Against Gibberish

(Please forgive me for posting about Latin Grammar when I have a new baby at home. The following was actually urgently necessary to write for work before I could continue my week of disemployment while doting on my new-met son.)

I have come to the conclusion that one of the most important goals for an upper school class in a classical language is to defeat the dread monster Gibberish, whom I picture as something like the awful Dynne from The Phantom Tollbooth. The Awful Dynne

Gibberish is what happens when a person knows all the basic parts of English grammar – subjects, verbs, direct objects, prepositional phrases – but it hasn’t occurred to him that these individual parts are particularly important. One subject is as good as any other, and if we switch the subject with the object of a preposition, what difference does it really make? Of course, it makes a great deal of difference. Without careful attention, the sentence “He himself was hurrying to them, and had sent the knights before him” becomes transformed into “Himself to them horsemen he was hurrying to send before him.” The sentence is utter nonsense, and no one knows exactly how it happened.

For this reason, the number one thing I emphasize in class (beside the importance of sheer memory) is slow, deliberate, exacting thought about how every word in the sentence relates to every other. This is the reason why you have seen (hopefully) your children agonizing over complex charts listing out every aspect and attribute of each and every word, perhaps drawing arrows over pairs of words or brackets to clump them together. The goal is to get them to see, plain as day, how each word in a sentence has an intrinsic role that cannot be separated from it. Once you’ve done this background work, translating the actual sentence is a snap. In fact, it’s so easy that you’re liable to forget that the only reason it was easy is that you did all this background work before you took up pencil to the task of translation. Translating a sentence without parsing out the words is the equivalent of attempting to do long division in your head: it can be done, and correctly, but oh the mistakes you are liable to make!

Of course, the ultimate goal *is* to be able to do all this work in your head. You should be able to look at a Latin sentence and all the parsing should flash before you as though it were blindingly obvious. And at that point, writing it all out would be no trouble at all: a little wasted paper perhaps, but no great investment of time or concentration. Some of my students are actually already almost there, and so I thought as we came to chapter 13 that I would try a little experiment and assign a few sentences each night without the charts and graphs – we would go over the parsing in class.

Now, however, with a new baby at home and someone in my place in the classroom the week before the first test, I think it’s a bad time to begin working on that transition. Translating without all the extra written work may seem easier, but so does canceling all practice the week before the big game. ‘Easier’ means you lose.

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

One thought on “Against Gibberish”

  1. Dakota was standing here while I was reading and commented that the picture looked like it was from Phantom Tollbooth. Smart kid. He couldn’t place what it was but he knew what it was from.


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