There are people raised in a Catholic or Protestant milieu who say: “I am an atheist, I am an agnostic, religion has no effect on me.”
I think it to be incorrect mostly. Religion is only a part of a culture but it is usually at the centre of it and it affects so many behaviours that it is difficult to escape its influence – no matter our religion or non religion -, unless we have the great power of the entirely detached sage, which is seldom the case.
Take my father. He was an atheist to the extent he died without any repentance. His family had been Waldensian (or Vaudois,) an evangelical movement close to Genevan Protestantism. Such a decent man, my father, though strict in a way hard to be found in Italy outside certain Western Alpine valleys (see map above.)
But most of all, my father could not forgive.
When I became a moderate, non violent communist – only 2 years it lasted, I was so young! – a portion of my father’s heart totally ruled me out. Those were ‘the years of lead‘ in this country. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I had to face the consequences of my act. My brother-in-law possibly. He knew all the military big shots. So when my military service days arrived I was sent to a sort of re-education military camp where they tried to break me, and almost succeeded.
For this and other reasons – such as a sunny good-natured Roman Catholic mother to whom redemption was always possible – I always had problems to accept any irrevocable condemnation.
The death penalty, for example, I consider it an unjustifiable act of barbarism, although, what a cruel irony, I’m a ruthless bastard in some corners of my soul because of this extra layer of Roman rogueness my father would have found less repugnant had he understood it was just a camouflage for something closer to him, ie related to the severe – and mostly but alas not totally extraneous to me – mountain culture he came from.
Large pitch-black eyes in the sun light
I don’t want to think about this. My ancestral heritage is only partly from the austere West Alps. I want to think of where I’ve always lived.
Such a sea, such a sun – my Greek mentor now helping me to day dream – with young women vintaging in the fields, vine leaves at their temples, “their faces tightly wrapped in white wimples to keep them from being burned by the sun. They raise their heads when a person passes, and you glimpse nothing but two large pitch-black eyes flickering in the sunlight and filled with visions of men.”[Kazantzakis]
I’m bathed in the Roman country light. My life has been rich though hard and a bit tormented (which added some depth in my not so humble opinion.)
I take the responsibility for all my sins, for the good and for the evil, like every one should. Let me quote Dante albeit his verses are a bit disproportionate here (“horrible my iniquities had been” …).
Orribil furon li peccati miei;
ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.
Horrible my iniquities had been,
But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms
That it receives whatever turns to it.
By the way, what the hell happened to the Protestants? It seems to me they focused more on those early parts of the Old Testament when the Jews were not much civilized yet and worshipped a merciless, unforgiving God.
For, if ye forgive not…
I was yesterday reading Matthew (6,14-15) in the most beautiful language ever to me.
14 Ἐὰν γὰρ ἀφῆτε (for if you forgive) τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (men) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) αὐτῶν (of theirs,) ἀφήσει (will forgive) καὶ ὑμῖν (also to you) ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν (the father of yours) ὁ οὐράνιος (heavenly)·
15 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀφῆτε (but if you forgive not) τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (men) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) αὐτῶν (of theirs), οὐδὲ ὁ πατὴρ (neither the father) ὑμῶν (of yours) ἀφήσει (will forgive) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) ὑμῶν (of yours.)
As for the human mind, I’ve often thought about the metaphor of the museum.
Our mind, one of the functions of our brain ‘and other parts of our body’ (Sledpress’ objection I found interesting,) contains and allows that we manifest the infinite traces of our past (past conceptions, language, behaviours) from Stone Age or earlier onwards. Evolution enters the equation, but we will leave it alone for now.
Whatever world region we are from, we should be concerned about probing such repository I believe, that is our roots or cultural ID.
Language is an important portion of this ID. What a great digging tool for example etymology is, ie history of words (shown a bit in our previous post, see a good on-line tool) although lots of things are there well beyond words (see points I and IV below.)
A few examples, to better understand.
(Italian-mind related, but they could hopefully work as a method example to different minds as well)
“Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage 1960 Lancia Flavia (see image below.) Mario is from Naples, a South Italian city founded by the Greeks in the 8th cent. BCE.
On the way back I exclaimed merrily: ‘Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil!’
Mario snapped with a worried look: “Hush! hush! Don’t you say that!”
I well knew what he meant:
“Oh please you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down or anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mereutterance of happiness would attract ill luck or the envy from someone … Well, the envy from whom?
The ancient classical Greeks (V cent. BCE) believed their gods lived an eternal blissful life and envied men tooprosperous that dared to get close to their happiness. They then humbled and punished them. That ‘too prosperous’ means it was excess and arrogance (ὕβρις) that was basically abhorred by the Olympian gods, which made people afraid of showing their happiness, or of being arrogant. It was like a socio-religious regulation valve, plus a factor without a doubt of the mostly upper-class (tho not exclusively) marvellous ‘5th cent. BC’ Greek perfect equilibrium.
Now, 2400 years later (!) people in Southern Italy and Greece are still afraid of expressing satisfaction when things are going WELL, lest ‘something’ might spot them and whack them.
Such a great item in their museum mind allow me to say!!
A personification of Goddess Fortuna (“they invoked their fortune”) seen as something capricious (“the tricks of fortune”) is deeply impressed in modern Western minds and language;
The wheel of fortune also used in many popular TV shows is a survival of the goddess, often represented with a wheel at her side (read more)
III.When we say ‘deep in my heart‘ or ‘she / he broke my heart’ we refer to a scientific superseded idea that the heart, and not the brain, is the seat of emotions. The Stoics saw in the heart the seat of the soul, Aristotle the seat of reason and emotion, the Roman physician Galenus the seat of emotions etc.
Another great mind item this laughter – I must record it some day – that belongs to the modern Roman mind, certainly not to the Greek one, modern or non modern.
Update. Here is a sample of such laughter. Click on these words to listen to it: Marina’s (and MoR’s) laughter.
In short, before more details if you will
There’s like a hugemessyarchive in our head so stuffed with things that just beg to be organized a bit and come to light.
Let’s get it all out dear readers. With meditation, concentration and fertile idea-exchanging let us make that inventory my good old Mentor used to mention us when we were so young.
As for my own cultural ID, I am trying to dig a bit with the present blog.
[see in-depth details from our posts. Skip the first section – similar to the above writing – and start reading from Socrates’ T-shirt big face onwards – like the one above]
My Latin and Greek classes are starting but I need some inspiration. Bits of the said languages will appear from now on over a gradual and mild crescendo. I might be didactic now since my mind is drained a bit.
The inscription on the Constatine’s Arch above (315 AD) I made it shorter. It is symbolic of the entire story I am about to narrate [see a big image of it]
And do not to worry if you don’t understand all the words, just carry on! I have learned languages with the natural learning method – see this post – ie through non formal practice. It’s the way babies learn. It proved effective at any age, with me and many other people.
Tomes and Sibyllae
I can hear readers crunching popcorn (one at least) which is good for a mind journey although I don’t know the direction we will take. I have so much confusion in my head for a task bigger than myself, for stress I have accumulated and for something terrible (but auspicious) that happened a few days ago:
I have finally retrieved my grandfather’s tomes, my Di Penates or Patron Gods, I could say [Di = Gods, Deus = God.]
It’s not the commercial worth of tomes that range in any case from the Renaissance until the 1940s. It’s theirvalore psicologico especially, plus their content, archaeology and humanities mostly.
I had been looking for them since years. 2-3 weeks ago I chanced to say afew words to one of my two senseless sisters I seldom see but plan to fix that, one day or another:
“Hey donna [domna, domina ] it’s AGES I don’t see them, grandpa’s books. Does anyoneknow where the hell have they gone for Chrissake??”
Sometimes my voice gets pretty peremptory, I’ll admit. With such powerful sibylsso hard to handle – Sibyllae: the Romans had few since Σίβυλλες were Greek mostly – male verbal force is a weapon I use once every 15-20 months possibly 🙂
My new family – Fatum decreed – is again a sibyllinafamilia composed of a wonderful wife, 2 gem daughters, an ol’ Philippine woman, a sancta about to defeat gravity I’m sure – and Lilla dulcis in fundo, our female Bolognese dog, greatest Sibyl of them all I have little doubts.
In any case as if by miracle days later while I was opening the condominium attic door I much to my horror saw the tomes all scattered in messy piles and ALL SOAKED with WATER!!
My rage starting to surge in waves – I cannot believe it, leaking water was a known problem in that room! – I began barking so loud my wife, the Philippine and two workers happened there by chance ran worried (for my health) to the place and helped me carry the tomes down to my study-room, to THAT moment a tidy, quiet place for writing and reflection.
Well, look at my refugium NOW!
A protector deity in our home
My paternal grandfather’s tomes, I said. He is the genius of our family, in both the modern and the ancient sense (the latter at least to me, my sisters having my father instead as their genius: see a Roman genius below.)
My father’s side means the North-West Italian alpine region of Piedmont – ie part of Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Narbonensis – a totally different universe I’m ignorant of except for what was transmitted to us by dad himself – no small thing in any case.
I never met grandpa. He died of leukemia 2 years before I was born. I’ll say we are somewhat black sheep (oves nigrae?) compared to him – my dad and I.
He lost the fortune he had created from scratch because he firmly believed in his country, in Mussolini (since he had saved Italy from communism), but most of all he had (together with my father) a sort of feudal adoration for the Piedmontese King Vittorio Emanuele III d’Italia, which is understandable although a bit blind since this king was no big deal plus he basically betrayed us all also by cowardly fleeing from Rome when the Nazis arrived, which resulted in extra havoc – one reason, among many, why theSavoia lost their throne and we now are a Republic.
Fulvia[an outspoken Romana Venus with South titbits, one reason possibly she abhors anything North of Rome, even just Tuscany:]
Oh how interesting! I thought we were going to have language classes, pupus.
Extropian: Fulvia, MoR means his grandfather is like an inspiring guide to him.
MoR:My nature is shallow compared to his. I mostly like he mastered maybe 8 languages – both modern and ancient – and despite being a pioneer in aeronautics plus an hydroelectric engineer entrepreneur, the day he sold his company and retired (all his money in treasury bonds fallen to dust, pulvis, because of the war) – he dedicated his last years to the study, or studium, of the Etruscan language.
Mario: Lingua Etrusca hodie exstincta?Per Hercules, why not Roman or, better, Greek stuff? C’mon pupus meus!
MoR: Stop with this pupus you moron.According to my father who seldom spoke about grandpa he adored mysteries and, well, the Etruscansare a mystery.
Flavia:Sempre co’ sti napoletani eddagli a Mario! (always with these Neapolitans etc.)
[Naples comes from Νεάπολη id est Νέα Πόλις id est Nea Polis id est ‘New City’]
Weren’t these Tusci a great non Indo-European folk coming from some unknown place of the valde arcanus Oriens? I love all esoterica!
MoR: Not much esoterica here Flavia, basically a big enigma, or αίνιγμα. The Romans, it has been said, called them Etrusci or Tusci (thence Tuscany.) The Italian Greeks Τυρρήνιοι, Tyrrhenioi (thence the Tyrrhenian Sea.) But they called themselves Rasenna, or the shorter Rasna.
Their language not yet well deciphered, their civilization not yet well understood, one additional reason is Rome possibly embodied them into herself.
Pausa nunc. Non Chia vina aut Lesbia but some simple tuscum de Caerevinum (see Caisra in the map above, Cerveteri hodies), a light red Fontana Morella, good for a small snack with bits of cheese, or caseus. Lots of laughing, moronities. Pausae finis.
Why now Calabrian Κρότων (Crotone)?
MoR:Rome and all Westerners are a bit Tusci – also the British or the Swedish with their aurora borealis eh Fulvia? 😉
Fulvia:Mwaaahh! Those pale ghosts from the North pole sleeping with polar bears? Oh Oh OOHH Giorgio – she bellowed – you’re totally nuts!
[*much appropriately, she – vacca nostra – adjusted her bust, id est her gorgeous mammae she unfortunately knows how to impress men with … well, only the silly men easily to get impressed, of course*].
[To Italian readers.Vacca – Latin for ‘cow’ – if possibly evocative, it’s not derogatory]
MoR: Fulvia, ehm, you forgot the Latin alphabet the Swedish (or the Brits) took from Rome owes a lot to the Rasna alphabet. As simple as that.
Embodied … one might say Calabrian Crotone, Κρότων, disappeared in much the same way. Such a great city, Κρότων from Magna Graecia, which is coastal Southern Italy. And Crotone surely a key place in our whole story. Oh you’ll be VALDE suprised, VERY obstupefacti, I am sure.
Flavia: *puzzled look in her deep black eyes*[a mixture of Minerva & Juno, extremely brilliant at school; Fulvia? Well, Fulvia was and is a shameless Venus]
I don’t know where you’re aiming at. Magna Graecia – Big Greece or Μεγάλη Ἑλλάς – didn’t possibly correspond to Southern Italy only. The Greeks perhaps meant by Μεγάλη all the Greeks scattered over the coastal Mediterranean.
Besides, Crotone and the Etruscans, which connection …
MoR: Little in fact, but I mean, Crotone, so great and influential, what was left of her today? Same fatum as with Rasna, ie few remnants. And I might agree with Magna Graecia.
Κρότων continued to live in the centuries and seamlessly became today’s Crotone. Same happened to the Rasna folk. On a much larger scale same thing happened to Graeci-Romani Gentiles, id est Pagani. They were embodied – Paul Costopoulos pointed it out well – so we don’t see them. But … postea, later.
Extropian: Actually they are haunting us, one can feel their animae even in the new frontiers of physics! I so hope you’re taking us where I suspect you’re taking us. Ego expectans atque VALDE sperans, pupus de Roma meus 😉
Mario:Maro’, I knew we’d get back to the Greco-Romans, un bravo pupo sei. But just one thing, the gladiators: I’ve heard they came from the Etruscans.
Extropian: The Etruscans had many mores (Latin) they transmitted to Romanis, not that I am that big expert or valde expertus.
And the women or mulìeres Giorgio? Being expertus in just math and physics, can you give us onereason why Fulvia is impudens, or evenimpudentissima? 😉
MoR: Ah ah ah! Well, as far as I know the Roman mulìeres were freer than their Greek counterparts since the days they mixed with the Etruscans, but I should check that better.
Flavia: Oh, I’m more experta! I once read a wonderful fabula about this girl from Rome when Rome was so ancient she was zero compared to the Etruscans. She chanced to marry to this Rasna boy and went to live in Arrētium, Tuscia (see the Etruscan map above and ceramics below.) Many things happened to her but what hit me were her rasna sister-in-laws, the way they were mocking her: to their eyes she was …provincial, stupidly decorous and restrained.
MoR: Arezzo was more powerful, ancient & refined than Roma. Titus Liviuswrote Arretium was one of the 12 capitals, or Capitae Etruriae, said also Dodecapolis (δώδεκα, 12, + πόλeις, cities).
Fulvia:*giving Extropian her old mischievouslook * Impudentissima?? Ah adulescentulus meus, you just wait and see!
*To MoR* THAT is in fact much less fastidiosus, less boring.
MoR.Back to our points amici mei!
*Looking at Fulvia casually* My NORDIC grandmother used to kid his husband: “Tusci are just a bad copy of the Greeks also in the arts.” Nothing but a jest, though when grandpa died in 1946 she – nicknamed carrarmato di piume (tank disguised with feathers) – exerted her ‘feathers’over my poor dad who hadTOTA his father’s vast materials and studies collected and revised by experti.
Among them, an advanced Etruscan grammar, according to grandma. In the end tota were given Piedmont-like to Fatherland, ie handed over to Massimo Pallottino, the scholar about to become number one in world Etruscology.
Whether my grandfather’s materials were of any help I cannot say. I never heard my grandfather mentioned anywhere in any scholarly paper about the Rasna …
Mario:*Looking at my grandfather’s photograph* You have his same face, MoR, and your eldest daughter too. Amazing.
Fulvia: Let me see .. you talked earlier of India, reincarnation: had he reincarnated in you, he must have been very unethical in his life despite his achievements .. 😉
MoR: You are certainly right, and believe me, you’re damn lucky I am not in the mood of explaining what your next reincarnation will be!!
Flavia’s ancient Roman laughter is heard in the room. It is loud, slightly crass but luminous, as it should be and as I hope it will ever ever be in the future, somewhat like a sympathetic, warm BIG HUG to the world.
Everybody left, except Flavia. We went to the kitchen and had a drink.
“Listen G – she said softly – we know each other since high school. I’ve heard you don’t see many friends after your retirement and that this research is what you care for more than anything else. Is it true?”
“No Flavia – I replied – I care infinitely more for my family. Yet, true, it’s taking me away from the present and reality and, while having me plunge deeper and deeper into Orphism & the ancient religions, it’s making me lunatic a bit and progressively isolated, sort of getting dangerous for my inner balance. But please don’t worry, I have spine, but most of all, I have the love of my wife and daughters and, of some dear old friend, I hope.”
“You surely have” she said, her eyes shining a bit. After another drink in silence she left.
Rome, April 19, 1485. The corpse of a very young woman is found in a sarcophagus along the Appian Way [see image above,] face and body beautiful, teeth white and perfect, hair blonde and arranged on top of her head in the ancient way. The body seems as fresh as that of a girl of fifteen buried a few moments – and not 15 centuries – earlier.
From Antonio di Vaseli’s diary:
“Today the news came into Rome … The said body is intact. The hair is long and thick; the eyelashes, eyes, nose, and ears are spotless, as well as the nails. … her head is covered with a light cap of woven gold thread, very beautiful … the flesh and the tongue retain their natural colour.”
Messer Daniele da San Sebastiano, in a letter dated 1485:
“In the course of excavations which were made on the Appian Way … three marble tombs have been discovered … One of them contained a young girl, intact in all her members, covered from head to foot with a coating of aromatic paste, one inch thick. On the removal of this coating which we believe to be composed of myrrh, frankincense, aloe, and other priceless drugs, a face appeared, so lovely, so pleasing, so attractive, that, although the girl had certainly been dead fifteen hundred years, she appeared to have been laid to rest that very day. The thick masses of hair … seemed to have been combed then and there … the whole of Rome, men and women, to the number of twenty thousand, visited the marvel ..that day.”
Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929) – the Italian archaeologist from whose work I took the above quotes – collects other testimonies:
“The hair was blonde, and bound by a fillet (infula) woven of gold. The colour of the flesh was absolutely lifelike. The eyes and mouth were partly open … The coffin seems to have been placed near the cistern of the Conservatori palace [on the Capitoline hill, see image below], so as to allow the crowd of visitors to move around and behold the wonder with more ease.”
“Among the crowd were many who came to paint her. The touching point in the story is not the fact itself, but the firm belief that an ancient body, which was now thought to be at last really before men’s eyes, must of necessity be far more beautiful than anything of modern date.”
Yes, touching, and revealing.
She was more beautiful than anything modern because she came directly from ancient Rome.
Sweeping Europe With Greece And Rome
Why classical antiquity, the past, had become so attractive?
A new fervour of rediscovery coming from Italy had begun to sweep Europe: manners, architecture, eloquence, military techniques and the overall thought of Greece and Rome.
Antiquity had exerted occasional influence on Medieval Europe – argues Burckhardt – even beyond Italy. Here and there some elements had been imitated, northern monastic scholarship had absorbed extensive subject matter from the Roman writers.
“But in Italy the revival of antiquity – Burckhardt observes – took a different form from that of the North. The wave of barbarism had scarcely subsided before the people, in whom the antique heritage was not completely effaced, and who showed a consciousness of its past and a wish to reproduce it. …
In Italy the sympathies both of the learned and of the people were naturally on the side of antiquity as a whole, which stood to them as a symbol of past greatness. The Latin language too was easy to an Italian …”
A new ideal coming from the past was about to boost Europe forward.
Classicism Towards The Future
I was hit a few weeks ago by this passage from the on-line Britannica:
“For Renaissance humanists, there was nothing dated or outworn about the writings of Plato, Cicero, or Livy. Compared with the typical productions of medieval Christianity, these pagan works had a fresh, radical, almost avant-garde tonality.
Indeed, recovering the classics was to humanism tantamount to recovering reality….In a manner that might seem paradoxical to more modern minds, humanists associated classicism with the future.“
The point is classical thought was not constrained by preconceived ideas. A new spirit of doubt and inquiry was arising. A new world was dawning.
Getting back to that beautiful girl, her golden hair and cap made shiny by the sun, we now better understand the impact, the feelings, the deep inspiration she exerted on the people who flocked to see her.
She was seen as a miracle. She was like a fairy appeared by magic from the great times of ancient Rome.
Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1892.
Accessible on-line in Bill Thayer’s Web Site LacusCurtius, a marvellous resource on Roman Antiquity. Quotes from here.
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878.
Available as Gutenberg text. Quote from here.
Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. “Humanism.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Mar. 2009
Note on a Calabrian Greek
There is some evidence that the Italian Renaissance was not only imitation of antiquity, but its partial resurrection. We’ll just say here that Italy had a direct, ethnic and linguistic, connection not only with the Romans but also with the Greeks. Greek dialects were spoken in Southern Italy until a few years ago. They almost disappeared during Fascism who discouraged linguistic minorities.
Interesting for our writing is Barlaam the Calabrian (ca. 1290 – 1348), an Italian Greek “by ethnic descent and language.” Great scholar “he was the instructor of both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio [the first humanists], and their writings owe much to him.” (Wikipedia)
He helped Boccaccio to translate Homer into Latin thus preparing the groundwork for Renaissance.
This is our third post on foreign language education (see 1 and 2) and we remind readers how we had stressed the importance of massive exposure to listening and to reading. It is the so-called input method: listening and reading extensively in the new language, input, will naturally lead to output, namely speaking and writing. The native language is often called the ‘first language’ (FL or L1), while the new language is called the ‘second language’ (SL or L2). L1 and L2 can be more than one.
If listening and reading are important, which of the two is preferable? Both I would say.
Listening is important for the correct pronunciation and for oral communication. Even if we don’t have the chance of talking often to foreigners, listening has become very accessible thanks to podcasts, satellite TV or DVDs where one can change languages & subtitles, etc. So why not plunging into it? Tunisians and Albanians have a decent knowledge of Italian thanks mainly to TV.
Reading for (Self) Improvement
Reading has though a few advantages in my opinion.
1) Easiness. Reading is easier at first. Understanding TV programs or films can be a beginner’s nightmare, much depending on how our mind works.
2) Availability. Despite the new technologies books or magazines availability and portability are hard to beat.
3) Path to complexity. In most cultures there usually is a difference in complexity between the spoken and the written language, up to the extreme of diglossia. The language that the Roman soldiers brought to the provinces of the Empire was different from that of Cicero or Seneca. Classical Arabic is more complex than the language spoken in the streets of Cairo. Tamil, spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc., comprises this written-spoken difference plus adds further intricacy according to situation, caste and religion.
4) Path to language as art. Reading allows us a contact with the literature of a civilization. It is a wider concept than just learning legalese or IT English for our profession. Here language acquisition identifies itself with overall cultural acquisition. Literature (a) in fact is so well crafted as to transmit aesthetic pleasure – which requires some gradual initiation to be appreciated, as with wine (or Indian spices.) Literature (b) also transmits the deep values of a culture (sometimes of any culture,) a long story that can’t be discussed here.
[Well, we belong to a generation that did believe in literature as magistra vitae. It seems we’re not alone in this. Just check ‘literature’ out in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines literature as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”]
What to Read
In case we are allergic to literature what should we read? Well, ‘any content that interests us most’ is an answer. ‘Everything’ is another good answer, from crap to technical stuff to newspapers. Newspapers present the greatest variety of linguistic registers (from colloquial to literary) & jargons (language of sports, politics, entertainment, celebrities, sciences etc.) Same thing with magazines. I remember an English teacher telling us she had started as a child by reading every issue of Woman from A to Z. After one year her knowledge had jumped from elementary to advanced.
Should we use graded texts or ‘jump into the deep’? No predefined rule. Lichanos said here he got exhausted reading Balzac in French. I also was put off at first by English literary works. While some prefer a no-parachute approach, I stumbled upon the Longman graded books whose gradualism worked fine for me. It allowed me the pleasure of reading valuable texts even at a beginner’s level. I thence made use of the Bible in the same way, in lack of other easy materials, for the study of Latin and Greek. The Bible translation by Jerome (347 – 420 AD), the Vulgate, has for example great educational potential in my view being a marvellous mixture of vulgar and classical Latin. Since the Romance Languages (Italian, French, Spanish etc.) descend from vulgar Latin, the ‘vulgar’ proved an effective bridge to the ‘classical’ (here Latin Vulgate text.)
No Grammar then? Also grammar is useful, provided it is not the base of language study. Learning irregular verbs and plurals, analysing phrasal verbs etc., all is useful for mastering a language. Which grammar to use much depends on our taste and cognitive learning style. Often our old school-time grammar is better than any other grammar.
Writing. Style & Content
Ok. Let’s imagine we’ve progressed and our speaking and writing are now decent. This being a blog, we’ll focus on writing style.
If content is what you say, style is how you say it. There must be some balance between the two in order to avoid extremes such as dullness or affectation. Such balance can also vary according to the situation and the audience. To the ancient Romans concinnitas was the art of arranging the elements of a sentence with harmony and taste.
Developing a good style in a new language is such a daunting task! One trick is that of choosing an author whose style we consider suitable and read his/her works a lot. It can be a starting point for developing our own style. It’s the input method again, though at a higher level. Style and gusto are an art, and “every art is taught by example” – as Muzio Clementi, an Italian musician, put it.
Again I insist on valuable texts. Isn’t it like with dance? Would we learn from an inept or clumsy dancer?
But once more, as with grammar, style rules can help too: advices by writers – like Hemingway, who recommended to prune adverbs and adjectives -, the study of figures of speech or of creative writing patterns etc.
As a conclusion, this post has focused on a natural approach to SL learning based on imitation, on a “subconscious” silent acquisition through input which favours language production and a feel for correctness (and for style), this being complementary to formal and “conscious” rule learning (check this web page .)
A few theories have been developed around this natural method. Stephen Krashen’s(Comprehensible) Input Hypothesis is probably among the best known. Krashen, from USC (University of Southern California,) is a language guru whose work has stirred many disputes. I find his work stimulating although he made like a religion out of it, evidence being he has become a full-time activist of his ideas.
Although I always was fond of the input method I am convinced that best results can be achieved by combining various methods of learning.
Here is a list of the tools I use when I write in English. They are not the best tools but only the ones I like, so any suggestion from readers is welcome. I have also added a few reference tools and encyclopaedias, due to the nature of this blog.
Whatever help one can find in a dictionary, a thesaurus or any other resource, it is our mind & taste that have to make the appropriate choice, so here again a good reading experience of valuable texts is the key to decent writing.
Bilingual tools are also included. Why? Aren’t monolingual tools better? Yes, they surely are since they force us to think in the new language, but here in my blog the protagonist is not a language, but ideas, history, philosophy etc. even though expressed in simple ways. Sometimes I need to brainstorm in Italian when topics become complex, thence the need of a few translation tools.
Wordreference.com. A good web resource I use daily with bilingual dictionaries of Italian, English, French, German, Greek, Romanian, Russian etc. Much quicker than any paper dictionary (which is unfortunate, because I love to leaf through dictionary pages).
The Lexilogos translation web portal, a French (French Canadian?) resource with automatic translators for almost every language on earth (Chinese, Arabic and Indian languages included). I dislike computer translations for their total weirdness and I seldom use them, but they can suggest unexpected solutions. Again, the right choice depends on us. The site comprises the Reverso.net, Google and Yahoo Babel fish translators. I’m told that Power Translator is also a good software for automatic translations.
The Merriam-Webster pocket dictionaries. Many years ago I stumbled upon an excellent Merriam-Webster paperback edition (based on the Collegiate edition, if I’m not wrong). Since then I am a Merriam-Webster aficionado and do not regret it. That magic compact book, now lost, helped me effectively with any text, from comics to English and American literature.
I now use the Home and Office Collegiate-based paperback edition of 1995 (the second from the bottom left in the picture above).
Merriam-Webster is to me THE monolingual dictionary, with word definitions written with admirable concinnitas.
The huge Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Dorset & Baber 1972. I bought it in Boston in 1993 for a bargain price. A sort of monster, or bambinone (big boy.) The link is to the latest edition.
The dictionaries page of Lexilogos, a web portal again from France, with tons of links to almost every on-line great dictionary, such as Oxford Oald, Cambridge, Oxford Compact, Collins, Etymonline, American Heritage, etc.
The on-line Cambridge dictionary. Another daily resource which helps me to contain mistakes with prepositions, such as to, for, of, in, by, on etc.
English and the Latin languages use prepositions in a very different way. For example, which of the two is correct: Participate *to* a discussion or *in* a discussion? Italian and French prefer the former, English the latter. When my language experience is not enough, I need these (time-consuming) checks.
The Gnome Dictionary on Linux. An excellent tool I’m addicted to. It is a DICT client written by the Italian geek Emmanuele Bassi. I use it when I’m on Linux, which I can dual-boot on my mobile as an alternative to Windows XP. It allows quick access to numerous dictionaries including the fascinating Webster 1913 edition. I wonder if I’ll ever find a Windows version. Update: here is the Dict.org web page, which is of course platform (OS)-independent. Great tool, also for English mother-tongues I believe, and a way of tasting Linux software big power.
The Thesaurus.com web page, which also has a dictionary and a reference section (Ask.com). The Roget’s Thesaurus is a classic for synonyms I used a lot in the past, but I now prefer this on-line resource based on the Roget’s Thesaurus II. I also possess the Webster’s Thesaurus in book form (the first from the bottom-left) but I don’t like it much. A searchable on-line Roget’s Thesaurus (1911) can be found here.
Synonyms are a treasure for writing, like the word thesaurus suggests, but they are of little help if you don’t “feel” which is the right word among a long list of synonyms. Experience, again, matters.
Reference & Encyclopedias
Enciclopedia Italiana dell’Istituto Treccani, 1939, which I find among the best for topics regarding the humanities. La Piccola Treccani, 1995, is more up-to-date but it is much smaller.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. I have the 1965 Edition, 23 volumes, quite good. I sometimes prefer the 1911 Britannica although this on-line version contains lots of errors. The on-line Britannica is excellent, always up-to-date and not too expensive yearly.
The Wikipedia. I am a great fan of this remarkable tool, possibly the biggest encyclopaedia ever created (see a discussion in the comments section).
Answers.com. A very good on-line tool, both a dictionary and an encyclopaedia, with excerpts from the Wikipedia as well. I’m getting addicted to it also because of the add-on for the Firefox browser (Answers), which enables to alt-click on any word for dictionary and encyclopaedia immediate reference.
Note. Links on this post are not provided for commercial purposes.
This blog is written in a language that is not my own. They say that the older we grow the closer we get to the womb. While I was more drawn to the Germanic languages in my youth I now prefer my mother tongue or any Latin language. Writing in English is hence sometimes a pain to me although English being the first foreign language I got into in my adolescence it’s like a first love one cannot easily forget.
Toiling with Words and Sentences
At times I write directly in English without any problem. Other times I also directly write in English but I am unsure of myself. I continuously correct and rewrite sentences in blog writings and comments. I often paste a passage into a new clean white page, which refreshes my imagination. Sometimes it takes many new white pages to reach a passage that satisfies me, although I’m never satisfied. When I’m tired or when I’m writing something complicated I first write in Italian and I later translate all into English. This also happens when, afraid to let an idea slip away, I quickly jot it down in Italian.
Languages Contain Elements of a Culture
I have stopped blogging in both Italian and English although it has been an instructive experience. Working tightly with two languages was a little bit like thinking with two brains. A language contains elements of a culture. A language brings along a mentality, it brings along attitudes, values and also phrases often with no equivalent in other languages. It is also one good example where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, since for instance – and focusing only on two varieties of the same language – the lexicons of a cultivated American and a cultivated British are almost identical, but the choice of words and the way they are assembled produce something different, one feels it clearly, which is evidence of a different culture underneath. Of course with globalization such differences are getting less evident.
Latin Words in English
English contains a lot of Latin words, but its core is Germanic. The return to the Latin womb brings me to prefer English words from Latin, although I cannot always predict the effect they will have on my readers. ‘Comprehensible’ instead of ‘understandable’ sounds warmer to me, but the effect is formal instead. I mean, it’s not that easy to control the colouration (connotation) of words in a foreign language. Even the main meaning of a word (denotation) can be a problem. The same Latin words in English and Italian are sometimes false friends, namely words that are similar but have a different meaning. Actual for example means real in English but up-to-date in Italian (attuale), while preservative is an additive in English and, well, a condom in Italian (preservativo).
Prose and Rhythm
I like prose with a rhythm. It is something beautiful which I can hope to attain in my language, not so much in a foreign language I learned through toil. At times I rewrite my English sentences until I find a rhythm that satisfies me. Reading good prose can be of great help and classics are always the best. Which brings me to the last point of this writing, the natural learning of languages.
The Input Method
When I was 14 I flunked English so I had to spend a bitter summer studying. For some weird reason instead of studying grammar I started reading American comic books (Superman) and the Longman series in easy English (now probably absorbed into the Penguin Readers graded collection). I discovered a new world!
I was absolutely delighted by colloquial American English and by these great English literary texts made so easy. My progress was sudden. I therefore applied this method to the study of ancient Greek and Latin by reading the Bible, the only easy text available in these two languages at that time. My progress here was amazing as well and my marks boosted up, much to my schoolmates’ astonishment.
A few years ago I was surprised to see that some people had sort of made a theory out of all this. It is sometimes called the input method in language learning. One learns a language by constant exposure to language input (reading and listening): texts, possibly good, and movies, TV etc. Output (writing and speaking) will come out naturally. It is after all how babies learn a language: they silently listen a lot, then they start speaking as if by miracle. Grammar can be useful at a later stage, to sort out things a bit (and in fact children later go to school). Some people even skip grammar. I once met a French-Canadian who was fluent in 9 languages: “I’m proud I didn’t touch any grammar“ he said.
I’ve talked a bit about my English blogging experience and about my relationship with this beautiful language. In 3-4 days I will provide infos and links about the tools I use everyday in order to produce decent enough English texts. Hard toil, yes, but great fun as well.