Saturday, August 13, 2016

On sight-reading ancient languages

ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS: What does the Latin actually say? (Mary Beard, A Don's Life - TLS).
People often imagine that if you 'know Latin' you can read more or less any bit of the language that is put in front of you (much like what you can do if you 'know French'). It isn't really like that at all. OK, there are some easy bits. A basic tombstone doesn't present much of a problem. After all most epitaphs are pretty formulaic, with a few additional idiosyncratic, personal details. And quite a lot of what you read in Latin, you have read before, at least by my age.

I have often said that more things survive (in both Greek and Latin) of what the ancient Romans wrote than anyone could hope to read in a lifetime. And that's true. But it's also true that you do go back time and time again to some of the same classics: in my case, Cicero, Tacitus and Livy. And there it is not so much a question of reading, as of re-reading -- and it's that what enables you to skip at a reasonably cracking pace.

Yes. It is very difficult to sight-read a text in any ancient language, and usually when someone appears to be doing so it means that either the text is unusually easy or the reader is already well familiar with that text. Some ancient inscriptions, like those epitaphs mentioned in the quote, are formulaic and can be sight-read. But — the examples of Indiana Jones and Evelyn O'Connell notwithstanding — it is almost always impossible to sight-read an ancient inscription if the text is at all complex. Many such inscriptions require years of work to decipher and their exact meaning often continues to be debated by philologists indefinitely.