Mr. R. L. Bensly, who would help me in translating English into Syriac; and the Hebrew and Chaldee books were to be read with the Rev. W. H. Lowe, who would direct me in Hebrew composition. (pp. 55-56)[1]

Learning a language this way, where possible, is not only effective in improving one’s knowledge of it, it’s also quite fun, as mentioned above, and as, for example, the people at Eisenbrauns know, when they have their annual Valentine’s Day contest for putting together amorous compositions in ancient languages (see the 2011 results here). Well-known songs might also be good practice; I’ve long thought “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and almost anything from Dark Side of the Moon would be suitable.

Related to all of this, too, is the place of memorization (of lines and texts, not paradigms and individual isolated lexemes) in language learning. Hopefully, there’ll be opportunity for a post on that in the future. Until then, I would be glad to hear of others’ experiences, both good and bad, translating into and composing in ancient languages.

[1] These lines are also quoted in the introduction of the new publication of some of Wright’s letters. See my review here.

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