Monday, February 11, 2008

Churchill's introduction to Latin

I am reading Winston S. Churchill's My Early Life, published originally in 1930 when he was 56 years old and his best and most historic roles still lay a decade ahead of him. The edition I am reading is from the Folio Society.

There are a series of vignettes that are such wonderful exemplars of his deft wit or are so evocative of an era that is now so completely vanished that I will be making a number of Thing Finder posts.

The first relates an incident attendant to his new (and first) boarding school to which he was sent when he was seven.

From My Early Life, Folio Society, page 12.

. . . and I was alone with the Form Master. He produced a thin greeny-brown covered book filled with words in different types of print.

'You have never done any Latin before, have you?' he said.

'No, sir.'

'This is a Latin grammar." He opened it at a well-thumbed page. 'You must learn this,' he said, pointing to a number of words in a frame of lines. 'I will come back in half an hour and see what you know.'

Behold me then on a gloomy evening, with an aching heart, seated in front of the first declension.

Mensa a table
Mensa O table
Mensam a table
Mensae of a table
Mensae to or for a table
Mensa by, with or from a table

What on earth did it mean? Where was the sense in it? It seemed absoulte rigmarole to me. However, there was one thing I could always do: I could learn by heart. And I thereupon proceeded, as far as my private sorrows would allow, to memorise the acrostic-looking task which had been set me.
In due course the Master returned.
'Have you learnt it?' he asked.
'I think I can say it, sir,' I replied; and I gabbled it off.
He seemed so satisfied with this that I was emboldened to ask a question.
'What does it mean, sir?'
'It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the first declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the first declension.'
'But', I repeated, 'what does it mean?'
'Mensa means a table,' he answered.
'Then why does mensa also mean O table,' I enquired, 'and what does O table mean?'
'Mensa, O table, is the vocative case,' he replied.
'But why O table?' I persisted in genuine curiosity.
'O table - you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table.' And then seeing that he was not carrying me with him, 'You would use it in speaking to a table.'
'But I never do,' I blurted out in honest amazement.
'If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely,' was his conclusive rejoinder.
Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.

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