Huc venite pueri ut viri sitis, reads the marble inscription above the front door of the Academy Building. This phrase is Latin, a language which most people are generally familiar with. What most people don’t realize is that one can make a lifetime career out of studying the classics.
Although summer session students certainly aren’t dedicating their life to it, Aimee Birnbaum teaches a class that allows Exonians to study this hallowed, dusty language—plus its linguistic neighbor, Ancient Greek.
Ms. Birnbaum says that part of the problem with teaching “dead” languages is that there isn’t any verbal re-enforcement. “My job is to get students to visualize and think about language in what is often an entirely new way,” she says. “Additionally, students who take Ancient Greek are learning to do this in another alphabet. Even in a beginning level class, it’s a lot to tackle in five weeks.”
Latin and Greek are “inflected language” as opposed to English and most of the other languages spoken at Exeter, which are “positional languages.” A positional language depends on the order of the words to make sentences make sense, whereas an inflected language depends on small changes within words to determine meaning. Inflected languages often have — as anyone who has taken any Latin will tell you while rolling his or her eyes and groaning — the dreaded noun declension.
Part of Ms. Birnbaum’s goal is to make students more aware of the way positional and inflected languages function. She likens it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle: you have to look at the parts in order to get the whole.
“I want students to not only learn how to read Latin and Greek, but to understand what they’re saying, and realize how, when they speak their native languages, they’re using a lot of vocabulary that comes from Latin and Greek,” Ms. Birnbaum says. That sentence alone contains Latin root words in nativus, and vocabularium
The basics of classics at Exeter are often taught similarly to the way a math class would be taught. Once you get up to higher classes, Latin and Greek become more similar to English class. But in all levels, Ms. Birnbaum does her best to bring a dead language to life.
“Some days, we’ll discuss specific cultural topics, such as religion in ancient Greece and Rome, Roman naming conventions, or the wider social ramifications behind Aesop’s fables. Other days, we’ll play Pictionary with Latin or Greek vocabulary.”
Latin and Greek are fascinating because they are incredibly different from anything spoken today, yet are ingrained in almost every language in the western world. Nadin Tamer’s native language, Turkish, has virtually nothing in common with Latin.
“It’s been a lot of fun learning a language that developed into so many others,” Nadin says. “I think that the word roots I learned will help me both in learning other languages and in a science career. I’m very into science!”
Jules Mánresa, who is from New York, says that part of the fun of the class is Ms. Birnbaum’s scope. “You know, she’s a classical musician as well as a classics scholar – I’m really interested both of those!”
As has been repeated in Assembly after Assembly (probably because a good five to ten percent of the student body is asleep at some point in every Assembly) Exeter summer is a time to learn and try new things. It’s an excellent opportunity to study a new language for the first time. Only select schools offer classics as course of study, so Exeter is a great place to get a taste of what could become a lifelong passion. Just take it from some of the Latin on the seal of Exeter:
Finis origine pendet. The end depends on the beginning.