Friday, June 18, 2010

The Benefits of a Classical Education

When I was in college I took two semesters of Latin.  I knew that I was intending to be an ordained minister, and somehow I thought that it would be useful to know this ancient language. 

I will confess that I do not appear to have a gift for learning languages.  I remember very little that Señora Delgado taught me of Español during my high school years.  And I really only got two things from my year of Latin studies.

The first is good pronunciation.  My teacher was a stickler for it.  I was taught that in Latin, unlike English, all consonants have only one sound.  So the letter "c," for instance, only has its "hard" sound.  (There's no "soft c" as there is in English.)  The same with "g" and others.  So when you see the word C-A-E-S-A-R, whether referring to the Emperor or the salad dressing, you wouldn't say "sea-sir."  Instead, according to what I have been taught, an ancient Roman would ask for a "kah-eh-sar" salad.  I didn't go to college for nothing, as the Flying Karamozov Brothers have said, it cost me thousands of dollars.

The other thing I took away from that class has had a little more lasting value for my life.  Every Tuesday and Thursday, when I come in to Boston to work at UUHQ, I walk through the Boston Commons and encounter dozens of Columba livia -- that's the Latin name for the common rock pigeon.  These beautiful birds are everywhere -- flying and flapping.  And cooing.

Except that they don't really "coo."  If you listen closely, the sound a pigeon makes is a little more complex than a simple "coo."  It's really more like "coorrr."  Kind of like the beer, but without the "s" and with a little more roll to the "r."

So what does this have to do with my Latin studies?  I first noticed the pigeon's true call while walking to class with a friend one day.  The two of us smiled, and immediately said in unison reply to the pigeon, "Propter."  Because, you see, cur -- pronounced just as the pigeon had -- is Latin for "Why?"  Propter is, of course, the Latin word for "because."

My walks through the park have never been the same.

In Gassho,

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