Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Review of The Scottish Classics Group, The Latin Language: A Handbook for Students

Review of The Scottish Classics Group, The Latin Language: A Handbook for Students (Oliver and Boyd: Harlow, 1989). ISBN: 0 05 004287 4

Having completed Gavin Bett's Teach Yourself Latin (see my review of 2014), I was looking for a challenging text that would follow logically and add to the fairly comprehensive knowledge of Latin that that text conferred. Betts' greatest drawback was its seeming endlessness and I was looking for a text that might consolidate my upper-intermediate level of grammar, challenge me, but not bore me to tears. This handbook, bought several years ago but hardly used, seemed a very possible contender, particularly as it contained a fairly-standardized exercise regimen. A quick read through confirmed this. All that was needed was to number the exercises (two of which were usually provided for each unit) and work through them. In fact, this student's approach had me work through the book twice. But more of that anon.

Organisation of the text
This text initially seems chaotic, but with a little organisation from the user, can be usefully turned into a grammar revision course without much difficulty. There are 28 subsections in the "syntax" portion of the text and 19 more in the "translation" subsection. There is a third very short portion on Medieval Latin. Each section contains a series of pointers on grammar with illustrative sentences followed by one, two, or three exercises in ascending order of difficulty. Since familiarity with Latin is most key to ability in the language, a rational approach for the learner would be to work through the text section by section doing only the low-level exercises, and once familiarity has been achieved that way, to go through the text once more, now doing the intermediate-level exercises. This turned out to be an excellent approach.
One must emphasize that this is just a suggested approach. The book is not officially intended to be used as a graded grammar course, but, as we can see, can easily be used as such.

Level of the Text
It must be noted that this is not an introduction to Latin. Anyone attempting the book should already have highly competent ability in the language and should not be fazed by typical Latin constructions like the Ablative Absolute, deponent verbs, or the subjunctive in all its forms, which appear from the beginning.

Using the Book
The advantage for users of this book is that each exercise is a fairly standard length (more or less): about ten sentences of one or two clauses. Most of the sections are about the same length too (a page or two), meaning that students can budget about the same amount of time for each unit.
While obviously intended as a grammar manual, this book can clearly be put to pedagogical use because of the exercises. A student may choose to keep it on the shelf as a reference text (and perhaps attempt the occasional exercise) or work through it as a grammar refresher course. A teacher, seeing a student making the same error frequently, might direct them to the relevant section and exercises in this text.
This student needs his hand held as he studies grammar, and keenly felt the absence of translations for the sample sentences in the exercises. Fortunately, the sentences and their vocabulary are very carefully chosen to reflect the principles and vocabulary of the foregoing explanations, and an attentive student should be able to puzzle them out without much serious difficulty.
It should be noted that the authors expect basic standards of their students. Note, for instance, that they use the verb "meminor" on p.8 in an illustrative sentence, but do not provide a reference for it in the index. This is a disappointment, as the verb is fairly tricky, and the future form used by the text (meminero) is fairly unusual. That is to say, full use fo the text cannot be made without a dictionary by one's side. While every effort has been made to provide a comprehensive glossary, much material slips by. This is probably no great surprise, given that nine scholars collaborated to produce this book.
The vocabulary load is not excessive. Each unit presents the competent intermediate student with perhaps ten items that are new or need revision.
Since the book is not actually intended as a course per se, one shouldn't overcriticise for lack of uniformity in things, like unit length. The first unit on the nominative, vocative, and accusative cases is a short 1.5 pages and can be covered in twenty minutes. The third unit, on the dative case, is a fairly dense 2.5 pages long and is heavy in new vocabulary, mostly compound verbs that take the dative. This difficulty is lifted slightly if one remembers that the text is best approached by doing a basic run through with the simple exercises but following it with a more advanced run through with the intermediate exercises.
I am sceptical of the usefulness of lists. The unit on the Predicative Dative is pretty much just a list of 25 nouns in the dative combined with the verb esse. Is the user of this book intended to memorize the list, whose contents are provided without example sentences? There is a similar problem with the paragraph on the ablative - a longish list of examples is followed by exercises, and that's that. Some of the phrases used in the exercise sentences are not found in the subject matter itself, meaning that a reader must hope he can figure out the meaning or find a dictionary to do so for him.
The reference section at the end of the book is thorough, and useful for looking up every aspect of the language from noun declensions to deponent verb conjugations and everything in between. It is unfortunately laid out chaotically. Irregular verbs are presented over four pages of rows and columns that do not match up from page to page. For reasons that are not made clear, they are further broken down into four-, six-, and eight-field tables, confusing the reader. In the final two pages this row-and-column system is abandoned in favour of discrete multi-field boxes that do not line up with the other boxes around them.
Whether by accident or design the vocabulary does build from one exercise to the next. Arcessere, a not central item of vocabulary, appears in use on p.42, and is then found in an exercise on p. 48.
I certainly don't fault the authors for their very vague introduction to conditional sentences (54), as I have yet to find any text that can do so well. But to explain the subjunctive by how it is translated into English is folly, since the English subjunctive is so defective, and the modal alternatives so ambiguous. In truth the Latin subjunctive can only be learned through experience and practice.
The reference section at the back of the book is useful, but badly in need of standardization. Tables spill over from one page to the next, and while the verp portion is provided in normal, portrait-style presentation, the other paradigms (nouns, adjectives, etc.) are provided in landscape orientation (that is, on their side).
It seems likely that the two sections, Syntax and Translation, were prepared by different individuals or teams, as the exercises are markedly different in presentation and uniformity. While the syntax section contains exercises of about twelve sentences each to translate, the translation section often provides lists of words to translate, or passages from well-known Latin authors. This non-standard approach means that students cannot budget time for them very effectively.
By about exercise 40 (p.102) the glossary ceases to be of much help. It seems that the writer of this section did not pass on this vocabulary to the editors. Most of the sentences can be made out, however, and this problem is more irksome than impedimentary.
The subjunctive-based section on fearing is good, but is a little too dependent on English translation forms, as when we are told what English tenses to translate Latin subjunctives into. But this needs examples, as does the perfect participle review, which is explained without examples.
Because the subjunctive is tricky, and so central to Latin, more exercises should be provided in the section covering it. The text's usual method is to provide a page (or so) of excursus followed by two exercises in increasing order of difficulty, but in this case there are six pages of excursus before the section's single exercise. In fairness, however, the text does explain that most of the subjunctive's uses are explained elsewhere.
There's a definite suggestion from the section on the subjunctive in the final quarter of the book to the end that the authors have come to the end of their usual material and are slotting in units that don't fit elsewhere. Gone is the usual structure of "1.5 pages + two exercises" and instead there are long discourses on particular features of Latin that are followed by one exercise ("se and suus") or four ("overview"). This is a shame, as it throws away the standardised structure of the rest of the book and throws off the student who is taking a standardised approach. It the end, however, it is no great hardship.
One of this book's strengths is its support for the subjunctive, which is the key to Latin. One may balk at the 20 sentences to translate in 19a, but in truth they are mostly permutations of the same sentence, cumulatively designed to drill readers in the subtleties of the subjunctive's use.
The translation exercises from real texts that become part of the exercises towards the end of the book are difficult, but bearable. The real challenge lies in the extracts being without context. The final major section of the book involves applying a translation technique called "overview" by the authors. This is an excellent section, giving the student encouraging hands-on experience with real texts. The four exercises that accompany it, however, are a bit of a slog, and might be better presented.
The editors generously share their reading and translation tips in the "overview"" section, but I am sceptical of its efficacy. Long sentences are long sentences, and only long experience makes them understandable. Yes, the only possible subject for incumbunt is angues (126), but only if you recognize that gemmi is an adjective!
It must be recognized that this is a manual, not a course (although one wonders what the exercises are for, if that's the case), but it's nevertheless irksome, if understandable, when one does the unit on relative clauses (26) only to find that a substantial portion of the use of the relative clauses remains unexplained, because it deals with the subjunctive, which is dealt with in other unites, which are listed there. This cross-referencing can be seen as a boon and a curse. On one hand, we can find the information but on the other hand one fears that one will be led on a never-ending cross-referential journey through the manual. It would be better to provide one or two illustrative sentences with a cross-reference saying "more details in chapter X".
Roman numbers are notoriously difficult, and it is disappointing therefore not to find any unit in this book dealing with them, particularly when knowledge of them (and particularly ordinals) in expected by the unit on dates. On the other hand, they are thoroughly explained in an appendix, although no exercise is provided.
The exercises following the explanation of sentence analysis and overview is probably intended to reassure students that they can now successfully work with long sentences in real Latin, but only partially works. It consists of three exercises, one after another, containing large gobbets of text from famous study texts such as Catullus, Virgil, and Caesar's Gallic wars. Some of these texts are translatable cold, but for others (the Aeneid, for instance), this student needed extensive cribs. On the other hand, it must be remembered that typical users of this book would probably already be familiar with these texts, and have a wider vocabulary. Even so, the format does not gel with the rest of the book, and one wonders how the exercises might be used in an instructional setting. It took this student, no duffer in Latin, several weeks to work through.
The different approaches reflect different teaching styles. The usual approach is to explain a rule and then to provide it in example sentences in two exercises that reflect an increasing order of difficulty. Certainly seeing the Latin in use is a great help to students. Some exercises, however, such as those for the units on prefixes and suffixes, work at an unhelpfully abstract level. Two hundred compound words are provided, without context, and the student is told to break up the word and work out the meaning. Of course, many of these words have extended, figurative meaning, and can only be understood by consulting a dictionary. Assuming thirty seconds per word and several breaks, this is two hours of hard, boring slog with no payoff for the student.
The text is normally good with vocabulary, but I note that from exercise 39b on, the editors forget to put certain crucial words in the glossary (decipio, vehiculum, conducere), making the exercise somewhat more difficult than it needs to be.
The section on the subjunctive (107-110) is useful and vital. It is therefore no small oversight that exercises are not provided for it, as they are for virtually every other unit of the book. The subjunctive is tricky, but absolutely central to Latin, and the several uses of it explained in this section should have been accompanied by sample illustratory sentences for translation.


With a little preparation and planning, this handbook (which might otherwise gather dust on the shelf) can be put to use as an excellent grammar course.

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