On the Terror of Knowing Things

The greatest joy and terror in learning is that it is literally never-ending. Once you think you know something, there’s something else after that that you realize you don’t know and then you get to start over and repeat this cycle for all eternity.

I’ve begun to believe that learning a language is just like learning a person: an endless fountain of complexities that do not follow rules but simply have strong tendencies, ever evolving and growing and expanding.

And I have not one language I am supposed to be mastering, but three. Every time I crack upon a grammar to study, I fairly quickly become disgruntled and overawed by how much I am supposed to know and understand.

I understand why a lot of people give up on learning after college: it is utterly overwhelming sometimes. And things are often intentionally watered down to make them easier to learn, and once you’ve learned that, you get to set out on the onerous journey of learning how things actually are. Latin and Greek grammar textbooks are terrible in that regard.

Add on top of that the fact that I am also supposed to understand different genres and the linguistic tropes and vocabularies associated with each genre.

And all of this knowledge is within one hyper-specialized field that is only a tiny fraction of total knowledge of the world that exists.

I know nothing.

But at least I know that I know nothing.

Language, Meaning, and the Meme

I’m sure someone out there has done some sort of study of the sorts of changes that the English language is undergoing as a result of the internet; but I’ve collected some of my own observations here, and things I find interesting, at least partly as a result of my training as a classicist and general (still very limited) knowledge of how language works.

“Language is deteriorating [because of the internet]!” “People only have the attention span for memes!” “Nobody knows how to write anymore! Everyone writes in meme-speak.”

These are all things I have actually heard stated, either by people I know or anonymous complainers on the internet. Meme Study - Matrix

Scrolling through Facebook has become a little bit more than an excuse to shut my brain down, or waste time. I tend to look for quirks and oddities in languages, and I find myself analyzing memes and looking for some deeper subconscious meaning based on how the author intentionally and humorously screwed up the grammar or misspelled a word. Usually it has to be a pretty outrageous mistake or misspelling, or a very economically constructed phrase to fit within the frame and still be funny. What is going on there? Is it as mindless as everyone says it is? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting things going on, culturally or linguistically.

Meme Study - lolcat

I’ve narrowed the world of memes down into two categories that are the most prevalent: the animal-picture/ungrammarly memes (usually associated with pictures of animals doing odd things) and the pithy “sententiae” kind of meme (I’ll explain what I mean by “sententiae” in a moment). The latter kind often tends to require knowledge of a particular TV show or a book character, and utilizes a particularly memorable phrase across a wide array of subjects.

Memes are interesting because they have to contain a visual and a pithy, humorous phrase. Creating effective memes actually can be quite an art, especially if they are of the ungrammarly kind, because you need to have a functional grasp of the conventions of a new sort of dialect, and a new sort of vocabulary that is constantly evolving and developing. Certain types of humor are associated with certain types of pictures, which has become a sort of language unto itself. There are rules associated with it, just as there are rules to speaking perfectly “correct” English, so being fluent in meme-speak means you need a functional grasp of multiple dialects. If you are going to write in the lolcat dialect, you must know what that means. Same for the doge dialect, or the newer “doggo” dialect.Meme Study - lolcat1

What I find interesting is that while there is a vast profusion of un-grammarly memes out there, the very humor of it seems to serve almost as a corrective. We aren’t going to understand why “lolcat” is funny unless we know what is conventionally “correct” first.Meme Study - lolcat2

Hence the people who complain that language is degenerating because of the internet, I’m more inclined to think that meme language has the odd effect of reinforcing good grammar, or at least, a vague consciousness that it is bad grammar. We wouldn’t laugh at it if we didn’t understand that is grammatically “wrong.” Otherwise, language might slowly evolve into other forms without really being noticed, simply because we aren’t being daily faced with humorous examples of “bad” English to remind us of what “good” English is. You now associate a meme with humor, so if you happen to come across a meme with some kind of odd grammatical or spelling quirk and you don’t immediately know why it’s funny, you’ll look up the “correct” word or grammar, if for no other reason than to mine the humor out of it, and be extremely disappointed if it turns out not to be funny.

Language has a natural evolution; it morphs and changes constantly, even when we try to preserve the conventions. You can see how Latin evolved over the course of centuries, and how styles evolved, as you can with English. A modern style is very different from a Victorian or a 17th century style, and even methods of every-day communication are fluid and evolve. There are also different settings for certain styles of communication. Meme-speak is meant for more casual settings; the Facebook group, the dinnertime conversation of college students, etc. There are more formal uses of English that require more knowledge of the conventions; writing truly masterly English prose requires knowledge of conventional syntax and how it differs from meme-speak.

When it comes to forms and the raw grammar of the language, I was thinking about some of the new forms that have emerged and why there is contention of over them. Why do we really object to ur instead of your? In a few generations, ur may be the accepted form and your is the antiquated form. We object to it simply because ur is not what we’re used to and it looks very odd, even when we all know what it means. Someday, people may be more used to seeing ur and will forget the “proper” form. This is how language develops over time; this is how Old English morphed into Middle English, and so on. Except this time, the factors that cause the change are very different. In languages not influenced by the internet, we understand that there are natural sound progressions. In this case, we aren’t necessarily following phonological changes, because your and ur sound exactly the same, but developed for convenience while texting. It then caught on and has become more widely used for other purposes. So I find the new influences on language very Meme Study- Grammarinteresting, but also the fact that perhaps the presence of the internet also serves to reinforce the older conventions when it is so easy to look up the “correct” grammar, and there is a vast horde of fanatical and unsolicited grammarians on the internet ready to correct mistakes.

Another side of meme-speak is not necessarily the ungrammatical or misspelled kind, but the pithy phrase or sarcastic comment. These are probably the hardest to pull off, though thanks to the internet and the “sharing” phenomenon, the memes that are not actually funny don’t get re-shared and disappear, while the truly funny ones proliferate and become common: a natural filter that tends to work best when it comes to humor, but little else.

We seem to have come around to a literary taste somewhat akin to what ancient Romans called “sententiae” which were short, pithy phrases. Martial, Seneca, and Lucan preferred this type of sentence as opposed to the long, rambling rhetoric of a Cicero or a Cicero-disciple. Even then, there was something of an art to composing a “sententia” because it had to be economical and also get its point across. Anyone who tries to come up with one-liners knows just how hard that can be. Moreover, the Romans didn’t always have the visual to get the meaning across. We can get away with even fewer words because we now have the picture to do at least half of the work in conveying meaning. And many times, that meaning comes from a movie, or a TV show.

And now, with our vast array of media and entertainment, we have an absolutely enormous amount of cultural material to keep up with, from Star Trek to The Office to Game of Thrones. Meme Study - The OfficeIt’s not necessarily all that different from how an ancient poet had to be very conversant in other poets in order to keep up with conversations; that was his version of our TV shows and movies. Anyone educated in the ancient world, or presuming to be educated, had to have a vast array of references at his fingertips; quotations from Homer and Hesiod, ideas from philosophers of the day etc. Just like now, when we all feel pressured in college to have Star Wars trivia at our fingertips, or quote entire scenes from Monty Python. A modern equivalent to Homer might be Tolkien; people will look askance at you if you don’t have your Tolkien well under your belt. Meme Study - LOTR

It differs in form and content from the ancient world, but the phenomenon is the same, just on a much grander and more “vulgar” scale.

Maybe memes don’t deserved to be dismissed offhand after all, or at least, they deserve to be appreciated for the cultural information that they provide, and also for the humor.

More Adventures in Learning Languages

In trying to take a break from Latin and Greek, I’ve been learning Old English, Old Norse, and German. I’ve been using an odd cocktail of textbooks and online resources, and slowly over the course of the week gain a feeling for the languages, particularly German and old English.

I thought I’d take some time and write a bit on how I tend to learn languages, and some of the things I’ve realized over the years. Perhaps someone else on the internet may find it useful.

In learning Latin and Greek, you come to rely on paradigms for everything. Always fall back on your paradigms which you ought to have memorized perfectly.

I can’t rely on pure paradigms so much with the Old English, since there seems to be a sound instinct that one must develop in order to really internalize the verbs. Kind of like how English speakers develop an instinct for which verbs behave in certain ways, such as “sing, sang, sung.” To an outsider, those kinds of distinctions seem really arbitrary, so you just have to memorize them at first until you know a lot of them, or somehow manage to develop a feeling for how it works.

Old English contains all the proto-forms of these sorts of verbs, though they don’t always work in the same way that Modern English ones do.

I’ve gotten so used to being proficient in Latin and Greek and reading fairly  easily that it’s been interesting to have the reminder of what it is like to look at a far-less familiar language and have to piece it all together while still in the process of memorizing all the necessary forms and rules.

My most effective method for learning things is simply to write them out until I’ve got them memorized, which takes a lot less time than you might think. I’ve been working on it for almost a week and have a pretty decent framework for the forms, though I’m still working on it. I make sure to memorize important and common verbs and nouns, which often tend to be irregular or have odd quirks.

I have been becoming slowly more disenchanted with trying to learn things straight from textbooks, since that is such an artificial way of approaching a language. People never develop languages by thinking about Grimm’s Law, or Verner’s Law, or phonological changes like “breaking,” and it seems ridiculous to try and learn a language through its back door. I simply do what I do out of desperation and because I can get all the resources more or less for free.

But rather than going through a textbook from beginning to end, I am working on a method for learning languages from textbooks more efficiently. I think one of the reasons why people are scared away from learning languages on their own is because they look at the standard textbooks (the ones that don’t dumb it down too much) and see that there’s 100+ pages of linguistic information that isn’t directly  relevant to actually knowing the language. The phonological information tends to be more useful once you actually have a grasp of the language. This is why Duolingo is generally a better method of learning, even if you aren’t getting all the information up front. Given enough time, you tend to adopt it without having to think about it too much.

But Duolingo doesn’t yet offer Old English or Old Norse, so I have to do that the old-fashioned way. Fortunately, Google books have a ton of resources entirely for free that I can put in my library on my computer and my tablet.

So my method is to go straight for forms. It doesn’t matter how many declensions there are, or how many verb conjugations. The trick is to figure out the general patterns they follow, even if it seems like a ridiculous number of things to learn. It sometimes can take awhile to break that down, but you can generally start figuring that out when you spend enough time just writing things out, as much from memory as possible.

In Old English, the verbs can seem insanely complex, but you can pretty quickly figure out that there are certain vowel combinations that tend to be in the present and certain vowels that are in the past, and what matters most is what the last two letters of the word are. Figuring out bigger patterns is important, and that’s what you will recognize when you actually start reading the language. I think that’s how you develop the more unconscious “feeling” of a language; not by obsessing about memorizing every exact form individually, or looking at it as one giant mess of separate elements. No human being can operate on a completely arbitrary and random language system, so there have to be bigger patterns.

But no matter how many clever mnemonics you come up with, or connections you make, the main ingredient in all of this is time. And time is what I happen to have a lot of right now, and that’s how I’m able to do this.

A Taste of Lyric

Greek lyric is particularly enjoyable on a day like today: pleasantly warm and breezy. I started with a bit of Archilocus; his particular style of snark appealed to me long ago, so I think it makes sense to start with him.

He’s known for a defiant attitude regarding traditional Greek values of civic service; he even goes so far as to advocate running away in battle in one of his poems. He was probably a mercenary soldier, so he may not have seen any need for national loyalty or civic virtue.

He had a rather difficult love affair with a young woman named Neobule, whose father decided that she ought to marry someone other than Archilocus, if we can take his poems autobiographically. Who knows…

His verses are interesting and memorable, and I find the interpretation of them fascinating, particularly the following couplet. I don’t claim to say anything new or interesting; it’s just some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately as I read.

Archilochus 2 translates this way (which I have translated not terribly poetically but more literally):

“On my spear is my kneaded bread, on my spear is the Ismarian wine, and I drink leaning on my spear.”

There is apparently much scholarly debate on the particular use of “en” which I have translated as “on.” It is an unusual use of that particular preposition, though I think it probably is meant to have multiple shades of meaning.

As a mercenary, he’s always on call for a battle. He seems to portray himself as a rough and rugged soldier type here who’s always out and about. Hence, he’s never without his spear. He’s not going to dinner parties or feasts; he’s out with the soldiers.

An interesting detail is that Ismarian wine is the sort of wine that Odysseus used to intoxicate the Cyclops in the Odyssey. Ismarian wine was notoriously strong, though Odysseus probably had a special vintage (as my commentary points out). I don’t know if there is any further significance to it, except that perhaps Archilocus got it during campaigns against Thrace, because Ismarian wine came from the coast of Thrace. The idea of Ismarian wine persisted in literature, through Virgil, Ovid, and Propertius.

At the same time, he seems to suggest that he earns his keep by means of his spear. His spear earns him his next meal and the wine he drinks. It seems reasonable to suppose that perhaps he meant it to have multiple meanings by using the preposition in an unconventional way, at least as far as we can tell now.

There is some scholarly debate over the preposition he uses, since it appears to be an unconventional use of the word “en,” but the meaning is clear enough.

Another interesting poem by Archilocus is a slightly longer one:

“But go on with your cup go down the decks of the swift ship
Go and knock off the lids of the hollow jars
drink the red wine down to the dregs
For we won’t be able to stay sober on this watch.”

Proof that human beings have been making alcohol jokes for as long as literature has existed. Some of the violent imagery here is interesting: namely the words he uses to tell his friend to knock off the lids of the jars and gulp down the wine.

This is kind of an interesting taste of lyric because it doesn’t really seem very refined or proper, like you might expect. It’s rough and sometimes kind of violent, at least, in the case of Archilocus. It captures a moment of his life, perhaps, being a soldier who had to keep watch late into the night and suggesting that the only way to tolerate the watch is to get drunk.

I plan to translate at least one or two poems from each poet in this book I ordered, and post them on my blog until I’ve got every author accounted for. It will help keep me motivated to keep reading and working on lyric, and also help me process them more deeply than I would by simply reading through them.

Wandering into the Anglo-Saxon Age

My interests are definitely not limited to the classical world. I started working on Anglo-Saxon recently, which I have played with for years now but never had time to sit down and learn it. I decided to learn it entirely this time, and it’s been fascinating.

It will definitely help my understanding of English, but also my understanding of German, as it is far more Germanic than I initially realized. I really love the way the language works and the way it sounds. Plus, I may have a chance to use the language in comparative literature courses that I will be taking for grad school.

I’ve done with work some Middle English and Old Norse as well, so making those connections has been fascinating. Old Norse is like a cousin to Old English, and many of the words and mechanics of the language are very similar. There’s something chillingly beautiful and mysterious about both of these languages, as if they reflect the dark and dangerous times in which they arose.

Perhaps one of my favorite things about Old Norse and Old English is the presence of dual forms. The dual system is probably one of my favorite parts of Greek, which allows a verb to express action for strictly two subjects; not one, or more than two. I think it’s a wonderful thing, so I was very excited to learn that Old English had dual forms.

I may be able to do some really interesting studies of epic once I attain comprehension of OE, I’m still just working on grammar and memorizing forms at this point. Once I have a vocabulary and a framework of grammar, it will be fascinating to compare things like Beowulf with the Iliad, or some of the other lesser known epics. Old Norse sagas would also be great for that.

It would also be an ideal situation for bringing in some narratology to analyze some things, especially since I would be able to see what sorts of things remain the same and what things change.

I also have some reason to believe that my ancestors were Vikings and Britons, so I have a special fondness for Old Norse and Old English. I can’t wait to see what I can discover as I keep learning.

I have all summer to keep learning more languages. I’ve been gaining steady progress in German and am beginning to build a mental framework for it, simply by practicing consistently. I should be doing pretty well in all my languages by the end of the summer as I continue to strengthen Latin and Greek as well.

I’ve never liked summers very much. They’ve always felt too “in between.” I am enough of a workaholic that I don’t appreciate the sudden change from doing everything to doing nothing within a week, which is what happens at the end of every semester. Even still, there are some good things I can appreciate.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been dabbling in all my languages and learning about various things that I didn’t have time to look into while in school. Still working on Homer, though I took a small hiatus because I was working too hard and nearly had a mental breakdown. I plan to resume soon, though probably not quite as intensely.

I also visited my future graduate school to meet with my new professors and fellow grad students. I enjoyed my visit a lot, as I got to spend most of my day talking about classics-related things with people who have the same level of devotion to it that I do.

One of the professors discovered that I am interested in Herodotus (though I did not specifically discuss my particular obsession with Herodotus), and she told me that she thought I was likely to change my focus. It’s possible, I suppose, but it’s hard for me to imagine not being preoccupied with Herodotus, especially when you’re right on the edge of discovering something really juicy about him. Not wanting to appear arrogant or unwise or overly zealous, I simply nodded assent and said, “I suppose it is definitely possible.”

I may discover that I becoming totally entranced by something else when I start taking classes again with new professors. It will be interesting to see what captures my attention most of all, because I can certainly find something I really like in everything.

Now that I get to hyper-specialize in something, I am far more excited about being back in school. I don’t have to take any more general education classes in subjects I really don’t care about, when I would much rather be working on my research or reading something in Latin or Greek or something else. I really believe that grad school is the best place for me, at least for now. I would not be happy if my studies in classics ended when I graduated from my alma mater.

Grad school will certainly have its challenges and its ups-and-downs. I’m sure parts of it will feel like drudgery at times. I’m sure there will be ideas I disagree with and personalities I clash with. There’s always something. But despite it all, I am still pursuing something higher than myself and more important. I am seeking to preserve things that are worth preserving, and discovering something new about them if I can. That is the most worthwhile thing I could do and I am very eager to get started.

But for now, I’m mostly sitting around in my house reading and dabbling in various things. I didn’t hear back from any of my applications for summer jobs, though I have a few other things in the works that I will do instead. But none of that has started yet, so I’m waiting.

I ordered one book I will need for grad school, and I’ll start working on that as soon as I get it. I’ve been told not to spend my whole summer on Homer, but strengthen some of my weaker areas, such as tragedy or lyric poetry.

So I decided that I would work on Antigone while I have some time; though I think I might need more than Perseus for that since the Greek is difficult enough to merit a better commentary than Perseus offers. I can get through a lot just by piecing through it and figuring things out by myself, but commentaries are generally more efficient. I can likely come up with more interesting observations when I’m not trying to make observations that many scholars have made before me, simply because I don’t have access to what they wrote.

So now I have to wait. So much of life is just waiting. Waiting for school to start again. Waiting for people to return from trips abroad. Waiting for the next thing to come through. This is why I hate summers. There’s too much waiting.

Post Graduation

I have managed to graduate, and earned a degree in Latin and a degree in Greek. I somehow managed to earn departmental honors in both. However, my academic life is far from over. I’ve set some goals for myself over the summer, as my graduate classes don’t start until the end of September. On the one hand, that seems like a terribly long time to wait, but on the other hand, it is an opportunity to read and learn more. I will probably be very well-prepared to start my classes, especially if I have managed to plow through a considerable portion of my reading list. That will certainly be an interesting adventure.

Now that I’ve brought to a state of total inertia schedule-wise, I have been reading through the Iliad in Greek. I’m almost finished with Book 2, which is probably the longest and most tedious of the books. I decided not to skip the catalog of ships and men, otherwise I could have moved onto Book 3 by now. I also started rereading the Aeneid for the second time, while trying to finish up the first book of Caesar’s Gallic War.

I spent several hours yesterday working on German as well. I happen to have a copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in German which I hope to be proficient enough to read by the end of the summer. I should also brush up my French while I’m at it. I have a lot yet to learn, and will document at least a part of the process. I’ve decided to give my Herodotus studies a bit of a rest, in the hopes that I can return to it later with fresh eyes. I have other things to work on in the meantime.

I am very glad to have more education in classics to look forward to. If I were not going on to graduate school, I would feel that my undergraduate education was utterly insufficient compared to what I want to know, even though I went to one of the best colleges in the US. There is so much more to learn.

Next Steps in Life

I will, unfortunately, be graduating from my beloved alma mater in just 13 days. But all is not lost. My journey is not over. God willing, I will be earning a PhD at a very well-respected institution beginning this fall.

One of my recent reflections struck me as worthy of posting, simply because I think more people need to have this attitude: I don’t want to continue in classics because I think I’m good at it and want to keep being good at it. I want to continue in classics because I recognize how much I don’t know and how much skill I lack, and want to continue learning more and honing my skills. I don’t actually think I’m that good at it, to be honest. I just work hard and am passionate about it. Occasionally, I have half-decent ideas. Sometimes I make small discoveries that seem like magical occurrences. Even if it’s something that people have known for hundreds of years, it’s still new to me, and there is beauty in that.

There is immense pleasure in learning, far removed from whether I believe I’m good at what I do or not. There is pleasure in pursuing rabbit trails and making surprising discoveries. There is delight in being able to put in writing my discoveries, and make more connections. It is about passion for the subject, and not egoism or a desire to show off, or to be more well-read than another person.

The only thing about continuing into graduate school is that I will become hyper-specialized, and will have less time for my other interests. I am also a violinist, and maintaining a high level of fitness and technique takes hours every week that I will probably be unable to give. But I am not yet sure. Hopefully I can find things to do that will keep me playing and interested. I’m sure my other hobbies will suffer too, but I am less upset about those. I am sure this will be a very interesting year.

Maybe Herodotus isn’t actually a Historian

I have been writing obsessively about Herodotus for weeks now, but I’m not finished yet.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Herodotus is wrongly viewed as any of those labels that we moderns seem to think presuppose accuracy. Ethnographer, anthropologist, historian, etc. He is far more of an inveterate storyteller than a real “scholar” in the sense that we would take him.

Herodotus seems to have no trouble stretching the facts to fit his narrative, and that’s exactly the problem: he has a narrative and he cares about the narrative more than he cares about the facts, in many cases. His narrative is one that categorizes all of the nations of the Mediterranean in contrast with each other and with the Persians.

Perhaps this is because he takes a different view of how truth can be acquired. If we are inclined to view mythological stories as containing moral lessons, or wisdom, maybe Herodotus views his work as a similar project. It is supposed to project greater truths about cultures and people, through his narrative that has been made to adhere more closely.

I think this might be a general inclination in ancient thought in general when it comes to this sort of thing, especially without access to a plethora of evidence and eyewitness testimony, or films, or audio recordings, or accurate transcription. So rather than obsessing about finding perfectly accurate information, they try to glean larger philosophical and moral lessons from it. Perhaps this is why Cicero and other philosophers depend so heavily on mythological stories; not because they actually happened, but because they illustrate a larger concept.

Style and Niche

One thing I hadn’t really thought much about before was the idea of modern stylistics and finding one’s own stylistic niche in the world.

I have taken a lot of classes where we discuss how ancient authors (or a few modern ones) discovered and developed their style, and often how it innovated the literary world at the time.

Cicero was an innovator at his time in developing Latin to its peak, and his style became very distinctive and imitated for hundreds of years after his death. Then you had writers like Seneca and Lucan who wrote in a more terse, less flowery style. There was a constant interchange of styles, and each author developed his own distinct voice.

Nowadays, much of our intellectual output appears to have more to do with ideas than style. Most of the modern history books I read are written in a plain, uninspiring style that is meant to get bare information across. Most of what you read on the internet is designed to get information and ideas across. College students are taught to write in a homogeneous fashion, often in imitation of other writers (Never use the passive voice! Avoid split infinitives at all costs!). College students even come to think in a homogeneous fashion, shaped more by the bland research papers they read rather than the great literature.

I contend that there is tremendous value in knowing different styles and even using a good style to your advantage, especially when paired with genuinely good ideas. It is like torture to read a research paper that has no consciousness of style, even if its ideas are sound and useful.

Language is a tremendous gift, and learning to use it well and beautifully is a worthwhile pursuit. I have tried to cultivate my own style that is clear and concise when it needs to be, but also pleasant to read. Because of my background in public speaking, I tend to think a lot about how something sounds when said aloud, which makes the writing flow a little more easily.

Eventually, I would like to find my own niche in the world of writing, but I am not sure what my style is yet, or what its characteristics are. My writing is very much influenced by my studies in Latin, which have made me far more conscious of the practicality behind language, such as the arrangement of clauses, introduction of new information, etc. Sometimes it seems very mechanical. But even the mechanics of a language can be beautiful, if used properly and with good understanding of how it affects the reader.

I think my goal is to develop a “modern” style that is not unsophisticated or “dumbed down,” being conscious of modern English use and its peculiarities, rather than trying to imitate older, less-relevant styles, which many people do. It works in some cases, but not always. Imitating other styles in fiction is an acceptable thing to do, depending on the purpose of the fiction, but I am not writing fiction, or as anyone other than myself, so I will use my own recognizable persona.