March 2, 2023

Studying basic Latin using Ascham’s method

When I first searched for a Latin textbook in 2019 I assumed that a text published in 1886, The Beginner’s Latin Book” by Collar and Daniell, would be an excellent choice since schools at the time took the classics seriously and produced students capable of enjoying Caesar & Livy within the first few years of instruction. However, Collar and Daniell warn in the preface to their work those who seek in a first Latin book a complete presentation of the facts and principles of the Latin language will not be satisfied with this volume” and the authors only hope” that the transition to Nepos or Caesar will not prove too difficult.” Collar and Daniell include these warnings because it was precisely in the 1880s that the number of American high schools was increasing by 400 annually and the number of subjects taught in high school was multiplying to include sciences and modern history. Collar and Daniell, catering to the new American high school, reduced their text’s demands on the students’ time and energy and on the teachers’ ability and knowledge of Latin, allowing students to study more subjects shallowly and allowing teachers to be rapidly trained to teach first-year Latin by staying one chapter ahead of their class. Because of its design, Collar and Daniell’s revision to their 1886 text called First Year Latin” was used in more schools in America from 1890 until 1910 than all other competing Latin texts combined. I believe the text is still a good choice, despite being the product of compromise, for those with limited time or motivation.

Unlike Collar & Daniell’s approach of introducing piecemeal various grammatical forms (nominative of 1st declension nouns and the 3rd person of 1st conjugation verbs in Ch. 1, the accusative of 1st declension nouns in Ch. 2, etc.), traditional methods of teaching Latin in use for over 1000 years involved students memorizing over the course of several weeks a full Latin grammar organized like the Ars Minor of Donatus (written in the 4th Century) and the Institutiones Grammaticae of Priscian (6th Century). These grammars resemble Lily’s Latin Grammar, the main text used in America and British schools during the 16th through 19th centuries–effectively an English rendering of Donatus and Priscian–in that they first definite parts of speech, then treat nouns exhaustively, then adjectives, then verbs, etc. Consider the first few sentences of Donatus in Latin and in English translation:

Partes orationis quot sunt? Octo. Quae? Nomen pronomen verbum adverbium participium coniunctio praepositio interiectio.

Nomen quid est? Pars orationis cum casu corpus aut rem pro- prie communiterve significans. Nomini quot accidunt? Sex.

— English translation of the above: —

How many parts of speech are there? Eight. What? Noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.

What is a noun? A part of speech which signifies with the case a person or a thing specifically or generally. How many attributes has a noun? Six.

This style of exhaustive grammar is dry but makes the aforementioned texts suitable as references. Once such a grammar was memorized by a class, a teacher would present his class with a text in Latin, produce a translation, parse words and explain syntax. Later, students would be tested by being given the translation and asked to reproduce the original Latin, a process which encouraged many students to simply memorize the passages instead of developing a skill of construing” Latin. However, memorization served the students well in becoming competent Latinists.

A better method of teaching Latin, according to Roger Ascham in his The Scholemaster”, avoids memorizing a complete grammar and has a teacher read sophisticated Latin to his class right away while explaining every grammatical point to his students and showing where the rule appears in their thorough grammars. As Ascham says This is a liuely and perfite waie of teaching of Rewles: where the common waie, vsed in common Scholes, to read the Grammer alone by it selfe, is tedious for the Master, hard for the Scholer, colde and vncomfortable for them bothe.” As a first text, Ascham recommended a schoolmaster use a compilation of Cicero’s letters created by Johannes Sturm for beginning students in which letters are presented in a graded format starting with very simple and short letters and getting longer and more difficult further into the collection. It’d be easier to go through these letters with the help of an experienced Latinist, of course, but I’m going to attempt reading, translating and annotating with grammatical references Sturm’s collection of letters. The standard grammar I’ll use will either be Gildersleeve’s or a later edition of Lily’s Grammar.

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